Just before Christmas in 2008, Gordon Brown gave us all an early present by claiming to have “saved the world” at Prime Minister’s Questions. Sadly, he had tripped over his tongue. Instead, the then PM confirmed that it was the international banking sector which had been safeguarded by his programme of recapitalisation, rather than the entirety of civilisation. Disappointing. But now, a decade on from his infamous slip-up, I believe I can asseverate to have succeeded where Gordon fell short: I have saved the world.
Every day when we switch on the evening news, pick up the paper or scroll through the internet there is, almost invariably, an opinion piece or a report about how the earth is going to melt. Flying is equated to a mortal sin whilst pictures of polar bears crouched on a disintegrating ice-mound appeal to our conscience to turn us all immediately towards veganism. David Attenborough boings around all over BBC One, as beautifully shot aerial images of forest fires remind us to assiduously recycle old egg-boxes.
And I agree – temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are intensifying, and the polar bear really is starving as the ice cap retreats North.
However, and I’m sure I speak on behalf of most average-income folk in saying, that when Attenborough postulates thumping even larger taxes on international flights, the green movement is contaminated with the stench of elitism. Surely I cannot be alone in detecting the hypocrisy of multi-millionaires yelling commands from their ivory towers for the poor to be deprived of the occasional luxury, whilst continuing to migrate between their countless houses in gas-guzzling Range Rovers and eating the finest steaks this side of a reception with the Queen. The problem with modern environmentalism, then, is it remains a luxury good in need of democratisation.
Currently the government offers a rebate for anyone who buys an electric car, which at first glance, is excellent. More electric cars mean fewer emissions, decelerating the pace of global warming. However, with the price of even the cheapest EVs lingering around the £40,000 mark, the rebate is just a scheme to give money back to wealthy customers who would probably pay the bill anyway. Just imagine town councillors frantically quacking as they explain to their constituents why the local primary school had to be closed because the government is throwing money at a handful of richer folks buying cars that run entirely on myrrh or wallpaper paste. I’d be mad.
The same is true for Attenborough’s flight tax: jet-setters who bounce between five-star hotels in Monte Carlo, Dubai and New York are hardly going to be deterred by slapping an extra 10% on the price of a flight, but ordinary folk who work ordinary jobs will suddenly be unable to afford a short family holiday to Barcelona. Yes, it would mean fewer people flying, but punishing the poor for the opulence of the rich is no way of combatting a threat which is blind to wealth.
If we are desperate to go down the path of state intervention, tax incentives for companies researching green technology or increasing the price of first-class travel would surely achieve the same results without making us all want to throw darts at an effigy of Caroline Lucas.
On top of all this, those who insist we ban meat, immediately shut down every power station in the land, replace golf courses with vegetable patches and proclaim mass extinction to be a certainty unless we all travel around by canal boat and return to a subsistence agrarian lifestyle of living in wigwams are wilfully ignoring the bigger picture: the UK produces less than one percent of all global emissions. This is, of course, no excuse for neglecting our responsibility to do more domestically, but even if we really did cover the island in trees and commute to work by solar-powered buses, the global impact would be negligible.
Critics often condemn the Agreements of Kyoto and Paris for either being too demanding on governments or lacking the ambition to protect the environment more urgently – with temperatures rising and the US withdrawing from the latter, it’s plausible that both strands of scepticism are true. Clearly though, moving too quickly risks leaving important players behind if the costs of implementing ambitious carbon reduction targets are manifestly extortionate. Realistically, there exists no hope of reprogramming the mindset of national leaders to think outside their borders, especially when they owe their position of power to appeasing their national citizenries. Therefore, slower progress with binding targets to which more nations agree is better than succumbing to the creeping Greta-indoctrination of chaotic hand-waving in the wake of every small flood.
Perhaps the solution is to do less, but do it better. On an international level, a commitment, say, to cut emissions by 10% observed by all nations will do more than a radical proposal for carbon neutrality honoured only in Western Europe. Fewer states would be left behind and the overall effect much more powerful. In this country, we need to make environmentalism work for the masses, rather than a regressive blend of smug South-Easterners forcing others to pay for their damage. Otherwise put, it’s time to swap the virtue signalling and the scaremongering for realistic targets we can all get behind.
George Wright (Political Officer, Ex-Secretary, Former Deputy Returning Officer, Ex-Treasurer, Ex-Whip, Ex-Committee Member, St John’s College) is an undergraduate in his second year of studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.