The Forgotten Agenda

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Finally, 120 minutes into the four and a half hours of prime time television dedicated to the leaders’ debates, ecological issues came to the fore. Notwithstanding the general trend towards a more ecologically conscious politics over the several preceding decades, I was, in fact, surprised that the environment received any attention at all in the televised prime-ministerial contests after it’s near complete abandonment in the campaigning of each party for UK office. In spite of the “climategate” scandal and the Copenhagen Summit that made headlines at the back end of 2009, the environment has turned into an election “non-issue”. The economic downturn and the elevated issues such as immigration and the war in Afghanistan seem to have been deemed more important by both the electorate and the political parties. Furthermore, whether the public believes unequivocally the theory that human action is the principal cause of climate change remains up in the air, as does whether they are prepared to make the huge sacrifices needed to turn the UK’s economy “green”.

It is important to note that potential disasters or climatic shifts do not immediately affect the electorate, as do taxation, crime, racial tensions or emotion evoking conflict in Afghanistan. The abandonment of environmental considerations altogether due to their ‘relative unimportance’ does not seem completely farfetched, given the current political and economic climate. However, as the Green Party has often pointed out, climate change may well influence economic performance in the future, whilst armed conflict over the world’s finite resources is not unthinkable. In a similar way to the de-regulation of the banking sector leading to the economic crisis, the fact that ecological disaster seems a long way off should not prevent effective action from being taken. Planning ahead is imperative.

Whilst it is credible to ride a bike to work in front of a large vehicle carrying one’s work clothes (an image that has become synonymous with the green campaigning of Conservative leader David Cameron) or installing solar panels to harness the ever more radiant Scottish sun (as PM Gordon Brown informed us during the second debate) one can’t help but feel that the role of our country’s future leader is going to contain something a bit extra. The question posed to Mr. Brown, Cameron and Clegg during the second electoral debate of what they had done personally to prove their eco-credentials seemed to rather miss the point. Whilst indeed, it is important for everyone to play their part, it is inevitable that the leader of this country will possess a giant carbon footprint, frequent long haul flights are one of the features of the job. What’s important is the leaving behind of the image based gimmicks, an accusation levelled at the Conservatives in Labour’s 2010 manifesto, and greater international involvement on behalf of the UK.

With the last 13 years in charge of government, Labour’s leadership has had ample time to deal with the frightening ecological questions that face the contemporary world. Whilst big polluters such as the USA and China continue to cause incomprehensible amounts of damage not just nationally, but globally, New Labour has often shied away from taking a leading role in encouraging such nations to assess their carbon-emissions and the irreversible damage they may be causing. As the Conservatives state in their manifesto – ‘Labour’s strong rhetoric has not been matched by effective action’.

The Conservatives have claimed they would introduce a clearer, more coherent strategy but flicking through their manifesto, it doesn’t seem to offer anything radically different to that of Labour. It contains a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (exactly the same targets as set by Labour), a commitment to nuclear energy and a promise to create ‘green jobs’. However, how active, or indeed effective, will ‘small state, big society’ tactics be in terms of revolutionising the way we create power for ourselves and influence other over-polluting nations? The likely answer is not very. During the second election debate Gordon Brown reminded the British public that in Europe, the Conservatives have aligned themselves with a right wing grouping containing climate-sceptics. Not a great way of advertising the ‘blue-green party’ David Cameron speaks of. His pledge to cut government emissions by 10% within a year certainly adds to the ‘every-little-helps’ way of doing things, but don’t expect the Conservatives, taking into account their grouping, to be fighting the green cause on the European or international stages. Indeed, this is without consideration of the supposed climate scepticism within the Conservative Party ranks.

So what of the Liberal Democrats?  In a poll featured on the front page of the website ‘Ecologist’ directly addressing climatic and ecological issues 28% plump for the Liberal Democrats when asked the question “Which party has the best policies on the environment”. 6% have voted for the Conservatives and just 2% for Labour. Rather predictably, 51% believed the Green Party had done the most in persuading them for their vote.

In keeping with much of its political outlook, the Liberal Democratic Party aims to take a particularly international approach to dealing with climate change. Unlike the other two parties it commits to turning the UK into a carbon neutral nation by 2050 whilst setting an EU target of 30% cuts by 2020. Indeed Mr. Clegg spoke of how China and USA had been allowed to dominate proceedings in Copenhagen and that the UK had to ‘lead in Europe’ in getting the climate change message across. If the UK is to exert any political or diplomatic clout over such nations, it has to be speaking on behalf of the European community. Within the Liberal Democrat manifesto there is a strong emphasis on renewable energy as opposed to the nuclear option advocated by the other two main parties. We find greater investment in making homes more ‘energy efficient’, greater taxation on flights and fuel duty (the Conservatives have promised to avoid any road usage taxation and only increase fuel duty in line with oil price fluctuations) and, finally, investment in the rail network. It does seem that the results of the ‘Ecologist’s’ poll were fair, but the odds that Nick Clegg will get to Number 10 on May 6th remain long. In fact, due to a rise in electoral support for the Liberal Democrats and a fall for the other two parties, we may now be closer to hung parliament territory and the likelihood of clear, decisive action being taken on the environment in such circumstances seems considerably less.

Whilst one can criticise each of the three main political parties for effecting little tangible, radical change in UK environmental policy the argument should not be ignored that political parties are merely reactionary, taking into account the priorities of the electorate in formulating their agenda and their resultant policies. If the British people are not concerned with the environment compared to other issues, particularly losing their homes and jobs in light of the economic downturn, surely political parties cannot be blamed for putting such issues well down on their agendas.

Nevertheless, climate change will not disappear through ignoring it until its consequences affect us in grandiose style. Whilst it may not be something that will generate the same amount of electoral appeal as tax breaks to certain sectors of society, it does need to be addressed. For the future of subsequent generations, politicians should certainly give ecological questions their due attention resulting in immediate action once the political jockeying of the spring is over. But with the prospect of a hung parliament, whether any environmentally friendly plans will ever come into fruition, may be a different story.

Article by Oliver Harvey. Edited by Kate Banks.