For a moment I thought the advent of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s latest Prime Minister might herald a turning point in the UK’s response to climate change. It lasted long enough for him to reinstate the ban on fracking at his first PMQs. Any optimism I might have entertained did not survive his initial hesitation about attending COP27. He changed his mind when he realised his absence would go down badly with many potential Tory voters. That an administration so catastrophically compromised as this one should have considered ignoring ethical standards for holders of high office is disappointing, but not in any way surprising.
The COP26 summit was held in Glasgow, with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson mugging frantically for the cameras and Rishi Sunak himself leading a debate on climate finance. How things have changed in the space of a year. That Sunak contemplated failing to attend COP27 indicated that he, and by extension the UK, believed we had nothing to contribute to a transnational debate on the biggest threat we as a species face. This suggested, as Carlos Fuller, the ambassador to the UN for Belize told the Guardian, that the government is “washing their hands of leadership”. This time round and with his feet under his former boss’s desk, Sunak initially declined to attend, claiming that he was focussing on the financial crisis at home instead. A major plank of the response to this, it would seem, is handing out new licences to drill for oil and gas along with tax breaks for fossil fuel producers.
The focus of our Prime Minister has moved on, but the threat posed by climate change has not of course disappeared. This fact was attested to by climate scientists warning that record high temperatures across Europe this summer, along with disastrous floods in Pakistan and other examples of extreme weather, suggest we have almost reached the ‘tipping point’. Michael E Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania University, told the Guardian, “Many of the impacts of climate change such as increased weather extremes are now playing out faster than predicted”. A report from the United Nations confirmed that it looks as if there is “no credible pathway” to keep global temperature rise below the key threshold of 1.5°C, thanks to governments around the world introducing carbon reduction plans it described as “woefully inadequate” since COP26. Speaking on the BBC, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the world needed to re-focus on climate change or face catastrophe.
Hardly the moment for the UK, a nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, to be stepping away from its responsibilities. A cynic might be forgiven for thinking that we like playing the role of world power when it involves grandstanding, but not when we must step up and show leadership. The cynic might just have a point too, as, under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives have form for consistently failing to provide leadership, usually with disastrous consequences. In relation to climate change, these play out on a global and national scale, with working people bearing the brunt.
The V20, an organisation of 20 nations most at risk from climate change and least able to cope with the resulting harm, planned to use the COP27 summit to call for wealthy countries to do more to help them cope with the ‘loss and damage’ they will experience. At the end of summit the world’s nations agreed to set up a fund which is intended to help vulnerable countries cope with climate disasters. In the UK Save the Children have identified a direct link between the climate crisis and that associated with the cost-of-living, linking mitigating the impact of both to investment in insulating homes, improving public transport, building a green economy, and reviving neglected neighbourhoods.
Needless to say these priorities are an anathema to hard-line neoliberal ideologues amongst whom Rishi Sunak is happy to number himself. Investing in social and economic infrastructure at home or international development is a threat to their share options. That is why forcing our government to take meaningful action on climate change must be part of our fight for social and economic justice. A decade of austerity and, before that, forty years of neoliberalism have created yawning inequalities. The time has come to take the climate justice struggle to the picket lines, to demand that the new green economy is a unionised one that benefits those who build it through their labour, not those who buy their way in using capital. Capitalism, and the false needs it has created, have impacted disastrously on the natural world. That must inform the struggle for environmental justice at home and abroad.
This is both a fight for quality of life, and the continuance of life; it is one that can only be won if we are united.
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Critical Mass.