June 16, 2024

After five years of record heat and record floods, one might assume British politicians would also pay record attention to the climate issue in the current election campaign.

But with the manifestos due this week, concerns are growing that the response of the two main parties will range from tepid progress to a great leap backwards, despite the certainty of further climate chaos during the next parliament.

In a sign of how worried the experts are, more than 400 scientists have signed a public letter to party leaders, urging them to adopt ambitious policies to prepare the country for the coming turmoil and to honour the UK’s international obligation to address the primary causes – the burning of gas, oil, coal and vegetation.

“It is very clear that a failure to tackle climate change with sufficient urgency and scale is making the UK and the rest of the world more dangerous and insecure,” notes the letter, whose signatories include former UK chief scientist Sir David King, former president of the Royal Meteorological Society Prof Joanna Haigh, and the creator of the “climate stripes” graphic, Prof Ed Hawkins.

The 408 scientists urge parties to promise five measures: a credible strategy to reach net zero by 2050, faster action to adapt the UK to now unavoidable climate impacts, leading by example internationally on “transitioning away from fossil fuels”, increasing climate funding for developing countries and respecting Climate Change Committee advice on North Sea oil and gas fields.

“Without such a pledge, we do not believe that your party deserves support in the forthcoming general election,” they write.

Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said the letter underscored the dismay that many scientists feel about a shortfall of political engagement.

“It is disappointing and surprising that climate issues have not featured more prominently in the general election campaign so far. It seems that the main political parties have fundamentally failed to grasp just how much British voters are going to be affected by this issue over the next five years.”

Unless global emissions are halved within the next five years’, Ward warned there will be no chance of limiting warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels by the end of this century, with very serious consequences for lives and livelihoods around the world.

The case for action is now indisputable. More than 99% of climate scientists are sure that human burning of gas, oil, coal and trees is heating the planet. This is no longer a geographically or temporally distant threat to the UK. It is here and now.

Last year, the northern hemisphere sweltered through its hottest summer in 2,000 years, causing tens of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars worth of economic damage. That should have been a wake-up call for humanity to transition away from fossil fuels. In fact, the reverse has happened. Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week.

The past two years have been the hottest the British Isles have ever seen. For the first time, the UK has experienced temperatures of more than 40C. By the government’s reckoning, extreme heat killed 2,295 people in 2023, and another 4,500 the year before that. By 2050, the toll is expected to rise to 10,000 each year, according to the British Medical Journal.

The first four months of this year saw a record number of flood warnings in the UK – averaging 40 a day – forcing people out of their homes and leaving farm fields waterlogged.

Floods in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in January. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/REX/Shutterstock

This is worsening the cost of living crisis and inequality. Climate disruption is estimated to have added £361 to average household food bills over the past two years because floods and droughts are hitting global harvests of everything from rice to olive oil. Energy bills are higher than they should be because we remain over dependent on gas and oil imports that surge with the wars waged by Russia or Israel. These volatile fossil fuel prices have produced spectacular profits for Gazprom, Exxon, Shell and BP while pushing up the costs for elderly people of heating their homes.

There is no greater national security issue, experts have warned. The sooner Britain gains energy independence by transitioning to renewable power, the less affected we will be by the conflicts stirred up by foreign warmongers. The quicker we tackle global heating, the fewer migrants will be forced to leave their homelands in the world’s drought-stricken regions.

The British public appears to be better aware of these risks than their political representatives. Polling frequently puts climate as a top concern for voters, but Rebecca Willis, professor in energy and climate governance at Lancaster University, said politicians have been slow to act: “Our research shows that politicians consistently underestimate people’s support for bold climate policies, and so they keep quiet. Meanwhile, people worry about the climate crisis and don’t see politicians responding.

“It’s a silent standoff, which damages the climate and erodes trust in politics. This is heartbreaking, as there’s a clear way out of this bind: offer voters a positive vision, combined with practical policies which bring emissions down and improve people’s quality of life.”

Fossil-fuelled industrialisation was the great enabler of democracy in the UK, so it should be of no surprise if the two main rivals in this election were slow to grasp either the severity of the problem or the public desire for action.

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The ruling Conservative party has hit the self-destruct button on the environment by watering down net zero policies, encouraging greater car use and campaigning against low emission zones. Labour has a far better historical record on this issue and enacted the world’s most ambitious Climate Act when it was last in power, but so far in this campaign it appears to be focused elsewhere.

Last week, a “leaked” Labour dossier showed the party was preparing for six major crises if it takes power, as polls suggest is almost inevitable. The list includes NHS shortfalls, university collapses, local council failures, public sector pay disputes, prison overcrowding and Thames Water woes, but made no mention of the most existential threat of them all – the breakdown of the global climate.

Keir Starmer has partly made up for this in the televised leaders’ debates, where the gulf between him and Rishi Sunak on the climate issue was evident. That formal launch of party manifestos later this week should also highlight these differences, particularly compared with the environmental goals of the Greens, Lib Dems, Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. By contrast, the Reform party, which is partly funded by climate sceptics, is pushing in the opposite direction.

The leaders of the two main parties have taken very different approaches to climate as an election issue. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The timing of this election is crucial. “The next parliament will determine whether the UK meets its climate commitments in 2030 and beyond,” said Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Carbon Trust and former head of the Climate Change Committee.

He said Britain is off the required pace to reach net zero. “Emissions from farming and land are bigger than those from power stations. We’ve barely got started on homes and gas boilers. The prime minister has signalled he wants to slow the transition to electric cars. Whole industries are still wondering how they’ll be supported to clean up their emissions.”

The country is lagging even further behind on measures to deal with floods, heatwaves and food insecurity. “Adaptation policies to manage these risks are weak at best, and completely absent at worst,” Stark said. “I would like to see the Cabinet Office take the lead on climate resilience and approach it in a similar way to critical infrastructure and pandemic planning.”

John Barrett, professor in energy and climate policy at the University of Leeds, has drafted a soon to be released report, recommending the next UK government adopts additional targets to achieve the UK’s decarbonisation aims. They include specific 2050 goals for greenhouse gas emission sources, carbon removal, energy demand and fossil fuel reduction. Currently, he said, the UK has no credible path to achieve net zero, which would require 68% cuts in emissions by 2030 and 90% by 2040.

The lack of forward-looking political debate makes it harder to achieve those targets, Barrett said: “Pretending that climate change doesn’t exist doesn’t make the problem disappear. The UK government is not going to be able to deliver the necessary changes without anyone noticing. There is a need to engage citizens in the debate beyond technological changes to include social transformations that will be necessary. The longer we leave this debate, the more difficult it becomes to build consensus for change.”

He said it also means people are not aware of the benefits of climate action, such as creating jobs, improving energy security and creating more prosperous and cohesive communities. “It is a missed opportunity to recognise the science and describe a positive low-carbon vision of the future. It feeds into the narrative that action on climate change is negative, and a valid choice, despite the alternative of no action having unthinkable consequences.”

If mainstream parties fail to step up to the challenge, voters may start to look elsewhere in the wake of this election. In this respect, the results of Clacton – where the rightwing Reform leader Nigel Farage is standing – and Bristol Central – where the Greens have a chance to upstage Labour – could give a foretaste of the politics to come in by a climate-disrupted world.

“A vacuum leaves a space for populism. Reform UK tells us climate change is caused by volcanoes and we’ve seen a push from some to hijack the scientific concept of net zero to become a slogan and a wrapper for a host of culture war issues. It’s too important to allow that to continue,” Stark warned.

He urged party leaders to look forward rather than back. “I’m less concerned about the lack of debate on climate itself – there’s not much point arguing with physics. I’d rather we debated the underlying steps we need to take as a country, which will certainly have implications for the climate, but are more about the path to new jobs, higher investment, thriving industries or nature preservation. So far, the climate debate has been too narrow, I’d like to hear more about each party’s broader vision for these things.”

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