Climate: Which Side Are You On?

Written by Alex Welsford |

It’s difficult to deny that we live in deeply polarised times. The political class may tell us that the divide is between those who voted to leave the EU and those who voted to remain; others might claim that it is between the many and the few. But, as young people from around the world have demonstrated in recent months, there is a far more urgent disparity in our midst: the one between those who care about halting climate change, and those who do not.

On my way to Truro’s Youth Strike protest this February, I met Rob Higgs, the father of children from King Charles Primary School in Falmouth. Arriving to the sight of banners and a crowd of around four hundred, we talked about the challenges facing this burgeoning youth movement. Rob told me that he believes, “it’s very difficult for adults to understand,” the threat posed by climate change.

“I think adults are better at the cognitive dissonance of saying, ‘yes, I know it’s a problem,’ but it’s not as simple as that, so we carry on,” Rob despaired, “whilst the children see it in a much clearer sense, and they obviously have more at stake.”

Why do young people understand this impending threat in a way many adults simply cannot? It’s not as if the threat of climate change is a new one.

Scientists on the fringe of the mainstream have speculated about the potential consequences of burning fossil fuels since the 90s. The 1890s. In the 1960s, global climate computer models provided data which supported the theory, although scientists disagreed on whether the Earth would warm or cool. In a 1975 article, a scientist named Wallace Broecker popularised the term ‘global warming’.

In the 1980s, Broecker’s prediction that the atmosphere would warm significantly, due to rising carbon dioxide levels, was proved correct, when the planet definitively began experience a rapid global rise of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher made a series of speeches in which she called for urgent action. At the 2nd World Climate Conference in 1990, Thatcher stated, “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

But nothing changed. No urgent action was taken. Thatcher’s generation, and those that followed, continued unabated, living at the expense of future generations. Their belief in continuous economic growth, coupled with strong lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, stood in the way of tackling this most important issue. Rob Higgs believes that what is required is, “an absolute systemic remodelling of the growth economy. We need to stop using and consuming [energy] in the quantities that we are”.

Penzance student, Rosie Smart-Knight, a member of the UK Student Climate Network and the organiser of the Youth Strike in Truro, told me that her peers staged their demonstration “to put pressure on the people in power” to follow Cornwall Council’s decision to declare a climate emergency.

Theresa May’s response was to tell striking students that they were wasting lesson time.

Clearly, the government is not listening to the demands of the next voting generation, a tactic which won’t serve them well at the polls in 2022, and spells disaster for the planet.

Rosie’s father, David Smart-Knight, was among the mourners at Extinction Rebellion’s symbolic funeral procession in Truro on March 2. He described, with exasperation, how “the claims that ‘Britain is leading the way in solving the climate crisis’” are completely without justification “when we’re putting £10.5 billion a year into the fossil fuel industry”.

Rosie Smart-Knight addresses the crowd in Truro.

It has long been known that the amount of fuel in existing fossil fuel reserves far surpasses that which society can safely burn. “We already have [extracted] some ludicrous percentage of fossil fuels,” David continued, “which we can’t burn without going over 2°C [increase in global temperature], and they’re investing £10.5 billion a year in finding yet more. It’s bonkers.”

When I asked him what he would say to the politicians making these decisions, he replied,

“The only thing that I can say to them, that I really want to say to them, you won’t be able to print.”

The funeral procession occurred in the same week that MPs debated climate change in the House of Commons for the first time in two years. Reports stated that there were as few as 10 MPs in the chamber at times. In my research for this article, I found that just 41 MPs were in attendance, and only a handful of those had anything meaningful to say on the subject.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Theresa May was not among them, but I was alarmed to find that Jeremy Corbyn, who in response to the Youth Strike said that “climate change is the greatest threat that we all face”, was also not in attendance. To paraphrase Amos Jacob, another Extinction Rebel that I spoke to at the funeral procession, the silence of a human voice is too easily mistaken for complicity.

So, should the MPs who didn’t participate in the debate be viewed as complicit in enabling climate change?

Photo by Jay Allen, Crown Copyright.

Sheelah Goldsmith, Truro and Falmouth Labour’s Officer for Environmental Issues, would disagree. At Extinction Rebellion’s funeral, Sheelah explained, “If you look at the Labour policies now, they’re much greener than they used to be. Just as a contrast: The Labour manifesto says 60% zero carbon footprint by 2030, whereas the Conservative one is by 2050.”

And it’s true that many Labour policies are in line with the 2018 report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warns of the dire consequences of a global temperature rise of more than 1.5°C, and sets a target to keep temperature increases under 2°C by 2030.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has aligned herself with US politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are calling for a ‘Green New Deal’. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that Labour will put climate change at the “very centre of government”. So why were neither of them at the climate change debate?

Of course, to level the blame entirely at opposition MPs is unfair, but it is deeply disappointing that more didn’t attend the debate.

In total, there were 27 opposition MPs, 19 of those from Labour. Nobody expected more than a handful of Conservatives to attend, but to see the opposition benches full to the brim would have been a strong sign of solidarity from Labour politicians to the growing movement of climate activists and advocates across the UK.

It does not appear as if Westminster is listening to climate scientists or concerned citizens, and a climate emergency declaration doesn’t look likely under this government. Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to rise. Plastic pollutes our oceans and waterways, and estimates suggest that between 150-200 species go extinct every day. But what can we do, when our leaders won’t listen?

For many, the answer is to despair. For Trish Gupta, an Extinction Rebel in her “upper sixties”, the time for despair has come and gone, and direct action is the only route forward.

“I’ve always been an honest, law-abiding citizen,” Trish told me, “but if I have to get myself arrested, I don’t care because they’re not going to listen [to people] writing endless letters to their MPs, by signing endless petitions.

“Nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes.”

Extinction Rebellion are planning a week-long International Rebellion in April this year. On Monday 11th March, Extinction Rebels from Cornwall began the long march to London, leaving from Land’s End. They plan to be in Truro in time for the next #YouthStrike4Climate Global Strike on Friday, 15th March. Here, students from schools, sixth forms, colleges, and universities across Cornwall will defy authority and add their voices to the growing movement for environmental justice.

The only division is between those who do something, and those who do not. It’s never too late to be involved.

Which side are you on?