What is politics, if it is not determining how individuals lead their lives? Constraints from government in legislation frame the decisions people can make. That is a component of living within a society: accepting compromise, the needs of others and negotiating a settlement through democratic elections.
A topic that surely falls under the realm of politics is climate change. Both its impact and society’s response to will be immensely profound and require philosophical and political arguments about the correct way forward. As evidenced this week, the heatwave demanded tricky questions about the UK’s infrastructure, not least in relation to air-conditioning and public transport coping with high temperatures.
Similarly, the response to climate change, in mitigating its most damaging consequences, is itself political. Most importantly, the transition away from generating energy through fossil fuels and instead relying on nuclear energy and renewables will be financially costly, falling on those with the lowest income. Given politics is so tied in with economic wealth, the manner of dealing with climate change is therefore surely political.
Not according to Conservative MP Chris Skidmore. The former Universities and Sciences Minister, he is now chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment. Also part of the Conservative Environment Network, he has espoused the importance of reaching net zero to manage climate change. In a tweet about Conservative leadership candidates, he stated the ‘issue is too important to play politics with.’
This message is striking on many counts. Clearly, Skidmore is arguing the issue of net zero by 2050 should be depoliticised and not open for argument. Similarly, it suggested that there was only one solution – a complete consensus – about how society responds to climate change. Neither of these statements are true. Climate change will be one of the defining issues of this century. Our response to it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on our lives, which is precisely why the topic must be open to debate and argument.
For example, a key component of responding to climate change will be the future of the UK’s industrial strategy. A revival of employment opportunities was a key component of Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda. Whether this agenda remains under Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss remains to be seen. However, the types of jobs and industries these formulate will be heavily linked to their impact on their climate and therefore human safety. Undoubtedly, such an expansive project will generate differences of view
Indeed, an argument the Conservative Environmental Forum have made is about caring for the environment being ‘core to conservatism’. Logically, this makes sense. To conserve is to wish to maintain things precisely as they are. Such a view therefore sees the environment, green spaces and the natural world as an intrinsic good in and of themselves. This perspective views humans largely as a destructive force, encroaching on the planet for their own ends.
Again, this view is political and normative. I happen to hold the opposite position. From a humanist, anthropocentric perspective, the environment holds an instrumental benefit to me. I love a beautiful natural view as much as the next person, but believing protecting the environment should be a priority when it benefits humanity. Given the threat climate change and, for example, food security, pose to humans, that is why tackling the problem matters to me.
One of the great debates within the Conservative leadership election is about how to increase economic growth. However, when discussing climate change, the importance and desire for growth is up for questions. Green entrepreneurs believe green growth is the way forward, with renewable energy and jobs providing the tool for stimulating the economy. They say net zero is not mutually exclusive to economic growth, but a vital component of it.
However, advocates of degrowth would disagree. Arguing it is neither possible or desirable to continually expand the economy, they suggest the planetary boundaries mean decreasing GDP must take priority. Opposing consumerism and materialism, their broad stance is that responding to climate change demands less of everything for everyone. I couldn’t disagree with this perspective more, not least given the immense existing poverty across the developing world (which will also be most affected by climate change).
Even arguing for such a debate can appear pointless with misanthropic attitudes towards humanity shining through. The Dark Mountain Project, for example, argue against the very notion of technological innovation to solve climate change is not possible. Advocating a retreat of humanity, their rhetoric appears almost nostalgic for a pre-industrial age. What these arguments fail to recognise is that fatalism and determinism breed despair and hopelessness. They are the opposite to providing an optimistic political solution to society’s problems.
This is why a response to climate change must be argued out in the public sphere, in both the Conservative leadership election and broader society. COP26 last November demonstrated the need for countries to come together, make compromises and determine their plans for the future. Chris Skidmore, a politician, arguing climate change and net zero are above politics, is embracing a technocratic, managerialist response to the problem. The situation instead should be taken on: misanthropic and anthropocentric views head to head, green growthers and degrowthers arguing out their response. That is how societies can ensure the democratic public input for such large scale changes can really be felt.