Rob Whitehead: Regardless of the party, London and other cities need green politicians in power

Our political system needs to catch up with Extinction Rebellion

A megacity suffers mega-floods, and it’s our fault. Last week New York. It could be London next week. The flash floods in early August were just a foretaste of what was to come. Our greenhouse gas emissions lead to extreme weather events and cause disasters. That link is now “an established fact,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The World Meteorological Organization agrees. Global warming is not just a concern of the next generation or the global south. Many have been on this page for a long time. However, our political leaders do not appear.

This failure led to Extinction Rebellion (XR) and sparked Greta Thunberg’s school strikes. They set out to change the political weather through direct action and protests. And they were pretty good at it. The United Kingdom, London and most of London’s boroughs subsequently declared a climate emergency. But the pandemic stopped XR, and most of the political momentum it generated has evaporated.

We need to rebuild that political energy. Global responsibility alone should motivate us. But London is also increasingly exposed to flooding and other weather-related disasters. Perhaps worse, we are also risking the city’s reputation, with dire consequences. Cities compete for the bright, energetic, and genius, so their reputation is important. The citizens of tomorrow increasingly want to be part of the solution. As consumers, they will sip “carbon-negative” lager and reject fast fashion in favor of “regenerative and restorative clothing”. The most mobile, and often the smartest and most productive, are likely to stay away from cities that are not up to the challenges of sustainability, threatening a downward spiral.

We are all increasingly agreeing that action needs to be taken, but so far this has not resulted in major policy changes. So XR reappeared in August and brought parts of central London to a standstill. They are a powerful reminder that we have not yet directly mastered the challenge of climate change. Why has our political system not caught up with the protests?

This is not because the Greens cannot gain power. In France they run big cities and Paris is in fact governed by a red-green coalition. In Germany, the Economist predicts with reasonable certainty that the Greens will be in the federal government in the fall. In Scotland, the Greens have just reached a power-sharing agreement. And the Greens run Brighton, a city just 80 kilometers south of London.

At the national level, our first-past-the-post system is jointly responsible. But see what UKIP has achieved anyway – the Brexiteers have refined their vote to a partial takeover of the Conservatives. And local elections are friendlier for upstart people. The threshold of getting a foothold in a district or causing a sensation in the mayoral or London general elections is much lower. In addition, London is a “progressive” city. Already at the center of the protests it could become a hotbed for green political success. Still, the candidate for Mayor of Green London received only 7.8 percent of the vote this year. The Greens only hold three of the 25 seats in the London Assembly.

It wouldn’t matter if the big parties took up the challenge. Sure, they’ve shown some enthusiasm for the green agenda, and that has resulted in real change. The decarbonization of our energy supply has been remarkable, and measures such as the Ultra Low Emission Zone and banning the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2030 are radical measures pushed by the London Labor Mayor and the current Conservative government, respectively. In fact, our decarbonization efforts have been among the best by international standards, with emissions falling 40 percent in 30 years.

However, today we know, thanks to the work of the IPCC, the UK Climate Change Committee and others, that the next 40 percent is needed both much harder and more urgently. And this is not sufficiently understood by political leaders. New radical, detailed, funded plans that will quickly wean us off our remaining reliance on fossil fuels, from gasoline for cars to gas for heating, to the carbon in the goods we buy and the things we build without Worsening the inequalities we are already too happy to tolerate are urgently needed. As the pandemic has shown, an emergency response is quick to break new ground, makes mistakes, can cost huge sums, but pushes and adapts until we have clarity.

This requires political imagination, courage and leadership. We urgently need mainstream politics to change, to face the climate challenge and to help us act in emergency situations. Whatever the party, we need Greens in power.

Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at the Center for London, the website of which this article was first published. Follow Rob on Twitter.

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