Why Theresa May Won’t Save the Day

by matthay44

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Maybe it’s this current never-ending heatwave that has got me so riled up of late, but I’m finding it harder and harder to stomach our government and their seeming inability to do anything useful or worthwhile, ever.

While the Tories squabble about the type of Brexit the U.K. wants – the most wasteful and self-inflicted burden on our civil service’s time – the world is on fire (quite literally in places) with heatwaves stretching across the globe as the northern hemisphere bakes in this boreal summer.

Many people here in the U.K. have been drawing parallels between this summer and the famously scorching season in 1976, which had a comparable amount of both hot days (with temperatures over 30 degrees) and dry weather. Some have cited that freak summer in recent debates about global warming, using it as an example to show that such heatwaves are part of the natural variability of our weather, rather than a putative symbol of any climate change. Undoubtedly they are. But the problem with this analysis, as is so often the case, is that it doesn’t take into account the global picture. Have a look at the images below:

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Anything jump out at you? To me, this visual comparison of the two Junes, 1976 and 2018, is incredibly powerful. It shows that climate change has already occurred, in the last four decades, and at quite some pace. 2018 isn’t an El Nino year, there aren’t any extenuating teleconnections we can blame this on; the planet has warmed.

The rapid nature of this transition is what should alarm you most. On our current trajectory we are looking at between 4.3 and 5.4 degrees of warming by the year 2100.¹ I cannot stress enough how catastrophic a temperature change of that magnitude would be. To put it in context, that is the same level of warming that occurred between the last ice-age (when northern Britain was under an ice sheet several kilometres thick) and the current interglacial, but in 100 years rather than several thousand. No ecosystem will survive that rate of warming. I promise you this. Not the polar bears of the Arctic, the rainforests of the tropics or the coral reefs of the oceans. Nothing. Ecosystems simply cannot adapt and migrate that quickly. We will be left with a scorched planet, widespread human catastrophes and only the few generalist animals that are still able to scratch out an existence alongside us left.

In the face of such radical changes, you’d expect our leaders to be putting forward or at least discussing radical solutions to tackle these environmental crises. Off you go, Theresa…

Theresa May, 2018: “I pledge to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042“.

So many things about this statement upset me that I actually struggle to analyse it rationally in my brain. A sort of red mist descends that precludes clear thinking.

I believe, however, that what angers me most is the lack of ambition. Couched within the ambiguity of avoidable is an excuse to do nothing at all. Who defines what plastic waste is avoidable? Surely, on one level, it is all avoidable? After all humanity survived for hundreds of millennia without any plastic at all. On the flip side, nearly all plastic could be argued to be essential, given its low production costs and its high utility to almost every business in the country.

Theresa’s is a statement that says nothing of substance, nothing which she can be held to account for; it can be adapted and wielded to dispel almost any future criticism or current challenge. All it really does speak is of our Prime Minister’s timidity and her lack of confidence as a leader.

Adding to this lack of ambition is the timeframe she suggests. If we are to have a hope of seriously tackling our environmental crises, we need to act fast, with governments putting pressure on businesses from above rather than relying solely on individual goodwill or customer pressure to force innovation in the right direction. As a society we need to be looking to ban plastic of all types in the next decade, not by 2042. But Theresa knows full well that by 2042 she won’t be held accountable; too many other administrations will have passed under the bridge between now and then.

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It also isn’t just about plastic. Sir David Attenborough’s call to arms and the public outcry that ensued is the only reason Theresa May is even mentioning the stuff. On issues such as air pollution, fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation the government is at best silent, or, more commonly, going in completely the wrong direction.

The Conservatives have forced through fracking in Lancashire, against huge local opposition, allowed open coal mining to begin in County Durham, approved a third runway for Heathrow and failed repeatedly to meet some of their key targets on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and reforestation. We couldn’t need these issues to be tackled more urgently and yet the government still seem blindly committed to short-time economic gains no matter what the cost, refusing to even acknowledge that this approach is going to keep us fixed firmly on the road to ruin.

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More than anything, I want a leader who is willing to state what we all know: that radical courses of action need to be taken if we are to preserve the planet in anything like its current state. We need politicians and the media to be debating hard subjects like how we are going to transition our rural economies away from animal agriculture, whether it is morally permissible to allow air travel to remain so cheap and what level of carbon tax is appropriate. These topics couldn’t be further away from our leaders’ agendas, as they continue to pander to the business interests of their funders or the perceived desires of future voters.

It also isn’t just the environmental crises that aren’t being addressed. Almost every impending issue of significance, be it the automation of low-skill jobs, the rise of A.I., the ubiquity of loneliness and depression in (so-called) developed societies or the rising inequality within nations seems to be steadfastly ignored at the highest levels of government. Our leaders have no foresight. Their actions (Corbyn aside) don’t appear to be guided by any political or even personal philosophy. They just scramble around wildly, trying to say or do whatever they think will win them the votes they need to stay in power.

In fact, the current failure of any western government to really look these issues in the eye begins to ask hard questions of the suitability of democracy itself. Is it capable, as a political system, to successfully navigate the choppy waters of the 21st century? We desperately need leaders who are freed from thinking in four-year, people-pleasing electoral cycles and who have the confidence and power to instigate meaningful, long-term changes, even if those changes are not always beneficial in the short-term.

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As individuals most of the changes we make to improve our lives require us to forego some sort of short-term pleasure or gratification. If we want to lose weight we have to avoid eating delicious but unhealthy foods, or to limit our portion size when we are hungry. If we want to save money we have to restrict our spending on luxuries, or fun and frivolous things. If we want to want to pass an exam or gain a new qualification we have to work or study in place of recreation.

The idea of short-term pain for long-term gain isn’t a new or radical one. But we need it’s wisdom to be scaled up to a societal level now. We need a politician to come forward who isn’t afraid to put themselves and their electorate on a metaphorical diet. A leader who has the courage to make the right decisions, which will guarantee long-term, sustainable prosperity and well-being, even at the risk of some short-term hardship.

But while we wait for this saviour to appear, we need, collectively, to be thinking, dreaming, discussing and conceptualising new ways of organising ourselves as a society. We need to rattle the cage of the neoliberal disciples and remind them that their ideology is just that, an ideology; there are other ways to structure our communities and economies.

One thing is certain, if we wait for Theresa May to lead the charge it will never come. She will never put sufficient pressure on businesses to enact change within the timescale that is required. All that we can hope is that her time is nearly up, and that as we search for a new leader the discussion can be broadened to emphasise the need for rapid, substantive change. Anything else is just hot air and, after this summer’s global heatwave, I’ve had more than my fill of that.

Footnotes:

¹ S. L. Lewis & M. A. Maslin [2018]: The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene; p. 220