As an excuse to do nothing itself, this Labour Government has often hidden behind US intransigence on climate change, so it’ll be interesting to see how Gordon Brown might respond to a US President more progressive than he on global warming. Author Mark Lynas recently wrote that unless Brown ditches plans for new runways, Britain will steal the US crown of number one climate villain. What is evident is that all three candidates for the White House hold policies of slashing emissions: Clinton and Obama have pledged 80 per cent cuts by 2050, while John McCain adopted a relatively strong position on climate change early on, at a potentially high political cost.
All of this is significant in that our Government claims an international leadership role on climate change and yet, despite its best rhetoric, Brown is already losing credibility. In the past year, the US has installed 12 times more wind capacity than Britain, and of 150 coal plants proposed, 59 have been blocked on environmental grounds. In California, in fact, tough carbon laws mean new, unabated coal-fired generation is banned altogether. In contrast, Gordon Brown is considering a whole new generation of these dirty power plants – beginning with Kingsnorth. The US elections will only highlight further the gap between Labour’s rhetoric and reality.
As NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen said recently, ‘If the (British) Government cannot understand the elementary logic and urgency of the climate problem, it may be time for the public to find more astute leadership.’ One of the world’s most eminent climate scientists calling for Brown’s head if he doesn’t block new coal? This is getting serious. When John Howard was kicked out, Australia’s was widely dubbed ‘the world’s first climate change election’. Will Britain’s be next?
You can see signs of the environment becoming more mainstream in British electoral politics very clearly with the battle to become Mayor of London. Ken Livingstone has published a comprehensive and impressive green manifesto, and all four candidates are united in their opposition to a third runway. Importantly, this Mayoral race is being seen as indicative of the wider situation throughout Britain.
With Gordon Brown anticipating the most highly contested election in decades, every seat will count as he attempts to hold on. With 20 seats on the line in West London and the Home Counties (many of them marginal constituencies), the main concern of the generations most likely to vote there can be crystallised in one word: Heathrow. Could the airport swing seriously see Brown and Labour destabilised? There is evidence this is becoming a real possibility. Arch-Brownite Ann Keen had to break Cabinet ranks to oppose the third runway. She knew it would be electoral suicide if she didn’t. The situation has become a political hot potato. It’s no wonder the Department for Transport is said to be ‘wobbling’ and ministers overwhelmed by the level of opposition to airport expansion.
With traditionally conservative papers like The Sun and The Sunday Times coming out against the third runway, it’s not surprising they’re scared. And so they should be.
Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008