The United Kingdom’s Labour Party is ramping up its climate proposals, making the crisis a central issue amid a wave of protests and new signs that the ruling Conservative Party is failing to cut emissions fast enough.
The opposition party, led by socialist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, plans to force a vote this week on whether to declare climate change a national emergency. Its officials backed the Extinction Rebellion, the grassroots climate group that blockaded four landmarks in London and threatened to disrupt public transit in a days-long civil disobedience protest last week. And now its parliamentarians are promising a Green New Deal modeled on the movement quickly gaining steam among left-wing Democrats in the United States.
“‘Green New Deal’ is a phrase that has resonance,” Barry Gardiner, the U.K.’s shadow secretary of state for international climate change, told HuffPost. “It mustn’t be apocalyptic doom and gloom.”
International momentum on a Green New Deal is growing. On Sunday, the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party eked out a narrow parliamentary victory running on “El Green New Deal de España.” Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, said last week he’s proposing “a Canadian version of the Green New Deal” just months before the country’s next federal election. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, called for “nations to unite around an International Green New Deal” in an op-ed last week.
But if the House of Commons approves Labour’s emergency proposal, the British Parliament would become the first national legislature to make such a declaration.
The timing is no accident. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said over the weekend that climate activists “are right,” and backed calls to declare a climate emergency. The British shale gas commissioner, once dubbed the “fracking tsar” as the country debated opening up to the hydraulic fracturing drilling that wrought an American oil and gas boom, quit last week. And this Thursday, the U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change, an independent body set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act, is set to release a report to Parliament outlining what it would take to achieve net-zero emissions at the pace scientists at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year is required to avert catastrophe.
The decade of austerity the ruling Conservative Party imposed is making the goals impossible to meet, Labour officials argue. The government’s “clean growth strategy” set the first legally binding climate targets in 2017, but environmentalists said it was too little too late even then. Now revelations that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government spent just £7.7 million, or nearly $10 million, of the £100 million allocated to cleaning up air pollution are fueling fierce criticism of the Tories as they navigate the disastrous Brexit process.
Labour is attempting to cast itself as clear-eyed on both the problem and the solution. The emergency declaration calls for keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, beyond which United Nations scientists forecast cataclysmic destruction from extreme weather and sea level rise and millions of premature deaths. The party is putting forward a plan requiring that the country generate 60% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, increase offshore wind capacity sevenfold and solar fourfold, and double onshore wind, Gardiner said.
“Britain started the era of coal,” he said. “We have a huge responsibility in this. We recognize that.”
It’s possible that a snap election could send a Labour prime minister to 10 Downing Street for the first time in nearly a decade as negotiations to leave the European Union sputter. Since taking over in 2015, Corbyn, once a backbencher and left-wing stalwart, has turned Labour away from the pro-business, neoliberal bent that former Prime Minister Tony Blair pioneered in the 1990s, and directed it back toward its socialist roots. He staked out a plan to nationalize parts of key industries, including railways, water and electrical utilities, to improve services and rapidly transition the country away from fossil fuels.
Some utilities are attempting to steel themselves against plans to bring them under public control, and Labour officials are considering creative ways to avoid 12-figure national expenditures. But Gardiner said surging energy rates are leaving British voters with “a real appetite for the plans Labour has put forward.”
“We have a rockets-and-feather scenario,” he said. “As wholesale prices go up, the retail price rockets up. But when the wholesale price goes down, retail price goes down like a feather.”
As Labour’s politics have shifted leftward over the past decade, so too has the climate movement itself. The Extinction Rebellion, a disperse global movement that hit its stride in the U.K. last year, is calling for sweeping rallies, die-in protests and disruptions of key infrastructure to raise awareness of the threat of climate change. School strikes for climate change, led by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, are spreading around the world as young people accuse sitting politicians of failing to preserve a safe climate for them. In the United States, the youth-led Sunrise Movement vaulted the Green New Deal into the national dialogue with a series of sit-in protests in Democratic leaders’ offices.
'Green New Deal' is a phrase that has resonance. It mustn’t be apocalyptic doom and gloom.Barry Gardiner, U.K. Labour Party shadow secretary of state for international climate change
“This has changed the whole atmosphere in the country,” Gardiner said. “The public are beginning to move ahead of where, unfortunately, many in the political class and many in the government have been for years. That gives a freedom for government to move into that space that previously perhaps it didn’t have.”
Labour’s plan extends beyond winning support at home. Gardiner said the party plans to make a bid to host the U.N.’s 26th Conference of the Parties next year. The annual gathering, set to be held this December in Chile, is where world leaders negotiate a global plan to cut emissions and deal with climate change. The 2020 summit is set to be the most pivotal since 2015, when the United States and China signed on to the Paris Agreement. The accords, which President Donald Trump has promised to quit when the first legal window to do so opens in November 2020, are up for renegotiation that year.
“Next year is an absolutely critical moment in the history of climate change, because we need to revise those promises we made and make sure those emission reductions will not only meet them but go much, much further,” Gardiner said. “We want to host the conference in order to do that and... we have to be practicing what we are encouraging others to do.”