There’s a democratic crisis at the heart of the climate emergency
You may not have heard that we are more concerned about global warming than ever before. Some 85% of respondents to a recent survey registered their concern around climate change, while 52% noted that they are ‘very concerned’.
Who can blame them? The recent series of heat-waves around the globe and the temperature records broken during them has brought home to many the need for effective and immediate climate action in an unprecedented way.
This growth in awareness has been boosted in part thanks to a re-invigorated climate movement that has succeeded in putting the crisis on the agenda like never before. No longer satisfied with piece-meal actions by individual consumers, this movement has turbo-charged demand for a systemic response to climate change. Over the last 6 months, groups such as Labour for a Green New Deal, the Youth Climate Strikers, Reclaim the Power and Extinction Rebellion, among many others, have highlighted that if we are to have a chance of preventing run-away climate change, policy needs to change.
This upsurge in climate action painted the backdrop against which the United Kingdom became the first nation to officially declare an environmental and climate emergency in May. This measure was a great symbolic victory, with Extinction Rebellion achieving one of it’s three initial demands. Yet, while a useful step, this sadly does not legally require that the government take any particular action on climate change.
Our current climate laws can’t take the heat
One legally binding measure compelling the UK government to take action on the climate is the Climate Change Act 2008. Through this, the goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 was set. The act set up a mechanism of ‘carbon budgets’ that require the government to set a cap on emissions over a five-year period. So far, five such budgets have been set covering emissions up to 2032. The act also set up the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to assess and monitor these targets.
So has the Climate Change Act has delivered the change we need? I’m afraid there is good news and bad news. The good news is that not only did the UK meet its first two five-year budgets, it’s also on track to meet the third budget taking us up to 2022. The bad news is that, in addition to the Committee warning that the 2023-2027 budget is not on track, these targets themselves may not be enough.
With some of the effects of climate change being felt a lot sooner than previously forecast, there have been calls to greatly scale up the rate of emissions reduction. In response, some local authorities have set independent targets, some demanding net-zero emissions by 2030.
Whether it's causes or impact, everything about climate change is deeply unequal. As previously highlighted on this blog, wealthy fossil fuel companies exert inordinate influence on the political system. Additionally, recent reports have highlighted the way in which those that can afford to can simply buy protection from the impact of climate change, leaving the poor and vulnerable in an ever more precarious position.
With a striking majority of the population now concerned about climate change, you would reasonably expect this to translate into action. In reality, the government has gone backwards. A parliamentary report released this week showed that there are ‘gaping holes in policy’. This has been exasperated by subsidy cuts for things like onshore wind, solar power and low-emission cars. Then there’s the cancellation of plans for zero-carbon homes and incentives for low-carbon power generation. When it comes to the climate, the government simply does not embody the values of the people.
A constitution for the climate?
Certain laws passed by parliament form one component of the UK’s unwritten constitution. The Human Rights Act 1998 have been given constitutional importance, and the Climate Change Act 2008 could also be said to have some constitutional value, but much of the debate around this is merely speculative at this stage. As Gavin Barker has noted, some countries have enshrined ‘rights of nature’ in their written constitutions. In places such as Ecuador, this has provided a robust legal framework in the face of big corporate polluters like Chevron. These constitutional guarantees embed climate action into the political systems of these countries in a way that cannot simply be overturned by one corrupt government that comes to power.
September’s global Climate Strike will continue bringing climate justice to the foreground of the political agenda. The policies needed to avert a climate catastrophe are largely known. A green industrial revolution that provides jobs and infrastructure has a growing consensus behind it. The only people who don’t seem to be onboard are the old political elite.
Unfortunately, the pressures of climate change leave us little room to breathe. The last thing we need now is being forced to defend the few barely-adequate legal protections already in existence. As with human rights, the need to strengthen protections against environmental breakdown is now overwhelming. Maybe it's time to codify climate action.
Rob Abrams is Unlock Democracy’s Activism & Outreach Coordinator