Why are the UK Conservatives not Treating Climate Action like COVID-19?

Updated: Jan 24

As the pandemic rages on and the climate crisis continues to be side-lined by British politics, Natalie Carr questions the immediacy of the action against global heating. She explores why climate action is being dealt with by the UK government so differently to COVID-19, unpacking a culture of short-term thinking and the continued prioritisation of out-dated ideas around growth.

With 64 changes to lockdown regulations since March, a reputation for policies that ignore scientific advice and a string of backtracks on government decisions, the UK is coming to terms with the reality of a third national lockdown. Questions over the ability of the incumbent UK government to handle a crisis effectively have not abated. There is no doubt that COVID-19 is a crisis of devastating immediacy, but it is impossible to forget that it is not the only crisis we face. The destruction caused by the 2020 California wildfires serves to remind us that, even cocooned in the false comforts of the Global North, we are not invincible. The climate crisis is here, and unless government decision-making meets the necessary scale of action to tackle the climate crisis, we can expect disasters of a similar scale to become the new normal.

In an open letter to EU leaders and heads of state in July 2020, climate activists Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever van der Heyden and Adélaïde Charlier cited the world’s haste to manage the pandemic as proof that ‘the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis.’[1] In the UK, at least, there is a clear divide in how the two are considered in government policy.[2] The emergence of COVID-19 forced the government to adopt a crisis mentality, although this has not translated to competent action. Since the publication of the ‘Coronavirus Action Plan’ in March 2020, willingness to act has been signalled by ‘scaling up’, ‘maximising’, and ‘accelerating’ government efforts, communication devices that remind us the pandemic is perceived as a crisis to be addressed. In stark contrast, climate policy is marked by a lack of urgency.

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) rates the UK’s present commitments and actions as insufficient:[3] climate policy announcements so far are insufficient to meet net-zero emissions by 2050, which itself is deemed too late a target by many. There is no doubt that the government is aware of the urgency of the climate crisis, so why is it falling by the wayside in political consciousness?

One explanation comes from philosopher Roman Krznaric’s phenomenon of political presentism, or short-termism,[4] which proposes that representative democracies are awash with politicians who aim to woo voters to secure elections, systematically ignoring long-term political issues which are unlikely to deliver them immediate political capital. Instead of mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis, the government is overlooking the interests of future generations, inevitably leaving them to suffer. In Wales, an attempt has been made to tackle this problem, with Sophie Howe being appointed the world’s first Future Generations Commissioner - tasked with ensuring social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being, though without government action to follow such a move is arguably futile. In spite of attempts to counter this issue, such as through legacy-building, perhaps a driver for Theresa May’s 2050 net-zero target, and party administrators working to ensure that politicians work for long-term reputations, short-termism prevails to a worrying degree.

In spite of attempts to counter this issue, such as through legacy-building, perhaps a driver for Theresa May’s 2050 net-zero target... short-termism prevails to a worrying degree

Moreover, recent climate policy papers are characterised by apathy and an obsession with limitless growth. The government’s response to the Committee on Climate Change’s carbon budgets progress report was published only a year after the Paris Agreement and depicts the climate crisis as something to be dealt with steadily. It states that time is being taken to prepare plans so that emissions reductions can be pursued fairly and cost-effectively. The ability to take time, however, suggests that the climate crisis is not being treated as a true crisis by the British government. Instead, it is believed emissions can be reduced gradually, without jeopardising economic growth, and through uncertain and as of yet non-existent future technologies. In Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ this is unlikely to change, as his Ten Point Plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ concerns itself almost wholly with technological development. Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, stated that ‘speculative solutions such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever.’[5] Government narrow-mindedness seems to prevent any policy-making of genuine benefit, attempting to mollify voters with the promise of jobs that will not exist without the funding, regulation and support only government can provide.

Government narrow-mindedness seems to prevent any policy-making of genuine benefit, attempting to mollify voters with the promise of jobs that will not exist without the funding, regulation and support only government can provide

The most recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, published in 2017, is equally obstinate. It is stated that global heating presents ‘challenges and opportunities to all aspects of our society’ and that ‘we must act on these if we are to achieve our ambitions of creating a stronger, more resilient economy and a natural environment that benefits people and can provide the vital resources and services we need.’[6] Identifying risks is tempered with identifying these ‘opportunities’ in the form of extended growing seasons, new crop varieties, and increased productivity. The mention of opportunities alone is disturbing. The negative impacts of climate breakdown: reduced soil quality and water availability, increased flooding, pests and diseases, are rendered, both figuratively and literally, secondary concerns; it is simply advised that these ought to be managed in order to reap the benefits. The threat of the climate crisis is not seen as high as a priority as continued economic growth, with efforts to exploit the opportunities of a changing climate appearing to outweigh those put into mitigation.

The British government is failing us. In working in the interest of short-term electoral cycles, the looming challenges of global heating are ignored. There is an assumption that ‘slow and steady’ is an acceptable approach to dealing with the climate crisis, all the while concentrating on maintaining economic growth at any cost. The unfortunate truth is that COVID-19 has been a test run for a future in which climate disasters become commonplace. The British government is eager to prove the UK’s ability to cope outside of the European Union and the dogged focus on exploiting the climate crisis is likely to persist in this post-Brexit fever dream. Britain has a duty to act on the climate crisis, but by continuing to frame it as a concern for the future we are shamelessly abusing the capacity we have to make efficient change.

[1] https://climateemergencyeu.org/
[2] Carr, N. 2020. A convergence of crises: a comparative study of the British government’s response to the climate crisis and COVID-19. Dissertation (M.A.) The University of Bath. 
[3] https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/uk/
[4] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190318-can-we-reinvent-democracy-for-the-long-term
[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/17/boris-johnson-announces-10-point-green-plan-with-250000-jobs
[6] HM Government., 2017. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017.