The Government fiddles while our planet burns

November 12, 2023

I thought the King’s Speech was excellent – intelligent, compassionate and full of insight. Lots of people did. Colin Firth won an Oscar.

Last week we had the first King’s Speech since 1951. Or 2010 if we’re talking about the film, with Geoffrey Rush as Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

“Why should I waste my time listening to you?” said Lionel Logue.
“Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!” replied King George VI.

While a therapist may have helped his grandfather to speak in public, King Charles III did well not to choke on the script handed to him by the Government.

“A Bill will support the future licensing of new oil and gas fields, helping the country to transition to net zero by 2050,” he said, forced to parrot the Government line that burning more fossil fuels will lower carbon emissions.

As a lifelong environmentalist I’m sure the King doesn’t buy that argument at all.

Nor did my audience when I spoke at the Net Zero North East summit on Monday.

Asked if they thought the policies announced by the Conservatives or Labour were sufficient to tackle the climate emergency not a single hand went up.

This wasn’t a room full of Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil activists but hundreds of representatives from industry, commerce, universities, and public institutions.

A desire to pass on a habitable world to our children and grandchildren is utterly mainstream. It’s only Westminster where anti-science arguments hold sway. And some dark corners of the internet.

I was talking to Nelson, my then 14-year-old son, ahead of last year’s summit. He’d just come back from a banner drop to raise awareness of the climate emergency. He told me, “Logically, Dad,” he said, “we know we won’t keep global heating to 1.5 degrees. That’s gone. We’re on target for over 3 degrees. I know that’s the world I’ll have to live in. We won’t be worried about pensions. Or whether we can afford to buy a house. My generation will be worried about whether the shops have any food. Whether there’ll still be law and order.”

This year is already 1.43 degrees above pre-industrial average temperatures. The Earth is a complex system, and feedback loops are kicking in. Less ice means more heat is absorbed. Rainfall changes are causing forest die backs. Permafrost is melting in Siberia, releasing methane. The planet is match-funding human emissions. This October was 1.7 degrees hotter than the 1880’s baseline. The 2016 Paris Climate Accord has failed. It doesn’t sound much. But ecosystems are collapsing and crops failures are increasing.

There is no bigger challenge. But the Government fiddles while our planet burns. I don’t know if Mr Sunak plays the violin like the Roman Emperor Nero. But some of his MPs and Lords are on the fiddle. Or distracting the public with familiar culture war tunes.

“You can’t call for an armistice on Armistice Day.”

“Young people can’t afford to buy property because they’re wasting money on avocado toast.”

“Rough sleeping is a ‘lifestyle’ choice.”

The self-styled Homelessness Secretary is right when she says, “Nobody in Britain should be living in a tent on our streets.” But wrong to describe this as a preference for life under canvas rather than bricks and mortar. The ongoing cost-of-living crisis is increasing the number of vulnerable people with nowhere else to go.

The weirdest one is complaining about 15-minute cities. Why are they unhappy with having a local shop or post office within fifteen minutes’ walk?

Even the Prime Minister later conceded that people have the “right to peacefully protest.” Wiser heads have cautioned against politicians choosing who does and who does not have the right to demonstrate.

When even the distractions last for less time that it takes to rip up the previous month’s policy you know we are on the road to nowhere. Where even the talking heads struggle to keep the party line.

“You still stammered on the ‘W,’” said Lionel Logue. “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me,” King George VI replied.

When it comes to net zero, Westminster is still stuttering. Whoever writes the King’s Speech.