Bugger Brexit! If we’re honest, it’s what we all feel—for one reason or another. It is also a sentiment that Boris Johnson hopes will drive into his clutches voters who—he would say—just want Brexit done and dusted. But this election is about far more even than the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The reality is that the UK has bigger fish to fry—and none bigger than the existential threat of climate breakdown.
Since Theresa May chose to bet everything on a throw of the electoral dice two years back, attitudes to the environment have undergone a sea change. At the same time, it has begun to dawn on people that frustrating though it is, Brexit is not, after all, the great issue of our time.
One year ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have little more than a decade to act, if we wish to stand any chance of preventing catastrophic, all-pervasive climate breakdown. That message is now getting through, to the extent that people are putting global heating and climate breakdown close to the top of their list of priorities.
There is no question that Brexit preference remains a vote driver. But polling by BritainThinks in July revealed that the British public now worries more about climate change than issues such as terrorism, crime, immigration and housing. Another poll, commissioned by Hope not Hate in September, found that close to three quarters of people in the UK agreed that the world faced a climate emergency.
This helps to explain why schoolkids have been striking in their thousands; why London and dozens of other cities across the world have been brought to a halt by Extinction Rebellion; and why more than half of those polled in a new survey by Opinium said that climate change would affect how they voted in an election; this figure rising to almost three quarters in the under-25s. On top of this, almost two-thirds said they supported a Green New Deal that would see massive and sustained investment in green infrastructure and jobs.
In assuming, then, that everyone is so fed up of the shenanigans that the B-word will be the sole informer of voting intention in the coming poll, the PM is in danger of mis-reading the runes. May’s attempt to set Brexit at the heart of the 2017 election foundered on the rocks of incompetent campaigning and the fact that no one party has a stranglehold when it comes to setting an electoral agenda. This time around, Johnson is, it seems, doomed to make the same mistakes.
In the darkest depths of a winter forecast to be one of the coldest of the decade, the voters will trudge to the ballot box for the umpteenth time in the space of just a few years. On this occasion—we are told—it will be different. This time, it will be a once in a generation poll that will define our country and its politics for decades to come. In reality, it will be so much more than this.
There is no arguing with the fact that the election result will go a long way towards codifying the UK’s relationship with Europe and mapping out its place on the world stage for the foreseeable future. But there is an even more critical corollary. Due to the intensifying climate emergency, the outcome of the election will not only change our own lives, for better or worse, but shape the futures of our children and of those yet to be born. As such, the election of December 2019 will not be a once in a generation poll. It will be an election for all the generations to come.
This is because of the clear binary fallout of the ballot. Either it will see the UK set firmly on the road to a net zero carbon society within 20 years, giving us a fighting chance of avoiding the worst of climate breakdown, or it will plunge the country into a distracting free-market bun fight that will doom our descendants to a hothouse hell.
Johnson may not get it, but it is clear that many voters do. What matters most to them is not securing a dodgy free trade deal with Trump, but the sort of future they bequeath. So, when it comes to putting a cross in a box, many will take care to scrutinise to the green credentials of the two parties with the best chances of forming the next government.
They will take on board the blue corner’s too-late target of 2050 for a zero-carbon Britain, the £12bn a year subsidy gifted to fossil fuel corporations, its support for fracking, the blocking of 800 onshore wind schemes, the slashing of subsidies for electric vehicles and solar power, and the dumping of plans for low carbon homes.
They will consider the red corner’s economically sensible plans for a Green Industrial Revolution that promises 9,000 more on- and off-shore wind turbines, £3.6bn invested in electric vehicle charging points, a massive programme designed to make homes more energy efficient, and much more, all leading up to hitting a net zero carbon target as soon as the 2030s. And they will make their mark accordingly.
If Johnson really believes this election is going to be all about getting Brexit done, then he needs to think again. Instead, the electorate will—and should—vote to get effective climate policy done. They will vote—and rightly so—for their children’s future. They will vote for the planet.
Bill McGuire’s new anthology: Knock Three Times: 28 modern folk tales for a world in trouble, co-edited with Andrew Simms, is published by Real Press