Phew, what a scorcher
As temperatures hit record highs, James Harvey pours scorn on the Johnson government’s totally inadequate targets and the backtracking by the leadership candidates, not least Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak
For once even Tory-supporting newspaper headlines captured it perfectly: “Britain ignites,” said The Daily Telegraph, while for the Daily Express “Britain burns”, as “wildfires rage on the hottest day in history”. The Daily Mail, which had previously pooh-poohed concerns about the impact of rising temperatures as “the whining of snowflakes”, reported the “nightmare of wildfires” in suburban London on its front page.1
Instead of the usual ‘phew, what a scorcher’ headlines and pictures of sunbathers in London parks and crowded beaches, which usually accompany just a few days of summer weather in Britain, the media - both in the days leading up to the UK’s hottest day on record and subsequently - adopted a different tone, which reflected both the official warnings about the impact of high temperatures on both individuals and infrastructure, and the way that this ‘unprecedented weather’ was being widely linked to climate change and global warming.
Certainly, the amber and red severe weather warnings from the Met Office about a potential risk to life were unprecedented.2 Similarly the pictures and the reports of wildfires and major disruption to rail and road communications, whose impact continued even when temperatures went down, show that Britain’s hottest day in history was no media hype or misplaced overcaution on the part of the weather forecasters and railway companies. Reports that London’s firefighters had their busiest day since World War II, along with pictures of buckled rails, burnt-out houses and large areas of grassland ablaze, told their own story. To add to the sense that this was no isolated aberration, at the same time similar high temperatures, burning forests and impacts on infrastructure were reported in other parts of Europe.
While scientists are naturally hesitant to directly attribute these recent weather events to wider patterns of global warming, it is clear that these record temperatures are part of a longer-term shift in our climate.3 Given Britain’s temperate, maritime climate, with its mild winters and relatively mild summers (certainly compared to the European continental climate of cold winters and hot summers), the country’s infrastructure was clearly built with rather different weather and temperatures in mind. The ageing of key parts of the UK transport infrastructure and the state of our housing stock (think about levels of insulation and heating in contrast to, say, our neighbours in Scandinavia) mean that these weather events will have a serious impact on the wellbeing and livelihoods of the British working class. It is not just a case of who can afford air conditioning (perhaps as few as two percent of British households have it) or can keep their homes heated adequately, given rocketing gas and electricity bills. Research has shown that it is the working class and the poorer sections of British society, especially in densely populated urban areas, who are most badly affected by heatwaves and the rising temperatures we have just seen.4
Moreover, it seems that we cannot just shrug our shoulders and accept these unprecedented temperatures, and the significant impacts that go along with them, as ‘the new normal’. As the evidence produced in the run-up to the Cop 26 conference in Glasgow last year and subsequent academic research papers shows, the processes of global warming are now accelerating at a much faster rate than previously thought, enough to produce a decisive shift into an altogether new climate paradigm.5 Even the bulk of the capitalist class and the majority of their governments internationally now accept that this is happening, although their proposals and targets for zero carbon emissions largely pay lip service and anyway are too little, too late.
Which brings us back to the other story dominating the political headlines in Britain - the election of a new Tory leader and prime minister. Despite Boris Johnson’s boasting that Britain leads the world in tackling global warming, the aspiring leaders have shown their lack of interest in the burning topic of climate change by either largely ignoring it or by attacking the limited targets and objectives previously agreed by the Johnson government.
Given that the election to succeed Johnson was largely fought on the political terrain defined by the Tory right and fast became an auction amongst the potential rivals to Rishi Sunak to see who can promise the biggest tax cuts and the smallest state, this should come as no surprise. For the leadership contenders, opposition to ‘green taxes’ and hostility to even limited intervention became important markers of their political soundness, as they made their pitch to Tory MPs and the wider party membership - or sought to position themselves for a future place in the eventual winner’s new cabinet.
In the rather inchoate politics of the Tory right, this opposition to ‘greenery’ sits easily alongside attacks on ‘woke virtual signalling’, and a vigorous culture war in defence of ‘symbols of British identity and tradition’. Thus even the ‘moderate outsider’, Tom Tugendhat, moved from mild sympathy to rewilding and support for the agreed net-zero targets to opposition to ‘the green levy’ on energy and casting doubt on the feasibility of the 2050 pledge. Kemi Badenoch, who from the start positioned herself as the consistent voice of the right, went even further, repudiating the 2050 target as “unilateral economic disarmament”, which would harm the economic future of “the poorer parts of the country”. Not to be outdone, Liz Truss, now 0.6/1 favourite to win, took a similar approach, albeit it in less strident terms, when she suggested that a future government might look at “better ways” of reaching the targets the government of which she was a member had set. Even the frontrunner amongst Tory MPs, Rishi Sunak, joined in the fun and rowed back from the very moderate policy commitments of the Johnson government on windfarms and energy policy to placate the right.
Do these promises to go back on commitments previously given betoken a serious shift in policy or are they simply posturing to get votes? Certainly, cabinet minister and chair of the Cop 26 conference Alok Sharma thinks the threats are serious enough to hint that he may resign if the new prime minister “dumps the net-zero pledge”.
Global warming has not really featured in the Tory leadership election race so far and, when it has been raised by candidates like Badenoch and Truss, it largely functioned as a positional issue rather than a solid set of proposals for a future Tory government. As with the broader framework of economic policy, cuts in public spending and tax cuts, it is hard to see a clear division on policies to deal with global warming between the last two Tory contenders remaining in the contest.
Even without Truss’s rhetoric on ‘revising’ the strategy or Sunak’s hesitations on windfarms and levies, the policies and frameworks laid down by the Johnson government following the Glasgow Cop 26 conference were likely in reality to turn out in the long term to be so much hot air. It is not that they are ‘too much, too soon’, as the Tory right argue - far from it. The hallmark of the Johnson government in general was self-aggrandising bluster and empty promises, and the policies on energy and global warming were no exception to this ‘government by press release’ and its much-trumpeted ‘world-beating’ initiatives.
When examined seriously, Johnson’s targets were merely illusions - a creation of smoke and mirrors. The Tories and the capitalist class in general are structurally and politically incapable of taking the action that we really need to even begin to slow down the processes causing the climate catastrophe, much less turn things around. The fact that the fundamental issue of global warming is reduced to a mere side show in the leadership contest shows exactly how seriously the Tories take it, and they and the system they represent offer nothing for the future of the working class and humanity more generally.
ukcop26.org; climate.nasa.gov/evidence; www.ipcc.ch/about.↩︎