Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Westminster’s inconvenient truth

Britain has lost its place as a world leader on climate change, writes Melanie Smallman

This summer saw horrific floods in Texas and Bangladesh and one of the most powerful storms in history roaring across the Atlantic coast of the United States. While Donald Trump tries to take the US out of the Paris climate agreement, this summer also saw the launch of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel. Following up his 2006 film,An Inconvenient Truth, which used the Hollywood screen to bring the issue of climate change to life, the latest instalment joins the dots between recent extreme weather events to show how climate change is happening right now. It is a technical and sometimes slow film, presenting countless graphs of temperature changes, but it is nevertheless powerful, sometimes shocking and provides an important reminder of how much time has been lost in tackling perhaps the biggest existential crisis facing humankind.

Back in 2006, when the original movie was first released, I was working in government for the former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair – who went on to share the Nobel peace prize with Gore a year later. With David Miliband as environment secretary, we felt we were taking the right action to avoid catastrophic climate change. Labour passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, making the United Kingdom the first country in the world to have legally binding emission reduction targets, and we were jubilant when the rest of the world signed up to the Copenhagen agreement shortly afterwards. Fast forward to 2017, when the effects of climate change are undoubtedly being felt in the UK and elsewhere, it is difficult not to reflect on how times have changed.

First, Britain has lost its place as a world leader on most issues, but especially climate change. Interestingly this was shown clearly, but perhaps unwittingly, in the film. Illustrating Gore’s role in international climate agreements, the film shows clips of the former vice-president speaking to world leaders at last year’s Paris talks – Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, various Indian ministers and business leaders, but no David Cameron.The only British politicians featured were historic shots of Labour’s John Prescott and Gordon Brown.

More encouragingly though, despite the recent failure of UK and US leaders, the film showed how action to tackle climate change was happening at a pace, but at a local not national level. Whether it was the Texan mayor who was determined that his city would be 100 per cent renewable, or the Florida city leaders who were rebuilding their town to accommodate rising sea-levels, we saw countless examples of local politicians with the passion, determination and power to make a serious impact to prevent future climate change. And this is what we have been showcasing in SERA, Labour’s environment campaign – Labour councils around the country understand that moving to a low-carbon future is our best hope for a strong and stable economy in the future. Of course they would be able to move further and faster with a UK government that took climate change seriously. But nevertheless local government leaders’ are transforming our carbon-based economy. In 10 years time, when Gore makes his next sequel, the story of their local Labour successes and national Tory inaction will be the inconvenient truth for those left grappling with this vital issue.


Melanie Smallman is co-chair of SERA. She tweets at @melaniesmallman

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Melanie Smallman

is co-chair of SERA

1 comment

  • In my city region, due to a massive surge in population, we have cut down and dug up many acres of ecological habitats: until we clamp down on population growth we can do nothing about the ‘urban heat island’ effect.

    Labour should now make a promise to stop building airports and roads – and Labour MPs/MEPs/members should resolutely promise not to fly on planes again – thus setting an example.

    It’s time for our politicians to get serious about global warming.

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