The climate and economic struggles are inseparable: The rich must pay


“The key issue isn’t whether we should take urgent climate action but who pays.”

By Nella Broome

With Rishi Sunak racing to roll back green policies and Keir Starmer conceding the territory over London’s Ultra-low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the real choices about who pays for climate action and inaction have become a dominant question in British politics.

For the working class majority, this is a struggle we can’t afford to lose. It’s the difference between a secure life on a safe planet where we can afford to heat our homes and pay for food or protecting the short-term political interests of an elite that is both profiting from our planet’s destruction and the soaring cost of living.

As scientists warn that July 2023 is almost certainly the hottest month on record, wildfires across Mediterranean Europe and Northern Africa bring home the horrifying reality of climate breakdown at our door. The flames are both wrecking livelihoods and nature there and breaking important parts of the global food system that we all rely on.

The UN Secretary-General summed it up well: “The era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived. The level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead”.

But against this new reality, there is a chorus of right-wing politicians seeking to make climate policies the centrepiece of a new culture war and claiming that we cannot afford to take action while a cost-of-living crisis is hitting the living standards of millions.

Of course, the pretence that delaying climate action is about helping working people is a cynical deceit. These are the same right-wing politicians who have failed time and time again to tackle the cost of living crisis and refuse to go after the oil and gas companies that are driving up inflation and our energy bills. 

It is true that action to slash carbon emissions and adapt to climate breakdown will require huge investment. But the cost of inaction would be many times more costly and sacrifice the lives of hundreds of millions.  

The climate and economic crises will become ever more intertwined. For example, food prices will be driven upwards by the growing number of floods and droughts that will destroy crop harvests.

We can already see how not acting hits ordinary people with the Tories’ failure over 13 years to put in place policies to transition the economy to low-carbon. Instead, David Cameron decided to “cut the green crap” early on. They ended schemes to insulate our homes and put the break on renewable energy projects costing most households £600 a year on fuel bills. 

They have left our economy more exposed to the volatile costs of fossil fuels than many, bringing with it painfully higher levels of inflation and saddling us all with the costs of subsidising gas bills. Money that has gone straight into corporate profits.

Now, with Sunak preparing to ditch or dilute the Tories’ previous climate commitments, we need to be clear:  the key issue isn’t whether we should take urgent climate action but who pays.

Labour must not cede to this idea that we can’t afford climate action, but robustly defend and build on its own ‘green prosperity’ plan.

Ed Miliband is right to come out arguing that Labour’s plans are critical to cutting energy bills and creating good jobs and that the vital principle of the transition must be that everyone benefits, in particular lower and middle-income families.

Measures such as ULEZ and switching from gas boilers to heat pumps will require proper support packages so people already squeezed by the cost of living crisis aren’t priced out. We should learn from examples such as France where low-income households will be able to hire electric cars for just £88 a month from next year. Or the 20 countries across Europe with higher installation rates of pumps than here.

From proper Windfall Taxes on oil and gas giants, to wealth taxes on the super-rich who have most driven the climate crises, to public ownership of key energy sectors, we can ensure that it is not the vast majority of people who need to pay for this transition.

The Tories may think that bringing climate into the centre of their culture wars will serve to mobilise what’s left of their base and distract the rest of us from their record of failure as we head towards the general election.

But Keir Starmer shouldn’t mistake climate action for a ‘barnacle on the boat’ to be hacked off for a smoother sail towards electoral victory. Opinion polls consistently show that climate action is popular and seen as a national priority across all but a minority of the electorate.

Indeed by diluting its green commitments, Labour risks losing votes. In Uxbridge, the Green Party won more votes than the Tory majority over Labour. Instead of capitulating to the Tory campaign against ULEZ, Starmer should have committed to a fairer support package for the small number of households affected.

Climate action can be the basis for creating vast numbers of quality jobs, ensuring our economy leads on the new industries and this can help rebuild the economy in areas battered by decades on neo-liberalism.

In France, the climate movement managed to inspire the ‘gilet jaune’ yellow vest movement behind the slogan “end of the month, end of the world – the same fight”. Now it’s the urgent job of the left in Britain to inspire unity around economic and climate justice.

‘Green Not Greed’ banner held at The Big One demonstration organised by a wide-range of environmental and socials groups on April 21st, 2023. Photo credit: Sam Browse, Labour Outlook archive

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