There’s a democratic crisis at the heart of the climate emergency

We are more concerned about global warming than ever before. Some 85% of respondents to a recent survey registered their concern around climate change, while 52% noted that they are ‘very concerned’.[1]  

Who can blame them? The recent series of heat-waves around the globe and the temperature records broken during them has brought home to many the need for effective and immediate climate action in an unprecedented way. 

This growth in awareness has been boosted in part thanks to a re-invigorated climate movement that has succeeded in putting the crisis on the agenda like never before. No longer satisfied with piece-meal actions by individual consumers, this movement has turbo-charged demand for a systemic response to climate change. Over the last 6 months, groups such as Labour for a Green New Deal, the Youth Climate Strikers, Reclaim the Power and Extinction Rebellion, among many others, have highlighted that if we are to have a chance of preventing run-away climate change, policy needs to change. 

This upsurge in climate action painted the backdrop against which the United Kingdom became the first nation to officially declare an environmental and climate emergency in May. This measure was a great symbolic victory, with Extinction Rebellion achieving one of it’s three initial demands. Yet, while a useful step, this sadly does not legally require that the government take any particular action on climate change.[2] 

Our current climate laws can’t take the heat

One legally binding measure compelling the UK government to take action on the climate is the Climate Change Act 2008. Through this, the goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 was set. The act set up a mechanism of ‘carbon budgets’ that require the government to set a cap on emissions over a five-year period. So far, five such budgets have been set covering emissions up to 2032. The act also set up the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to assess and monitor these targets. 

So has the Climate Change Act has delivered the change we need? I’m afraid there is good news and bad news. The good news is that not only did the UK meet its first two five-year budgets, it’s also on track to meet the third budget taking us up to 2022. The bad news is that, in addition to the Committee warning that the 2023-2027 budget is not on track, these targets themselves may not be enough.[3] 

With some of the effects of climate change being felt a lot sooner than previously forecast, there have been calls to greatly scale up the rate of emissions reduction. In response, some local authorities have set independent targets, some demanding net-zero emissions by 2030.[4] 
Whether it’s causes or impact, everything about climate change is deeply unequal. As previously highlighted by one of my colleagues on the Unlock Democracy blog, wealthy fossil fuel companies exert inordinate influence on the political system. Additionally, recent reports have highlighted the way in which those that can afford to can simply buy protection from the impact of climate change, leaving the poor and vulnerable in an ever more precarious position.[5]  

With a striking majority of the population now concerned about climate change, you would reasonably expect this to translate into action. In reality, the government has gone backwards. A parliamentary report released this week showed that there are ‘gaping holes in policy’.[6] This has been exasperated by subsidy cuts for things like onshore wind, solar power and low-emission cars. Then there’s the cancellation of plans for zero-carbon homes and incentives for low-carbon power generation. When it comes to the climate, the government simply does not embody the values of the people. 

A constitution for the climate?

Certain laws passed by parliament form one component of the UK’s unwritten constitution. The Human Rights Act 1998 have been given constitutional importance, and the Climate Change Act 2008 could also be said to have some constitutional value, but much of the debate around this is merely speculative at this stage. As Gavin Barker has noted, some countries have enshrined ‘rights of nature’ in their written constitutions. In places such as Ecuador, this has provided a robust legal framework in the face of big corporate polluters like Chevron. These constitutional guarantees embed climate action into the political systems of these countries in a way that cannot simply be overturned by one corrupt government that comes to power.  

September’s global Climate Strike will continue bringing climate justice to the foreground of the political agenda. The policies needed to avert a climate catastrophe are largely known. A green industrial revolution that provides jobs and infrastructure has a growing consensus behind it. The only people who don’t seem to be onboard are the old political elite.

Unfortunately, the pressures of climate change leave us little room to breathe. The last thing we need now is being forced to defend the few barely-adequate legal protections already in existence. As with human rights, the need to strengthen protections against environmental breakdown is now overwhelming. Maybe it’s time to codify climate action. 

[1] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/climate-change-fears-gripping-britain-poll-reveals-85-are-worried-about-warming-the-highest-figure-a4218251.html

[2]

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48126677

[3] https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/reducing-carbon-emissions/how-the-uk-is-progressing/ 

[4] https://www.climateemergency.uk/blog/half-of-uk-local-authorities-declare-a-climate-emergency-in-just-eight-months/ 

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-crisis-rich-poor-wealth-apartheid-environment-un-report-a8974231.html 

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/22/uk-must-reduce-personal-vehicle-ownership-meet-zero-carbon-target-mps-report 

The Left Needs to Call for a New Constitution

In the last week, we’ve witnessed some of the most brazen abuse of parliamentary procedure seen in modern times. In an attempt to deliver his extreme no-deal Brexit vision, the Prime Minister moved to prorogue parliament. This means that parliament will be forced into recess for five weeks; the longest shutdown since 1945. 

While MPs scrambled to pass legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit before the shutdown, people took to the streets to protest this attack on democracy. Mobilised largely by the organised left, 100,000s of individuals across the UK swelled rallies calling to ‘stop the coup’ and defend democracy. The question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips was ‘how could a prime minister, with a mandate from just 0.2% of the population, work the political system in such a way as to pass such an extreme measure with no clear majority support?’ Naturally, this reawakened an age-old and oft-neglected subject: the maze of conventions and common law that we call our uncodified constitution. 

Commenting in the Guardian, columnist and senior economics commentator, Aditya Chakrabortty, stated that Britain is ‘mired in a democratic crisis’. He further acknowledged that this is not just confined to one particular part of the political system but something that ‘features across our everyday lives’. To end this crisis, he argues that we need to go beyond just thinking in terms of legalistic systems and the physical location of parliament. We need to achieve practical goals to show the public why they should engage with politics. For this, he prescribes, among other things, ‘laying on classes in how politics and economics work and why they matter’. 

The problem is, as sorely needed as better education is, anyone looking to learn more about our political system may notice a glaring issue with it: it’s not designed for most people. At the heart of that system are state structures barely reformed since 1689. It is said to be a flexible system that is meant to evolve over time, but in reality it has concentrated power in the hands of a small elite who know how to play the system. As the late Tony Benn once wrote, the few democratic measures that have been built into this system, largely after periods of great struggle, are “accepted on sufferance by the governing class”. 

In 2017, Labour fought an election with a manifesto calling for a constitutional convention. Though this didn’t specify what exactly this would mean, it reflected the need for the left to tackle the issue of our out-of-date political institutions. Traditionally, Labour and the wider left has shied away from the cause of constitutional change, instead focusing on the need for legislative change to win crucial improvements for the working class. As long as the political climate and electoral-favour held out, we could more or less count on this strategy of using the state as it is to win material demands. The growing democratic crisis, however, coupled with the regrouping of the global right, shows us that now, more than ever, we need to get serious about a democratic revolution. 

We should not underestimate the anti-democratic potential of the wave that leaders such as Boris and Trump have rode in on. It’s not a coincidence that we can now see populist right-wing demagogues around the world echoing each other’s inflammatory rhetoric, looking to scape-goat minorities and turn whole communities against one another. Over the last three decades, neoliberal capitalism has sought to buy our consent with the promise of unprecedented wealth. We could have it all if we simply accepted the corporate takeover of public assets, a bonfire of regulations meant to protect our rights and stagnant wages to maximise profits. The public largely complied with this, that is until the credit bubble burst in 2008; a result of the inherent chaos of a system based on debt. 

Faced with new challenges, such as the loss of legitimacy and environmental breakdown, the old order has had to work hard to find new ways of maintaining our consent. From Brazil to the US, from Hungary to Indonesia, we can see the flourishings of a new kind of dictatorial capitalism, scarily reminiscent of ghosts from our not-so-distant past. The pretence to individual liberty that underpinned neoliberalism has been stripped in favour of security. It is in this context that we should view the Prime Minister’s most recent actions. The parliamentary shut down is pure shock therapy. The aim of Boris’s no-deal aspirations is to further remodel the economy and political system in favour of the mega-rich through sheer brute force. 

Facing this crisis, our structural lines of defence are extraordinarily weak. An analogy that could be used to describe our constitutional arrangements is that of a house. To be safe enough to live in, a house needs to be built with strong support beams. Instead of having solid beams made of steel, our home relies on a number of people to hold it up. There’s nothing really stopping those people from moving out of place, leaving the structure to collapse in on us, other than the fact that they’ve always held up the house and for some reason we trust their intentions. 

A new and written constitution would not be a magical cure-all tonic for the problems we face. What we have seen in events around the world in recent times is the way in which power can be abused in any political system. What a new constitution could do for us is simply give us a better fighting chance. With the reemergence of a serious parliamentary left with a shot of gaining power, we have a historic opportunity to start building the kind of society founded on equality and justice we’ve always dreamed of. 

We need to take confidence in this opportunity. The change we seek shouldn’t be limited to what one government may be able to achieve in one electoral cycle, only for those gains to be easily swept aside should the Conservatives ever return to power. Constitutional projects from Ecuador to Portugal show us that it is possible to take key social and economic rights and embed them at the very heart of a political system. Our own project of this kind, engaging the public in shaping the political system, could help build the popular consent for a long-lasting democratic socialist transformation of our society. After all, when it comes to such generation-defining issues as austerity and the climate, polling shows just how big the gulf between the public and the political establishment is. So, let’s not keep burdening ourselves with the weight of our out-of-date constitution. It’s time to bring the house down and start again.