Last week’s climate debate on Channel 4 was the first televised election debate between party leaders dedicated to climate issues to take place anywhere in the world. This fact on its own makes it a credit to all those involved, and particularly to the environmental charity, Possible (previously called 10:10 Climate Action), that came up with the idea. The enormous challenge of global heating is not easily compressed into campaign soundbites, or even into manifestos. The changes required are global as well as national, and will take more than five years to implement. But the phrase made famous by the novelist Primo Levi “If not now, when?”, quoted by the Green party co-leader, Siân Berry, was apt.
Last year’s warning from the UN’s top scientists, that the window of opportunity for action to prevent catastrophic heating is shrinking, focused minds. It led to an unprecedented upsurge in grassroots environmental activism around the world. Last Thursday’s debate provided an opportunity for UK voters to see whether, and to what extent, the messages from scientists and protesters have been absorbed.
If the Greens treat every election as a “climate election”, the emphasis on the environment in Labour’s 2019 manifesto is both unprecedented and overdue. Campaigners were disappointed that the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, endorsed at this year’s party conference, was dropped. But Labour’s programme has been scored above the Liberal Democrat and SNP manifestos by environmentalists. All are far more ambitious than Conservative plans.
Perhaps inevitably, the urgency and power of the overall theme of climate emergency faltered, during the Channel 4 debate as in other contexts, when it came to the technical details of rival schemes to retrofit homes and tackle aviation pollution. But seeing the party leaders answer these questions directly, rather than leaving them to more junior colleagues, was important. So was the refusal of the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to take part. In a Conservative campaign that has been characterised by dishonesty and bad faith, turning down Channel 4’s invitation and then, at the last minute, trying to bounce the broadcaster into accepting Michael Gove as a stand-in, is a stunt for which Mr Johnson’s party deserves to be punished at the ballot box.
Climate change, and how to deal with it, is one of the biggest foreign policy challenges of the next government’s term and the next decade. A hard Brexit might see the UK trying to secure a deal with the US, which has ruled out any reference to climate change in trade talks. The US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, which is expected to be enacted the day after next year’s presidential election (unless it is cancelled by a different president), is a moment to be dreaded. The danger that faltering efforts at international cooperation will collapse altogether, to be replaced by a grim battle over diminishing global resources, is real. The round of UN climate talks that have just opened in Madrid is a precursor to the showdown to come in Glasgow in a year’s time, when countries (with or without the US) must fulfil their Paris treaty obligations by committing to binding targets for emissions cuts.
With Brexit and the NHS higher up most voters’ list of priorities than the environment, the number of people who will factor the prospect of such negotiations into their choice next week is likely to be small. The big picture of rising emissions and multilateral failures does not sit easily with ambitious promises of a “green new deal” at home. But as the polls gently narrow, the extent to which climate science has been absorbed into Labour’s programme is a reason to hope for any result other than a victory for Mr Johnson. His refusal to debate a defining and existential issue of our time is yet more evidence that he is unfit to hold the office of prime minister.