London’s environmental protests show that action must be taken on the climate - but things must be based on evidence, not fanaticism. A major global capital grinding to a halt because of a political issue is usually evidence that there is some level of support for the cause. However, climate science is too complicated to be distilled into sound bites, the evidence too subtle to lend itself to revolutionary fervour. It is time governments and scientists started working together - and took the ground away from the protestors who want to do nothing more than disrupt.
I believe that in hindsight, these protests may prove to be a watershed moment in public and governmental attitudes to climate change; in the UK and maybe across the world.
The response of the authorities – who barely enforced the law against what were unlicensed and clearly disruptive protests which incorporate a number of serious public order offences - shows that they know this. Their reaction has been completely different to more niche or extremist demonstrations seen in recent years.
Perhaps the most startling thing about these protests - and the reason why the elite appear to be listening to some extent - is their demographic. Whereas most demonstrations are based on the precariat of immigrants and/or young people, this is Middle England’s very own protest movement. News reports about a grandmother in the west of England driven to support civil disobedience out of fear for her grandchildren’s future has a different emotional resonance to feral youths trashing banks.
And so, we have a situation where significant political figures and commentators are siding with the protestors - or at least giving them significant ideological dearth to communicate their concerns.
This is a very un-British reaction. Whereas it is acceptable, or even expected, to sympathise with France’s Yellow Vests in the trendier cafes of Paris, London’s nonchalance towards the political establishment has only been exacerbated by Brexit and the ensuing farce.
Perhaps the protestors’ aims have been helped by the fact that there is something in our collective subconscious telling us that we must do something about climate change.
This extends to the political class: My impression is that dealing with climate change has either been something political leaders have put off for the next administration or a fashionable or tokenistic cause they could use in the run up to elections (for example, by hugging a husky or riding a solar powered car).
As consensus builds that further delay on climate action could risk increased civil disturbance, and maybe even national security compromises, the question is what should governments do now.
The worlds of policy on the one hand and climate action on the other are quite separate. There is a real lack of workable, scalable climate policies for government decision makers to draw on. One of the reasons for this is that the policy industry (think tanks, research institutes and academics) know what their clients want - and that usually means anything other than sudden, large scale changes to climate policy.
This creates a vacuum where unscalable, unworkable or even counterproductive policies can be pushed on governments keen to be “seen to be doing something.”
There is no better example than tax-based policies like London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), which makes it prohibitively expensive to drive a car in London. This may seem like a reasonable disincentive, but the experience of many of these policies for citizens is that governments are simply using the environment as yet another excuse to tax low and middle income workers.
Another poor policy technique is to pick a relatively small issue and make it into a bogeyman, with the implicit message that if only we can solve this one problem, global warming will be reversed, the ice caps will refreeze and all will be well.
Examples of this problem are the inexplicable war on plastic bags in much of the Western world, and the EU’s banning of palm oil when the alternatives such as soybean and rapeseed are even more harmful for the environment. Western governments making decisions that appease superficial “woke” campaigns (and maybe even secure them some “green” votes) will ultimately make the problem worse, not better. The only way to demonstrate that these issues are universal and beyond party political considerations is to base all these decisions on rigorous science, which unfortunately is not happening currently.
In the long term, we may need to wait for a new generation of political leaders who are as comfortable discussing environmental issues with scientists as our current crop of leaders are discussing defence issues with weapons contractors, for instance.
Until then, we will have to make do with protesters who perhaps have good intentions but not much else.
Dr Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy and Programs with the Center for Global Policy in Washington and a national security and foreign policy specialist with the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute