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At a time when we need it most, political consensus on climate is under threat | Science & Tech News

In the early 1980s, the US labour movement coined the term “just transition”.  

Clean air and water laws it had supported on health and environmental grounds had begun driving thousands of Americans out of their jobs.

If environmental protections are going to benefit society, as the “just transition” argument goes, governments must ensure livelihoods they disrupt or destroy are created elsewhere.

The term has become fashionable among today’s environmentalists.

Without the promise of a “just transition”, how can consensus be reached, and urgent progress made towards, the huge societal changes we need to make to avert climate catastrophe?

Yet Thursday’s by-election result in Uxbridge is an example of that test being failed. And it could turn out to be a costly one.

The Conservative candidate won the election after campaigning against the Labour mayor of London’s pollution-busting Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ).

Cleaner air in London would benefit everyone, particularly the poorest, but with living standards their lowest in a generation or more, how can the poorest who rely on a car, right now afford to replace it without help?

Whether or not the ULEZ policy will turn out to be unfair on the poorest is a matter of debate. But the Conservative campaign benefitted from people’s understandable anxiety that they were being expected to give up too much – at a time when they could afford it least.

The Just Stop Oil campaign is another, more extreme, example.

London's Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is to be expanded in August
London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) will be expanded in August

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Frustrated by a lack of political progress, motivated by the undeniable urgency to reduce fossil fuel emissions, high-viz clad, paint- and glitter-throwing protesters are trying to force action by making other people’s lives temporarily miserable.

Whether it’s stopping traffic or tennis matches – their aim is to force politicians to get tough on fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, targeting ordinary people against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis looks like it’s pushing politicians to do the opposite.

Rishi Sunak’s government already stands accused of being ambivalent towards net-zero. Now, some in the Conservative Party are trying to weaponise anger against Just Stop Oil to attack Labour.

In response, Labour has gone pretty quiet about net-zero too, and reacted to the ULEZ by-election loss by saying the policy needs a “rethink”.

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ULEZ expansion ‘difficult but right decision’

After years of political consensus over the need for bold action to deliver net-zero as quickly as possible, it looks as though both parties may end up shelving, or at least down-playing, green policies, afraid they might lose the votes of those who feel they’ll lose out most because of them.

And that’s a major political failure, especially as the world looks like it’s well on course for its hottest year in recorded history.

It’s become a bit of a cliche, but the rebuilding of the economy that’s needed to avoid even greater climate extremes, offers to create the new jobs and a healthier future. Just what most people in Britain want their government to deliver fairly.

But for the moment it looks like we might be moving away from that future, not towards it.

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