Going green: eco-dogma or salvation?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


This is ‘a code red for humanity’. So proclaimed the UN secretary general in response to the organisation’s latest climate assessment report in August. The report claims that dangerously rising levels of carbon emissions will lead to more heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms for decades, if not centuries, to come.

This report was closely followed by the discovery of a ‘warming blob’ originating in New Zealand that has contributed to a decade-long drought in parts of South America, while fires were raging through the state of California. In Europe, German and Belgian towns and villages were submerged by floods and UK streets were temporarily turned into rivers. Since then, we’ve seen Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, the tail-end of which caused a deluge across four north-eastern US states, including New York.

It’s not just floods that are bringing UK streets to a halt. The latest round of protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR) have simultaneously highlighted a cause and frustrated working citizens. XR claim the only way to save the planet is by forcing the agenda through radical action. At recent protests across the streets of central London, a speaker declared that ‘your only salvation is to respect the first peoples of this Earth’.

But while protesters demand ‘radical action’, less acknowledged is the ever-growing domination of green thinking across society. In 1987, Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development, made the concept of ‘sustainable development’ mainstream. Since then, governments, public institutions and private corporations alike have embraced environmental imperatives.

After this year’s local election successes, the Green Party is staking a claim to be England’s third party. In Scotland, the Green Party is now entering government alongside the SNP. But in truth, all the major parties have become converts to the environmentalist cause, from Labour’s 2008 Climate Act to its upgrade in 2019 by the blue-green Conservative Party, locking in the UK’s commitment to reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. The Conservative government has made great play of hosting the latest round of climate talks, COP26, in Glasgow in November. Further afield, Greens run most major French cities and are seeking to win this year’s German elections.

Yet the political consensus is at odds with the fact that ‘net zero’ policies – like giving up or severely restricting cheap travel, banning gas boilers and eating less meat – aren’t that popular in practice. Worse, environmentalist solutions can exacerbate the problems. The green-inspired switch away from nuclear power in Germany has not only vastly increased energy prices but resulted in increased emissions – ironically, from the renewed use of coal. A lack of wind in September forced National Grid to fire up coal-fired power stations in the UK.

Critics argue that environmentalist policies are causing harm in the less-developed world, too. The demand from greens for an end to funding for fossil-fuelled energy projects in the less-developed world risks leaving those countries mired in ‘maldevelopment’.

With their policies failing to attract broad support, there is open discussion among some green commentators about how to force through reductions in carbon emissions by undemocratic means, if necessary. Environmentalists have certainly found it easier to persuade politicians to impose regulations than to persuade the rest of us to change our lifestyles.

So how can we solve a problem like climate change? Should it be treated as an emergency that should subsume all other priorities? Do green policies even work or do they make matters worse? Is the problem that political and corporate rhetoric about taking action is just superficial ‘greenwash’, being seen to be green rather than making fundamental changes? Has the political consensus around climate change robbed voters of a chance to have our say?

Dr Shahrar Ali
spokesperson for policing and domestic safety, Green Party; author, Why Vote Green 2015

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
chair, Freiblickinstitut e.V; CEO, Sprachkunst36; author, Off-centre: how party consensus undermines our democracy; Germany correspondent, spiked

Heydon Prowse
satirist; writer and actor, The Revolution Will be Televised, The Ministry of Justice and Revolting; columnist, Wokeyleaks, Spectator

Austin Williams
senior lecturer, Dept of Architecture, Kingston University, London; honorary research fellow, XJTLU, Suzhou, China; author, China’s Urban Revolution: understanding Chinese eco-cities

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question