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‘Everything seems to be slipping!’

Cathie Lloyd warns of trends in the wrong direction on action to tackle catastrophic climate breakdown

We make policy in a context and none so much as in relation to the environmental crisis.

Recently, populist forces on the right have questioned the Paris net zero agreement - while the rest of the world is badly slipping on these legal commitments.

The main effect is to dial down on the policies which we have set out to safeguard the environment. What is behind this? How serious is it in terms of a threat to our environmental policies? How is it impacting on actual policies on the ground and our ability to deal with the crisis?

International trends

International bodies - notably the World Meteorological Organisation - are expressing alarm about the ability to achieve the net zero commitments made at Paris 2015: ‘heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and intense tropical cyclones [have] wreaked havoc on every continent and caused huge socio-economic losses’ They describe ‘particularly devastating consequences for vulnerable populations who suffer disproportionate impacts. Extreme climate conditions exacerbated humanitarian crises, with millions experiencing acute food insecurity and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes’.

WMO states that it ‘is committed to stepping up collaboration with the international community to confront the enormity of this challenge’ – but are governments matching that commitment?

We are experiencing extreme weather events – this year already we have seen storms, extremely high winds in Norway, temperatures soaring to above 40 degrees in Australia and Sudan where schools have been closed because of high temperatures, not to speak of levels hitting 20 degrees in NW Scotland in January.

In recent elections, policies to mitigate climate change have been attacked by the forces of a resurgent populism. Far-right populists are involved in ruling coalitions in Italy, Finland and Sweden. Austria’s FPÖ is polling high to win this autumn’s elections, while Germany’s AfD and France’s National Rally (RN) are at record highs in support. They all challenge attempts to restrict the use of fossil fuels or to regulate measures to limit pollution.

The needs and concerns of farmers and other groups of workers are taken up by these right-wing forces and articulated and directed into campaigns against environmental action. A clear example is the protests by farmers in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and France at controls over nitrogen emissions, pesticide bans, cutting diesel subsidies and water restrictions. The environment-critical right aim to benefit from these grievances at the ballot box, which they therefore shape and encourage.

These protests are working in so far as they have led to watered down environmental decisions being made in the EU as member states attempt to stave off right-wing victories in forthcoming June elections.

Neither can we ignore the impact of wars on the environment. The Conflict and Environment Observatory has studied in detail the impact of Russia’s wars on Ukraine, going back to 2014, emphasising the impact of land mining, and explosive devices on ecologically important areas and the weaponisation of water.

While we rightly focus on the human cost of the war on Gaza others are trying to monitor the long-lasting environmental impacts there as well.

Ukanian weirdness (and Starmer’s reductions)

Last year we saw how the political right in the UK were quick to attack the ULEZ policies they perceived as vote losers for social democratic politicians. Iain Duncan Smith emerged as a prominent supporter of direct action on environmental issues – not in support of Just Stop Oil, of course, but as someone who ‘understood’ the motives of those who smashed and destroyed cameras which had been installed to enforce the London ULEZ. The low emission zones have been made into a focus for populist resistance to greener policies despite well-documented evidence about the severe impact on our health of traffic pollution.

A new resource for community organisers and anti-racist educators published by the Institute of Race Relations is relevant here. Mainstreaming hate: how the Right exploits the crisis to divide us, warns that ‘the far right is becoming adept at using social media to spread conspiracy theories such as the Great Replacement, as well as disinformation around climate change, Covid 19, “15-minute city planning” and London’s low emission zone’. The IRR points out that far-right activists have been spreading Islamophobic lies on social media about London’s ULEZ, suggesting that the mayor plans to ‘exempt Muslims’ and other ‘minority religions’ from the charge.

Weirdly, the one recent story which has generated alarmist headlines in mainstream papers and caused concern in middle England is the catastrophe of water pollution affecting the crews in the Oxbridge boat race – let us hope this incident will lead some people to recognise that no-one is safe from the rapid ongoing degradation of our environment.

Keir Starmer’s Labour party, widely expected to win the next UK general election, has reduced its very limited environment commitments. Analysis shows that they were couched within a very limited liberal economic framework with virtually no interest in public ownership or accountability, a legacy from the Blair years. For the present, Labour are backing small modular nuclear reactors as opposed to the new gas plants planned by the Tories. The ambitious plan to insulate 19m homes has been thrown into doubt over fears about debt and the £28billion Green transition proposals seem to be dead.

In advance of the UK election, Westminster is speeding up the issuing of Oil and Gas licences in what looks like a scorched earth policy.

Scotland subsides the wider UK?

The acquisition and planned expansion of our Cruachan Power station (bought by DRAX in 2018) is a vivid example of the stronghold of muscular private enterprise on our country’s energy production. Ofgem as the statutory regulator is investing in ‘energy superhighway’ cables to export wind power from Scotland to England, the first transfer being from Torness to County Durham and the second from Peterhead to Drax (again!) in N. Yorkshire.

Publicly funded initiatives are billed as circumventing the compensation paid to commercial companies for closure due to overproduction in windy conditions. I can find no information about the benefits to local communities in Scotland – although there is emerging resistance to the planned pylon infrastructure in areas such as Strathspeffer.  Another example of Scotland’s natural resources subsidising the rest of the UK? 

Reading the recent UK Climate Change Committee report feels like an exercise in condescension by the UK government towards parliamentarians in Holyrood – they disapproved of our ambitious net zero targets originally! It reads like a litany of targets we’re missing largely because of limited resources and restrictions on our ability to legislate.

They state that the emission reductions needed to meet Scotland’s 2030 target are ‘beyond what’s credible’. We have missed the annual target again – emissions increased in 2021 by 2.4% compared with 2020. The CCC reports that key indicators of delivery are off track and list tree planting, peatland restoration, heat pump installation, electric van sales, recycling rates. By 2030 we will need to treble public electric vehicle charge points, reduce car traffic by 20%, increase heat pump installation by a factor of 13, and double woodland creation.

They press us to focus on items within our present competence such as transport, buildings, agriculture land use and waste. It singles out the Heat in Buildings consultation as requiring prompt attention.

More of the same?

To summarise, there are multiple and combined trends which are holding back the development of urgent policies to address the climate crisis. Decades-long neoliberal policies are giving rise to the systemic societal collapse, giving rise to the mainstreaming of right-wing ideologies. Big business is allowed to dominate our economy and is accountable only to the short-term interests of its shareholders rather than being run by and for the public. The media whips up a storm of criticism feeding on people’s impatience for results – recent examples being the deposit return scheme and the low emission zones. Following the pandemic and unprecedented political and economic chaos (particularly since Brexit in the UK) there is pressure to revert to the familiar, the ‘certain’, which is a strongly conservative impetus.

The popular desires being encouraged by conservative forces to ‘keep things as they are’, or to ‘go back to how things were’ are, unfortunately, recipes for inaction which will lead to horrific changes to our environment and a future that benefits nobody.

This article is based on Cathie Lloyd’s April 2024 ‘environmental report’ to her SNP branch in Edinburgh. Cathie would like to thank the DLS website editor for inputs to this article.


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