Campaigners on climate have to be more positive

Tom Heap
Police order climate protesters to leave Trafalgar Square on Monday night: Nigel Howard

A few days ago I saw a lorry skidding on slick tarmac and spinning off into the verge. And then it happened again, and again, for this was entertainment. Truck racing on a drizzly Friday near Port Talbot, South Wales. The air was laced with diesel, fried onions and simple fun. I asked some of the race followers how they’d feel about stopping their sport to help save the world: horrified. What about hydrogen-fuelled or electric-powered wagons: that could work?

They couldn’t swallow losing a pleasurable pastime but a smart fix delivered by science and technology was more palatable. I suspect there is a lesson here, unheard in the protests at Trafalgar Square or Canning Town Tube . The environmental campaign movement has been singing the same song since its inception: the world is in peril, it’s largely your fault and you must give up stuff. While this certainly riffs on the truth it suffers from three critical problems. It hasn’t led to widespread action, opponents pan it as a miserable melody and other, happier tunes are available.

Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are turning the volume up to 11. Their success so far comes from eye-catching protest and the need for action but those underlying problems remain. There is no mass turn-down of heating and adoption of thermals, airports remain busy and SUVs remain the car of choice.

So what about those chirpier tunes? This year we generated more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels. Each time you switch the lights on it emits half the carbon it did in 2010. Power from new offshore wind is contracted to be cheaper than the current grid price. The Government has promised to outlaw gas boilers in new homes from 2025.

European regulations are driving down average car emissions and, alongside our own Climate Change Act, decarbonising our economy. It is simply not true to say our politicians, from Labour, through the Coalition to today, have done nothing. The point of this upbeat list is to say: “We can do this s**t. We are doing it. But we must move further and faster.” It is a message of empowerment not panic.

Some climate campaigners are fond of comparing fighting climate change to defeating Nazi Germany. Yet the news from the “front” is the opposite of war propaganda. That sought to maintain public morale and spirit by trumpeting success and ignoring setbacks. Oddly, in combating environmental degradation, the headlines and airwaves are dominated by the opposite: extolling failure and silence on success. To encourage greener decisions we need to hear both threats and solutions.

Tom Heap presents Countryfile on BBC1. Join the launch of the You and the Planet series at the Royal Society tomorrow at 7pm or online via #YouAndThePlanet