“Future generations will look back in utter despair at the recklessness with which we’ve acted”
Caroline Lucas is the only Green Party MP in the UK Parliament, thanks to the unrepresentative UK voting system, First Past the Post (FPTP). If seats were proportional to the number of votes, the Green Party would have won 11 more seats in the 2019 election, and the Conservatives would have won 77 less.
It’s a catch 22 for the Greens and smaller groups, seen by many citizens as “wasted votes” at election time because of FPTP. This bias made it all the more historic when in 2010 Lucas broke through the system and overturned a 5,000-strong Labour majority to take the Brighton Pavilion constituency. On hearing the news, she said to cheering crowds “Thank you so much for putting the politics of hope above the politics of fear. This isn’t just a moment when one MP out of more than 600 is elected. It’s where a whole political party takes, for the first time, its rightful place in our parliament.”
Lucas remains a lonely figure of one among 650 MPs, daily wading through Parliament sleaze to try to push environmental and social injustices further up the agenda. Lucas told The Skylark that in order to protect our future generations we must reassess our fixation on economic growth and ensure climate runs through every single debate that we ever have.
As Greta Thunberg said, the first thing we need to do is tell the truth about the climate emergency. Unless we do that, we’re not going to have a common understanding of the challenges that we face and what needs to be done. The [UK] government constantly claims that emissions have fallen by around 40% since 1990. But if you include aviation and shipping into those figures, as well as consumption emissions, not just production emissions, then the reduction is more like 10%. They will talk about the fact that green growth means that we can completely decouple production from emissions and yet we know that there is no example anywhere on earth where decoupling has happened at the speed, scale and the comprehensiveness that would allow us to carry on with business as usual (but powered slightly differently).
The first problem is that there is a real unwillingness to look at the crisis with the clearness and clarity that is so needed. As long as governments think that they can continue with business as usual, maybe have a few more electric power points, then we’re not going to have the kind of response that’s needed. And that’s why it’s so important for Extinction Rebellion, for the student climate strikers and so forth, to be using the language of climate emergency, because language can help to shift perceptions.
The most important ten years in human history
We had that moment when Parliament, under pressure from Extinction Rebellion and the climate protests, declared a climate emergency. And yet of course, we’ve not seen action commensurate to it. I don’t think there’s a real recognition of what “emergency” means. I think there’s still a feeling that we’ve got forever to get this right.
Whereas to me, the next ten years are just so critical; the most important ten years in human history. If we respond to Covid by going back to normal and locking in yet more high carbon development, and if we go ahead for example with the £23 billion road building scheme, then our chances of getting off the collision course that we’re on with the climate emergency are pretty much nil.
I think the Covid experience is going to be an interesting comparator. Because there we did have Cobra meetings, albeit ones that the Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] didn’t turn up to, and there, science mattered. Governments showed they could act at speed and scale when there was a common, shared understanding of the nature of that emergency. That’s what we still need to have when it comes to climate.
Identifying better measurements of wellbeing
We know that for as long as we have an economy that’s success is measured in GDP alone, then it is going to be harder to reach the objectives that we need from a climate perspective. And that’s why I think the work that’s going on around identifying better measurements of wellbeing other than GDP are so important. Because the objectives that you set for the economy set the whole direction for your priorities going forward. There’s some really interesting work that’s going on with a coalition of countries – the wellbeing coalition – that are looking at things like a well-being budget, as New Zealand introduced at the last budgeting process.
If we were to have a basket of other indicators that were more around access to nature, the quality of clean air, hopes for future generations and so forth, then we might just get the set of policies that would lead to that. It feels to me that in order to start to wrench this government’s mind set into the direction that it needs to go, then we need to think about what the purpose of the economy is and what objectives will we set for it. And that needs to be front and centre of our discussions going forward.
GDP is a really rubbish measurement on just about every count
GDP only tells us about the amount of money circling in the economy, not whether it’s being used for good things or bad things. If we still keep that as such, then it’s not surprising that all of the policies that follow are ones that are leading us in the wrong direction. GDP is a really rubbish measurement on just about every count. As indeed Simon Kuznets – the founder of GDP – admitted.
The good news is that there are a number of governments that are recognising limitations of this fixation on only economic growth. And there are more and more scientists writing to governments in the UN process saying that this paradigm of ever increasing economic growth is destroying nature and undermining the livelihoods of millions of people.
The Oxford University report from Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz points out that even if you don’t care about the environment, if you just look at it with your best return on investment, a green recovery is far more labour intensive, far faster and far more effective. Why would you not do it?
It should not be at be at the expense of the climate crisis
Among the many problems of the Covid crisis was that it completely interrupted what was a growing manifestation on the streets of people’s desire for urgent action. I think what was so interesting about some of those Extinction Rebellion demonstrations wasn’t just the so called usual suspects, there were families, there were old people who’d never taken to the streets in their lives before. And of course, Covid has put paid to that activism that was so visible and made sure that papers had that in their headlines every single day.
I do think that the media has a responsibility to keep the government to account and not to be so incapable of dealing with more than one emergency at the same time. Of course, the papers are full of Covid, and that’s understandable, but it should not be at the expense of the climate crisis. Because that is orders of magnitude greater.
You can almost see the papers in 10, 15 years’ time looking back to this moment and saying: “why weren’t they reporting more that the Arctic was on fire?” That the UK was way off its climate targets, that the [UK] government building back after Covid was giving huge bail outs to the aviation and fossil fuel industry? It’s just utter madness.
If you compare the UK’s green recovery funding to France or Germany, for example, it’s pitiful and astonishing that the government isn’t acting more. They obviously know they should because they’re adopting some of the green rhetoric. Boris Johnson is pretending that he is some new Roosevelt. And yet when you look at the figures of how much of GDP [the government] is going to put into a green recovery, the total amounts to just 0.2% of the UK’s 2019 GDP (£2.2trn). By comparison, Roosevelt’s [1933-39 economic stimulus plan for the Great Depression], represented 40% of the US’s 1929 [pre-depression] GDP.
Climate should be running through every single debate that we ever have. Because climate is not just an environmental issue to be relegated to a separate box, but the greatest security threat we face to everything else we want to achieve. Unless that’s front and centre to every debate that we’re having, and every election campaign, then we are massively letting down our own kids, and certainly their kids. I think future generations will look back in utter despair at the recklessness with which we’ve acted.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 5th August 2019