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Like so much of what this government does, tackling climate change is just for show

Summary:
If there was ever one picture that tells you all you needed to know about why this government is almost unique in the world in abandoning almost all measures to tackle the pandemic, it is the Tory benches during the Afghanistan debate. Hardly a mask to be seen among them, despite the government’s own advice ...

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Like so much of what this government does, tackling climate change is just for show

If there was ever one picture that tells you all you needed to know about why this government is almost unique in the world in abandoning almost all measures to tackle the pandemic, it is the Tory benches during the Afghanistan debate. Hardly a mask to be seen among them, despite the government’s own advice to wear masks in crowded indoor places. Do they care that their lack of masks could potentially give other MPs and parliamentary staff COVID? They care not at all. This is the true ‘I’m alright, Jack’ generation of Tory MPs.


With COVID this government no longer feels it needs to even give the pretence of trying to reduce deaths from COVID or cases of long covid. It seems to have convinced enough of the electorate that it has led the world in vaccinating its adult population, and anything else is just detail. For these MPs, and those who lead them, living with COVID has become synonymous with doing almost nothing about it beyond the vaccination of adults. As a result, cases and hospitalisations are now rising again even before schools return, and deaths are now averaging around 100 a week.


This callous disregard for the people it is governing, just so long as they get enough votes, is not confined to COVID. Of course all political parties favour some groups over others, but this is the first administration in the UK that cares about themselves, friends and financial backers alone, as long as their survival in power is assured. It is why I call this government a populist plutocracy.


All this is crucial when thinking about the greatest crisis facing humanity over the next few decades, climate change. While we can try for 1.5 or 2 degrees higher temperatures, if we do little or nothing things will become far far worse causing mass movements of population around the globe. In addition there is a concern that we may be close to setting off natural processes which could raise temperatures well beyond what is tolerable for large parts of the world, leading to global chaos and massive human depopulation. It’s perhaps not yet the most likely outcome, but it is not an insignificant possibility either. It may have happened, for different reasons, on the Earth hundreds of million years ago.


Given these possibilities, if civilisation as we know it is to survive, the world has no choice but to work together to all but eliminate carbon emissions within a few decades. But this is not how many MPs in our current government see it. The choice our government sees is whether to pay lip service to tough climate change change targets while not doing nearly enough to meet those targets, or to do almost nothing at all.


The Committee on Climate Change is an independent bodyset up by an act of parliament to advise on all matters to do with climate change, and in particular it monitors the UK’s progress in meeting its climate change targets. In June this year it issued two reports which foundthat the government had failed to enact sufficient measures to meet its own targets by a huge margin.


This is hardly surprising. It is easy for this government to avoid spending money or taking difficult decisions, because it knows the Prime Minister setting targets gets much more publicity than reports explaining how they will be missed by a mile. An additional reason for taking the ‘promise a lot, do almost nothing’ approach is that there is serious disquiet among some Tory MPs about doing anything.


Opposition to action on climate change is beginning to organise among Tory backbenchers. Ian Dunt suggestsa new group may soon form, perhaps called the Environmental Research Group following in the Orwellian tradition of similar groups for Brexit and COVID, to campaign against any further measures to meet climate change targets. Just as worrying, sectionsof the UK press, includingMurdoch, have long questioned the scientific consensus.


They will have no impact before the COP26 summit hosted by the UK later this year. This summit is a gift for Johnson, as it allows him to present himself as a global leader and crusader on global warming simultaneously. The UK’s own record on implementation is not conducive to a successful conference, but Johnson knows his press and the BBC will follow his line that the meeting was a personal triumph whatever the outcome really is.


He needs this success because polls suggest voters are overwhelminglyfrightened about climate change, and this concern goes acrossall age groups. He hopes that a self-styled Johnson success in the autumn at COP26 will be his equivalent of the UK vaccination programme - the success that allows his voters to excuse all other failures. Once that is achieved, the climate change deniers in his party can hold sway, much as a similar group of MPs eventually had their day on COVID.


They, rather than expert opinion (aka metropolitan elite) and moral imperatives (aka WOKE), will get their way because the Conservatives of the last decade have boxed themselves into failing to act on climate change in two ways. The first is most obvious: deficit targets. One way measures to tackle climate change (much cheaperthan dealing with the effects of the higher temperatures they will avoid) can happen is through deficit finance. But as long as the Tories follow the macropolicy of the Serbian housewife this will not happen.


The second involves the private sector costs of dealing with climate change. Things like carbon taxes or the equivalent. What proponents of the Green New Deal have always understood is that many individuals who have to pay higher prices for the carbon they are indirectly creating need some compensation for the impact of those higher prices on their budgets. You can do this in two ways. One is through deficit finance, and the other is through redistribution. Both go against Tory policy. A failure to compensate leads to political unpopularity, or worse (the gilet jaunes of France, for example).


This is why it is almost impossible for the current Conservative party to tackle climate change. It is why Cameron ended up wanting to‘get rid of the green crap’. If we and others keep electing similar governments the world’s progress in fighting climate change will be too slow, with catastrophic consequences. The UK plays a role beyond its carbon footprint as a result of hosting COP26 this autumn, and it is a tragedy that the UK’s leader at this time is an irresponsible showman with little respect outside our shores.





Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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