If you believe that human activity is the main driver of climate change, this Government has policies for you. Their framework was set by the Climate Change Act of 2008 – introduced by the last Labour Government, supported by the Conservatives and sustained by the Coalition – which set a greenhouse gas reduction target. It is to reduce emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. You may reply that what matters is reducing emissions, not setting targets, let alone setting them in law. But successive Governments have done so: emissions in the UK have fallen by 42 per cent since 1990 – faster than those of any other G7 nation.
This record presumably doesn’t satisfy the pupils who took a day off school on Friday – mostly unauthorised – to demand that the Government declare a ‘climate emergency”. It doesn’t satisfy some 50 Conservative MPs, either. They want that emissions target for 2050 to be zero. The Parliamentarian who organised a letter that they signed was Simon Clarke. He will be known to readers of this site as one of our most committed pro-Brexit writers.
Elsewhere, Michael Gove has picked up the green ball and run with it. He has upped the pace of activity at the Environment Department. There are bans galore: on microbeads and ivory, on new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 (assuming successor governments don’t back off), on plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds (at least, if Gove has his way). Meanwhile, he is setting up a plastic bottle deposit return scheme, has slapped up CCTV in slaughterhouses, and ensured that businesses will pay the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste.
It is worth setting all this out in the context of the Government’s miserabalist response to the Youth Strike 4 Climate event. Theresa May said that “disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for”. Andrea Leadsom added that: “it’s truancy, not a strike”. Ministers and Downing Street are overwhelmed by Brexit and most of them don’t seem to have thought their reactions through.
Yes, yes: we know. Pupils should indeed be at school on weekdays. The planners of the march doubtless selected Friday as the day most likely to swell numbers: choose the day before Saturday, and so make the weekend longer. If one wants to get an accurate measure of how much young people care about the climate, try holding a march over a weekend and see how many turn up. As it is, only 15,000 turned out of some three million secondary school children. You will point out that there is limited utility in engaging with people who chant “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” or “f**k Theresa May”, whatever their age may be.
You will add that those who really care about the environment don’t tear up grass, and that swigging champagne in public is a novel form of environmental protest (though also not unusual, you will concede, among young people of all political persuasions, including those who pass through the Bullingdon Club). All true enough – and beside the point. It is one thing for a right-of-centre website to say all this; quite another for a right-of-centre party to do so.
The Conservative Party has a problem attracting younger voters. You may not care for the response to the march of Claire Perry – who is the Government’s lead minister on Climate Change, operating out of the Business Department rather than Gove’s – but her psychology was sound: “I suspect if this was happening 40 years ago, I would be out there too,” she said. This was at least a way of beginning to gain a hearing among the mass of young people who neither went on the march nor vote Conservative. (Some will doubtless disagree with this take, but the most vociferous of these are likely to have right-of-centre views in any event.)
Only once one has gained a hearing can one start a dialogue. How many younger voters know about the emissions reduction record with which we opened this piece? If they really want zero emissions by 2050, are they conscious of the potential trade-offs? If they wish to get there now, what would that mean to the public services that rely on present patterns of energy consumption, or for poorer peoples’ electricity bills, or for younger peoples’ jobs and opportunities?
Even were voters prepared to pay this price, what about emissions in other countries – which produce the overwhelming majority of emissions? How can we weigh the balance of the human activity in relation to climate change against that of other factors, such as the activity of the sun? Above all – and getting down to brass tacks – what is each person doing to reduce his or her own emissions footprint? That draws the conversation to a very conservative theme indeed: personal responsibility.
Some will doubtless claim that there is name for approaching the subject in this way: appeasement. If this is so, then any attempt by any politician to engage with a view other than his own is appeasement. Another name is more accurate: politics. Political engagement by a political party means persuading those who don’t already support it to do so. Oh, and as for “f**k Theresa May”: don’t we now hear this message each day, in effect, from rather a large slice of Conservative MPs?