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Notes on the climate election debate

by Ellie Hopgood

A few nights ago Channel 4 hosted the first ever pre-election debate centred on the climate. After spending so much time this year reading, writing and protesting for better climate action, I was very interested to hear what some of our politicians had to say on the subject, not just to hear their proposed solutions but also to get a sense of how they conceive of this enormous crisis. However, as anyone who watched the debate or read a snarky post-debate article will know, not all of our party leaders deigned to turn up and share their thoughts. Whoever thought of putting melting ice blocks on the stage in place of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson should be given a raise.

But, regardless of how amusing I thought the ice block stunt was, the absence of the two right-wing party leaders was an issue for this debate. I’m sure the event ran more smoothly without them; much of the post-debate analysis has commented on just how grown-up the whole affair was, which, while true, does show how low the bar is for our politicians at the moment. Manage to conduct a civil debate on an important topic without resorting to name-calling or lies? Gold star for you all. The thing with our five left-leaning party leaders only debating each other is that they broadly all agree with each other. Yes, they differ on certain points, and it is good to parse out exactly what each party deems to be the priority in addressing the climate crisis and what they plan to do about it. But they all believe in climate change, think it’s a huge issue and plan to do something about it should they be voted into office. The same cannot be said for the men represented by the melting ice. So not only did we not get to hear from the most dangerous potential representatives for our planet over the next five years, it also devolved into different left-wing parties criticising each other, sniping needlessly at the other people who are in this fight with them. Let’s be real: the Greens are not going to win a majority in this election. That is so far from being plausible at this point that it’s not even worth discussing – which is a shame, because I would like to vote for them! But no, this election will be won by the Conservatives or the Labour party, as always, and the other parties represented at the debate should be looking to ally themselves with Corbyn if environmental policy really is a priority. Instead, with the debate sorely missing a true opposition, these left-leaning leaders took to sniping with each other over discussing policy nuances.

I know that this was an election climate debate, and that’s why putting your party’s environmental credibility at the centre of the responses had to be the approach, along with pointing out other parties’ flaws. But it still pained me a little to see how much of it was calculated campaigning, rather than genuine concern for the climate. The irony that everyone seems to miss is that an obsession with power is part of the ideology that has led to this dire situation. In the same way that many businesses are pivoting to green products only because it is commercially viable, and totally missing the point that profit above all else is a huge reason why we need those green products in the first place, politicians who say they want to do something about the climate, but only if they get to do it, will hit an ideological wall with their climate action plans. If dealing with climate change is a true priority, then tearing down the only left-wing leader with a hope of getting elected is the ultimate act of egoism.

It also makes it hard for me to trust their intentions and aims. I do believe that all of those people are aware of climate change and understand that it needs to be a priority for any progressive party. But again, they are trying to get elected more than they are trying to save the planet (and us). It makes me wonder what’s not being said and what is being creatively communicated. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon spoke passionately about Scotland’s environmental action, but sidestepped any discussion of how much money Scotland brings in from their offshore oil drilling operations, and whether they intend to give up that stream of revenue as part of the green transition. They will all have been prepped within an inch of their lives for this debate, so it’s hard to glean exactly how much they truly know on the topic and what they have chosen deliberately to avoid mentioning. This all means that our party leaders don’t truly grasp the scale of the climate crisis; if they did, they might think twice about pushing forward their own parties as the right people to lead us through this crucial period if they have any doubts about whether they are the right people at all. Essentially, I think it would be great to have a climate debate that was not actually about getting elected, with climate change only acting as the latest vehicle through which to promote your own party.

The question that irritated me the most was the question on how the leaders are making green changes in their own lives. What a waste of airtime! So much of the discourse surrounding climate change focuses on the limited effectiveness of personal changes, and that it is companies and governments who must lead the charge as they have the power to make a real difference. As I wrote about in a blog earlier this year, there are a select few individuals for whom drafting groundbreaking environmental policy could be on their list of personal contributions to the climate fight. The panellists in this debate are some of the only people in the country who might have the opportunity to enact structural change and the whole point of this debate is that they are putting themselves forward to be the government, the people everyone agrees are the most important for combatting global warming. Our party leaders could be frequent flyers with a red meat addiction and twelve children, but if they revolutionised agriculture and built beautiful public transport systems and retrofitted our houses with better insulation, they would still be a massive net positive for the fight against climate change. Whether or not they cycle to work or use reusable nappies is irrelevant when compared the policy changes they are proposing and to spend a good portion of the debate making them list off their personal green changes was a massive fucking waste of time. The personal contribution of these five politicians should be to champion climate conscious legislation, and it’s the most important personal contribution that anyone could make. The debate host, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who was otherwise excellent, even interrupted Jeremy Corbyn when he said his personal contribution would be change local authority policies to make him focus on what he does at home. He then stopped talking about the structural changes he was planning to personally make happen to talk about growing herbs in his garden. Ugh.

I also felt like there were two glaring omissions from the debate. The first had to be the lack of global scope. Corbyn said something about the importance of being a climate action champion on the world stage in his opening comments and Swinson stressed the importance of staying in the European Union for exactly this reason, but overall, the debate was completely UK-centric. That makes sense if you feel like the British election angle was the most salient, but for me, having real, nuanced discussions about climate change needs to be the priority, and pretending like changing up UK infrastructure is enough to curb catastrophic climate change felt lacking. Not to sound like a broken record, but I want our political leaders to debate climate change because they want to do something about it, not just because they think it’s an avenue for election. If we want to address climate change, we have to think global, and I would have liked to have seen a question about how the party leaders would go about championing climate action on the world stage.

Secondly, I was disappointed to see the lack of climate justice incorporated into the panellist’s responses. Justice did come up a little, when people were talking about sliding scale pricing models for home retrofitting, or the price of produce, or the enormous inequality in who takes the most flights. It was not totally absent from the discussions. But climate as a social justice issue is, in my opinion, the most powerful lens through which to understand the climate crisis and I would have liked to have seen more discussion about the idea of a just transition, especially regarding the UK’s debt to other nations who have not benefitted as we have from centuries of burning fossil fuels.

I know that I am being critical. It is great that we had a whole debate dedicated to the climate and that the participants who actually showed up conducted themselves well, made interesting points and started meaningful conversations. But addressing climate change is not about winning elections or trying our best or obsessing about whether or not our herbs are homegrown. It’s about preventing more catastrophic warming and overhauling human society as we know it. Anything less than that is not good enough, because the planet is not giving out medals for effort. This was a good start, but make no mistake, it was just the start. Let’s vote one of these people into government and see if they can put their money where their mouth is.

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