THE PROTESTS LED by Extinction Rebellion earlier this year rocketed the issue of climate change to the top of the political agenda after it had been ignored for too long.
The protests raised the stakes and spectacularly forced Brexit off the agenda for a few short weeks.
Politicians like former Greens leader Caroline Lucas and ex-Labour Party leader Ed Miliband used it as a springboard to pursue the issue in Parliament. The political parties were forced to respond. These were largely London protests. But in towns like Bolton, Wigan, and Sunderland local groups have sprung up to continue this work. They know that to succeed we will have to build a broad coalition in towns as well as cities and across the class divide.
This means a tactical rethink. Telling people to get out of their cars is counterproductive in parts of the country where decades of chronic underinvestment has left us without public transport. Jobs have disappeared from our towns as successive governments have chosen instead to invest in cities, creating lengthy commutes on public transport for most working-age people in towns like mine.
The majority of my constituents commute out of Wigan every day, many to Manchester. The trains are overcrowded, deeply unreliable and ceased to function entirely for a large part of last year, while the buses are few and far between and often more expensive than getting a taxi.
In parts of my constituency the call to abandon the car effectively asks people to walk or cycle a round trip of 42 miles a day, just to get to work. It is completely and utterly unrealistic. Campaigns to tackle climate change need to link up with campaigns for better transport and fairer funding for it, particularly for buses, which are scandalously neglected in our national narrative but are the key mode of public transport for most of the country.
It is galling to be told by politicians that you should stop eating meat when you and your family are struggling to get by and relying on help from friends and local foodbanks. It is also counterproductive to disrupt the one holiday a family has, one they’ve saved for all year, instead of targeting the global corporations whose business models rely on frequent air travel and the governments who refuse to tax them for it.
The phrase “dirty coal” is profoundly offensive to people whose families did dangerous, backbreaking work down the mines over generations to build the country’s wealth and influence. Those families still pay a hefty price for it; mesothelioma victims are still fighting for justice decades after the mines closed.
Recognising and respecting the contribution they made would mean reparations for those towns after decades of neglect and underinvestment. Coalfield communities built our wealth and influence at great cost. We are owed new clean energy jobs and the infrastructure to create them.
Those activists who are willing to reach out beyond their base will find there is an eager and passionate coalition waiting to be built. The first Bolton Extinction Rebellion Meeting saw people queuing out of the door, on a hot summer evening, while I continue to get more letters about the environment from my constituents than any other single issue.
Green open spaces, protection of greenbelt land, wildlife conservation, clean air and fresh water are vital to people in our working-class towns and always were a core part of the socialist tradition. The creation of the parks movement, a major achievement of the Attlee government, is still felt as significant in the industrial towns where smoke and soot from the mines and the mills killed people decades early and where respite from mass industrialism was found in the beauty of nature. The Ruskin tradition, that understands beauty as a core component of the socialist tradition, is alive and well in towns where its absence has been too often felt.
A positive movement for change, like the One Million Climate Jobs campaign led by the trade union movement, would harness that passion and provide an antidote to the stark warnings about climate scenarios that often leave people feeling powerless to act.
Finding new ways to empower the public in the battle against climate change is critical. Across the world action to combat climate change is increasingly happening at city and town level. The C40 group [a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change] of city leaders across the world was critical in building the road to the Paris Conference and the decision to limit global emissions to below 2ºC – perhaps to an even larger extent than national leaders. Meanwhile they are already tackling climate change in their own communities.
In 2015, as shadow Energy Secretary, I worked with town and city leaders across the UK to deliver a commitment to cut the UK’s carbon footprint by 25%, even as the national government slashed clean energy schemes and watched progress unravel. We built on the work of councils like Plymouth and Barking and Dagenham who are generating clean energy, cutting carbon emissions and using it to fund local services.
Building public support and advocacy at this level will create pressure for action from local and regional leaders to do more and create long-term change: an energy scheme jointly owned and run by hundreds of local people is so much harder to dismantle for an incoming government than a solar subsidy scheme conceived and run from Whitehall.
There is a serious prospect that climate could become a further source of division in Britain. The last Labour government’s decision to load the cost of clean energy subsidies onto energy bills left the poorest paying six times as much as the wealthy and created fertile ground for an incoming Tory government to turn climate action into a political football and tear up the subsidies for clean energy schemes.
Now, as climate change becomes a major cause of migration, we face a new risk: it provides fertile ground for the far right to exploit in towns that have experienced rapid, relative decline.
Instead the climate crisis could offer an opportunity for those towns to rebuild, and most of all to play a major and significant part in our national story again. In Wigan and Barnsley the desire for good jobs, that provide a sense of purpose is palpable. Why shouldn’t young people in those towns power us through the next generation just as their parents and grandparents powered us through the last? The Extinction Rebellion protests raised the stakes and created an opening. We have to seize it.
Lisa Nandy is the the MP for Wigan. You can follow her on Twitter.