Campaigners keep getting a message back from Labour politicians even as opposition to the £2.2 billion climate-trashing, polluting, Silvertown Tunnel project grows in east and south-east London: “The Mayor won’t change his mind.”
That’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, one of Labour’s most powerful elected politicians.
Campaigners have asked him to pause and review the project, given the climate emergency that London has declared and the air pollution crisis. The pandemic and Brexit have also upended traffic projections.
But the Mayor says no.
As Len Duvall, leader of the Labour group in the London Assembly, put it in correspondence about the tunnel project: “He [the Mayor] is not going to review it!”
To a warning that construction could be disrupted by civil disobedience, Duvall replied: “I suspect you’re right, there will be some form of direct action. And it [the tunnel] will still be built!”
Len, can I just remind you? This isn’t a mafia movie, or a third-rate Netflix drama about medieval burghers, in which you play the tough guy.
This is our lives, and our children’s lives – they are the ones at the schools near the tunnel site, getting choked by particulate matter, remember? – in the largest city in Europe, in the face of a climate crisis.
And you, Heidi Alexander, deputy mayor for transport.
You have been invited to all the largest public events at which the tunnel project has been debated – that huge public meeting organised by Speak Out Woolwich in July 2019, and the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel webinar in December last year, remember? – but you’ve been too busy. Too busy for democracy.
But at a behind-closed-doors meeting with campaigners, the one single time you met with opponents of the tunnel project, in July 2019, you declaimed that the traffic queues at the Blackwall Tunnel – which the Silvertown Tunnel would run alongside – were intolerable. A giant new tunnel was the only answer.
Reminded that, at a time of climate change, transport policy has to focus on reducing the number of cars, and that most cars queuing for the Blackwall Tunnel in the rush hour have a single occupant, you replied: “Well, that’s how people live.”
The politics of that are pretty clear. There is an analogy with the US diplomats, who, at the 1992 Rio earth summit, torpedoed attempts to write greenhouse gas emissions targets into international agreements. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation”, they said.
Just as the right of American oil companies to increase production, and of American voters to drive ever-larger SUVs, was not up for negotiation then, so – you say, deputy mayor Alexander – the right of people driving to their subsidised parking spaces at Canary Wharf, and the right of haulage companies to run their HGVs around motorways, is not up for negotiation now.
Of course deputy mayor Alexander is not a climate science denier as some of those US diplomats were. But she is practicing another kind of denial: denial that climate change has any implication for policy – in this case, transport policy – in the here and now.
More than quarter of a century of inaction after Rio, that is. And some time after climate scientists have warned that, to hit decarbonisation targets, no new fossil-fueled infrastructure should be built.
And how come the rights of haulage companies and middle-class drivers are not up for negotiation, but working people’s rights are?
If the Silvertown Tunnel project goes ahead, the school pupils of east London will pay, with their health. Low-income families who have no car will pay, as their mobility is further constrained by London’s under-invested public transport system.
And, if authorities in the global north keep building fossil-fuelled infrastructure the way the Greater London Authority is doing, people – first and foremost in the global south – will pay, with their lives and livelihoods.
At a protest against the tunnel project, in August last year, this point was brought home by Suga Thekkeppurayil, a Newham Labour councillor.
Speaking at a rally outside Transport for London headquarters, Thekkeppurayil pointed to the threat of rising sea levels in Bangladesh, the way that Bangladeshi people are responding by migrating to India, the anti-Muslim citizenship laws passed by the Indian government to intimidate them, and the mountain of injustice and hardship caused by this chain of ecological and social disasters.
This, said Thekkeppurayil, is how climate change, aggravated by infrastructure projects such as the Silvertown Tunnel, plays out in reality.
As the effects of climate change accelerate in the global south, I expect we will see social democratic political parties in the north split over how to react.
So it is with the UK Labour party. Its London leadership may be talking tough about the tunnel going ahead – but the Socialist Health Association London branch, and nine Constituency Labour Parties and 22 Labour branches across the capital, have all called for it to be stopped.
The Labour government of Wales has frozen all new road-building projects while it conducts a review. The deputy climate change minister, Lee Waters, said climate change meant “redirecting investment”.
He added: “If we carry on going as we’re going, we’re not going to hit net zero until 2090. At the very latest, scientists tell us we have until 2050 to stop this running out of control.”
The Mayor of London is under growing pressure to start confronting these unpalatable realities. After all, even if “the mayor won’t change his mind”, that doesn’t mean global heating will change its mind.
Global heating is a result of humankind’s interaction with the natural world, just like the coronavirus – which didn’t change its mind either, whatever Boris “I shook hands with everyone” Johnson and Matt “we are protecting care homes” Hancock had in their minds.
If the mayor doesn’t change his mind, and other politicians in the global north don’t either – if they press ahead with fossil-fueled infrastructure projects like the Silvertown Tunnel – then more and more emissions reduction targets will be missed.
That mountain of hardship and suffering in the Indian sub-continent, and other places on the front line of climate impacts, will grow.
By stopping the Silvertown Tunnel, we can help to address both local hardship from a car-centred transport system and the air pollution it produces, and the global crisis of climate change.
Simon Pirani is a supporter of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition. The views expressed in this article are his own. This article first appeared at People and Nature.