Caroline Lucas Interview: The Green Movement Needs To Get Away From Doom And Gloom
Shortly after making history, Caroline Lucas gave a speech on Glastonbury’s pyramid stage, called for drugs to be decriminalised and won the Spectator’s much-coveted parliamentarian of the year award.
It’s been a busy year for Britain’s first Green MP – and she’s not planning to slow down. Her next project is shaking up the green movement, who she admits have “failed a little bit” to engage the public.
Veteran climate activist Charles Secrett recently lamented the state of the green movement. Writing in the Guardian, he claimed “the momentum has again fizzled away” from environmental activism.
Even the left despair at Al Gore, the former figure head of climate activism. Lucas agrees there’s a problem. She says it’s time for greens to move the rhetoric away from “the doom and gloom and hairshirts.”
“Until recently I think the wider green movement and the green party included in it were too much focused, understandably, to waking people up to the climate crisis that would be rather than attracting people by painting a positive picture of what a zero carbon economy could look like. And I think fear isn’t a great motivating influence.”
For her, the green movement is about improving people’s lives – tackling the problem of fuel poverty, creating jobs and growth.
“Instead of just saying ‘we’ve got to act because climate change could be dreadful’, we’ve got to act because this could be a way of creating lots of jobs and also insulating lots of people’s homes and reducing their fuel bills so they’re not living in poverty and dying prematurely.
“I think we’ll have a much better job of doing it if we don’t always talk about the doom and gloom and hairshirts. The sense that the climate change agenda is one about doing without and giving things up is a very negative agenda. It turns people off.”
Sitting at a desk crowded with annotated print outs from bill sub-committees she speaks quickly, offering to help clarify quotes if my dictaphone can’t pick up it all up.
The sense of urgency is understandable. For Lucas, climate change has been relegated down the political agenda – and it’s up to her to tackle that within parliament as the most powerful representative of the green movement in the country.
“It’s just crazy”, Lucas says, that the Government aren’t instigating a 1930s style New Deal for green energy.
“We know climate change is happening, we know what is causing it, we know what we need to do to address it. What’s lacking isn’t the technical knowledge, it’s not even the money actually it just comes down to the political will to say ‘this is a priority’.”
She believe it comes down a Catch 22. Lucas thinks the politicians are waiting for the public pressure to act, whilst the public assume if it were serious the politicians would be acting already.
“That’s such a dangerous conclusion to draw because it is that serious and politicians aren’t doing something about it and they’re not doing anything about it because they don’t feel under the pressure from the public.”
She is scathing about the Coalition’s Green Investment Bank (a good idea turned into “another lost opportunity”) and scoffs when asked if they’re the greenest government ever.
“The government’s energy policy is like building a house on sand. If the architecture’s wrong it doesn’t matter how nice the rest of the house is…
“Too much, this government and indeed all governments still see climate change as its own subject over here, and then you’ve got the rest of business as usual over there.
“Whereas an awareness and a commitment to tackle climate change has to go through every single one of our policies. It’s not a bolt-on to business as usual. It’s an absolutely integral part of it, I think.”
The biggest issue in her brief right now? Nuclear. Despite Chris Huhne’s recent call for the UK to use more nuclear power to generate energy, the Liberal Democrat presence in the Coalition gives her hope.
“I think our best effort, our best chance in this parliament to try to halt the government's movements on nuclear power is around the issue of subsidies because they've said that nuclear won't go ahead if it needs public subsidy, which is a very disingenuous position because we know perfectly well that nuclear power always needs public subsidy.
“It always has done and it always will do. It's hard to think of any government just sitting on its hands while there's some equivalent of Fukushima [the nuclear plant in Japan that was affected by the tsunami]. They're not going to do that.
“So essentially the risks associated with nuclear have such high price tags that there will always be a public subsidy. There's a subsidy already when it comes to decommissioning. We know that half the DECC budget goes on nuclear one way or another.”
The coalition agreement declares that no public subsidies will be given to new nuclear power stations, a position which she believes will create another split between the two governing bodies “quite soon” - and Lucas thinks in the wake of Fukushima, the anti-nuclear lobby can win this fight.
“Who knows, this could be one that we'll win and we'll persuade the government that nuclear is not only unsafe, as everybody knows and uneconomic but it's also uneconomic. There are much better ways, much cheaper, faster, more effective ways of getting our emissions down than using nuclear." The “very public and dramatic” decisions Germany and Switzerland have made to phase out nuclear also give her hope.
But without nuclear energy or coal, where will the UK get its energy from? Lucas acknowledges that the answer is gas, but rejects the idea that the country will be dependent on supplies from Russia.
“I appreciate that for a short time we will need some more gas… I don’t think we need to necessarily be getting it from Russia, and I don’t think we need to be particularly expanding it but I’m just foreseeing that we would need it, as a bridge, for another decade or so.”
Aside from the green issues, Lucas is also battling Parliament; calling for electronic voting and an end to the house sitting from 2pm until 10, or when debates end in the early hours.
In the past, she has called for “family friendly” hours in Parliament, arguing it’s time for Westminster to move away from the image of an “old boys’ club”, and that queuing for votes wastes up to six weeks of MPs’ time over the course of a Parliament.
Then there’s the voting system itself, an issue where she found an unlikely ally in right-wing Eurosceptic Tory MP Douglas Carswell.
She says the two had a “very good working relationship” as they tried to advocate PR. But that doesn’t mean she would be open to working within a Coalition. For Lucas, whilst she’d prefer a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, there’s more influence to be had outside, supporting policies on a case-by-case basis.
“For example in London our members of the London Assembly made their support for Ken Livingstone’s budget conditional on his agreeing to set up a living wage unit. Which is a really nice way of demonstrating win-win if you like.”
Still, there’s one government job Lucas could be open to. As a parting question, I ask if she’d like to be Energy Secretary. “Not unless they gave me a lot more power than they gave Chris Huhne”, she laughs.