Inspired by Rebecca Willis’ research, and some of the Extinction Rebellion actions I joined, I decided over Christmas to try to engage my local MP on the climate crisis.
One of Willis’ findings was that, because MPs rarely hear from their constituents about the climate crisis, they don’t feel much pressure to prioritise it.
So in the lull after Boxing Day I wrote to Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North. After he replied, I asked to meet him at his surgery to talk to him about this in person. What follows is my (long!) letter, what happened when I met with him, and some thoughts on what I might do next, with a plea for suggestions.
My letter took me a while to write. I didn’t want to just rehearse the standard arguments, and I knew that he – in theory at least – acknowledges the issues. So I decided to express the roots of my alarm, my fear, and why I have lost hope that our political system is capable of averting catastrophe. I wrote not just to raise the issue up his agenda, but in the hope that I might jolt him out of complacency.
I am writing to ask that in 2019 you make climate breakdown a priority. You doubtless care about this issue, and will tell me about your party’s policies. But politicians have professed to care during most of my lifetime, and still the situation has deteriorated. The issue is there, but always in parentheses; never the main event.
The first global climate conference was held in the year my wife was born, 1979. Almost 40 years later global emissions are still rising.
In the year I started school a scientific conference called for emissions to be cut 20 per cent by 2005.
When I completed my undergraduate degree in 2005 they had risen by 35 per cent.
When I was ten, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force, tasked by 196 countries with negotiating a joint response to the threat. By my 30th birthday, after twenty years of negotiations, global emissions had risen 60 per cent.
Since I was born, global emissions have risen by around 3 per cent, each and almost every year. Far from slowing, the rate of growth has increased in my lifetime; they have grown by up to 8 per cent in the past decade. The only respite came from the global recession.
You and I have witnessed the first signs of breakdown. We now experience more frequent and severe floods and summer heatwaves. Already geopolitics is being affected by changing crop yields and migrations. We have also witnessed a collapse in global wildlife; our species has annihilated six in every ten vertebrate animals on the planet in just 50 years – an ecocide scarcely acknowledged.
That is my lifetime, and yours.
What of my nephew and niece, who are also your constituents, and my other two nieces in Somerset. What will unfold in their lifetime if we continue in this way?
Before they leave school, 133 million more people will be exposed to severe droughts, and Europe will suffer severe heatwaves every other year. In wetter months the economic damage from flooding in the UK will be ten times greater than it has been in recent years.
By the time they are my age collapsing food yields will lead to widespread rioting and mass emigration across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. Most coral reefs will be bleached each year, all but killing them off. Finding Nemo will make as much sense to their children as The Good Dinosaur did to them.
It is hard to predict what might happen beyond 2050. But without radical change it is entirely likely, if my nephew and nieces reach old age, that civilisation as we know it will have collapsed.
Averting this calamitous pathway requires that we stop global emissions rising by the end of this year and then cut emissions by 10 per cent every year until they hit zero. Is this credible?
It could be, if it were not for complacency.
The UK is a world leader on climate change, though we have made progress with the easiest steps, like decarbonising our electricity supply and driving more efficient vehicles. The established view is that we are heading in the right direction. We know we need to make less comfortable changes, such as curbing aviation, and yet Parliament plans to expand airports; the Mayor of London and Croydon Council both back Gatwick’s expansion on our doorstep. A minority of UK citizens – including many of my friends and family – frequently fly for work and leisure in spite of the well-publicised impact this has on our climate.
We know how to take the great strides, but these involve the hardest changes – at a personal level to eat less meat, drive less and stop flying, and at the national and global level to keep all fossil fuels in the ground and transform our transport and food systems.
But these choices are barely acknowledged in our homes, by our media or in our Parliament. We are sleep walking through crisis and into calamity.
We are paralysed by Brexit. Meanwhile, few leading politicians speak with any frequency about climate breakdown and ecocide, which will bring about far greater damage.
I have worked in this area since graduating, including a 7-year stint at the GLA, where I saw Labour politicians take little trouble to scrutinise any mayors progress on their climate change strategies, or to consider the implications of continued failure Or, worse, half-baked excuses were found to square the Climate Change Act with road building and airport expansion. Many people I’ve worked with agree that in all likelihood our political systems and society are not likely to make the changes we need, so turn their attention to “deep adaptation”, concerned with coping with the onset of climate breakdown.
I want you to face up to this, and play you part in proving us wrong.
Some MPs including Clive Lewis MP joined me and thousands of others last year in the Extinction Rebellion, a new movement for radical change. Our civil disobedience may be an act of desperation, but I am desperate about the ongoing rise in emissions, desperate about the complacency I witness, and desperate about the future facing my nephew and nieces.
I would like you to champion action on climate breakdown and ecocide in every relevant debate, whether set piece debates on Brexit or detailed scrutiny, and to raise the profile of these issues among your colleagues and constituents. Champion your own behaviour changes, and be brave in advocating changes to the people of Croydon North.
There is no greater test for our Parliament, and can be no greater priority this year.
I sent this in January by snail mail. As can happen with MPs, it apparently got lost in the system. So I emailed it to his Parliamentary address and eventually got the following reply:
Thank you for taking the time to write to me.
I completely agree with you that climate change is such an important issue and I am pleased that the world is slowly waking up to the reality and gravity of the situation. However, so much more needs to be done. As an opposition MP I can continue to raise awareness about the issue and play my role in scrutinising Government Bills such as the Environmental Bill to try to influence and encourage greener policies.
However, the fact is that we are in opposition and it is the Conservatives who have the power. We need a Labour Government to force real, lasting change. Whilst the current Conservative Government has made a lot of noise about farming standards and undertaking endless consultations on the environment, it has failed to act in any meaningful way. In fact, Conservative MPs continually voted down crucial environmental amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill and have simply failed to take climate change and the causes of climate change seriously.
The Labour Party believes Britain should continue to set the highest standards in food quality and welfare and will do all it can to try and prevent the current Conservative Government from using Brexit as an excuse to undercut our farmers and flood Britain’s food chain with cheap and inferior produce. The Labour Party will continue to challenge the Conservative Government in order to ensure there can be no rolling back of key rights and protections, reduce our Co2 emissions, and ensure that the UK does not lag behind Europe in workplace protections and environmental standards in future.
The issues that affect our continent now will continue to do so in the future – and Labour will do its utmost to continue to work constructively with the EU and other European nations to maintain the highest of environmental standards.
I appreciate that this may seem slightly disappointing to you – but we have to get into Government to make widespread, real, lasting change and that has to be our focus.
Thank you for writing to me and if there is anything else I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will do what I can to help.
He was right. I was disappointed. So I wrote back and asked to meet. Today, I got that meeting.
I started by covering some of the same ground from my letter. I’d worked in this field in one way or another for a long time, originally thought the “business as usual” scenario was a sort of scary straw man and assumed we would respond by slashing our emissions. In fact we have followed the business as usual path, and if anything things have been worse. The future looks dire.
I mentioned some of the stats in Caroline Russell AM’s recent research on the climate impacts in London – that two thirds of flats would be overheating by 2030, and 643 schools are at a high risk of flooding.
I pointed out that, according to his profile on They Work for You, Steve Reed has missed 5 out of 15 significant votes on climate change, voted against restrictions on fracking, and has failed to vote for extra taxes on aviation and motoring. He didn’t really comment.
Of the last 100 questions he tabled, none have been about climate change. He is campaigning on important issues, like dangerous cladding. He doesn’t have to wait for a Labour government to be effective. But he isn’t prioritising this. I asked him to, and he talked about his different priorities and needing to focus.
I asked him to attend the debate on the systemic risks to pension funds posed by fossil fuel investments led by Ed Davey MP this coming Wednesday. He said he had tried to speak at a recent climate emergency debate but wasn’t chosen, and didn’t feel that presenteeism – just turning up – would help. I suggested it showed he cared about the issue, but he wanted to focus on practical work he could do to make a difference.
We talked about some of the things he had supported while briefly leader of Lambeth Council, when it was trying to be a “co-op council” (an ambition long since squashed by his successors). He had pushed Croydon Council to go with a mass solar co-op scheme, but it turned into one poxy pilot in Thornton Heath.
I asked if he would back more controversial policies, like the frequent flyer levy (he asked me to send him evidence on it so he could push it within Labour) and curbing car usage in Croydon North. But then he got talking about voters, and what they care about, and how Labour struggles with ‘aspirational working class’ voters in outer London that don’t like Labour stopping them from using their cars. He said in all his community meetings across the constituency, nobody has ever raised climate change or air pollution other environmental issues, except very local things like litter.
But… but. He did say that if there was a community campaign calling on the council to do something more radical, he would like to back it. So he asked me – and the Crystal Palace Transition Town I’m part of – to propose three things and campaign for the council to adopt them. He could then back us.
So this is where I now need to decide what to do next. I might write to him again, or ask for another meeting, or try to get other people in his constituency to do one or other of these things. I’d appreciate your comments and suggestions on this.
What three things should I push the council to do, which he could back? I thought perhaps:
- Start closing roads to through traffic, to create safe walking and cycling routes especially around schools.
- Oppose the expansion of Gatwick Airport (so far the council has backed it).
- Work with other London boroughs, the GLA and energy co-ops to install solar panels on every council building, every new home built by its company Brick by Brick, and every other roof space it can get its hands on.
What else could I push Steve Reed to do? Are there initiatives – perhaps from Green Alliance or IPPR – that I could ask him to engage with, and what specific ways could he do that?
What current policy debates in the Labour Party could he weigh in on, to back stronger action on the climate crisis?
Answers below, please! And while you’re at it, why not write to your own MP?