More than two hundred people dead in western Europe, thousands displaced by floods in China and the Middle East, ‘heat domes’ over Canada and the US taking lives and sparking wildfires, videos of hailstones smashing car windows and clattering against rooftops.
The summer of 2021 has been laced with sobering examples of the climate crisis facing each and every one of us.
“Not only do you feel for the communities that are affected by it, but you feel that it’s something we’re going to see much more of in the coming years,” warns Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary.
“The severity of the extreme weather we’re now getting needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, but especially governments to realise they’re not doing enough.”
Compounding the sight of tube stations submerged in London and homes being flooded in July was a major study by the Met Office. According to its State of the UK Climate report, Britain is already in the midst of disruptive climate change.
For Pollard, the vivid images of the past few months are a “frustrating” reminder of what we know to be true: that “we’re in the middle of a climate crisis”. Despite this, he adds, the public is “being fed a diet of spin and greenwash” by ministers instead of a clear plan to decarbonise the economy, improve the resilience of homes and businesses, and protect and restore nature.
“We will be confronted by even tougher choices and more severe consequences in a few years’ time because we are being convinced by people who should know better, that everything is okay,” he says.
He is critical of Allegra Stratton – spokesperson for this year’s COP26, hosted by the UK – who encouraged the public to limit their impact on the environment by not rinsing their dishes before placing them in the dishwasher. The government, Pollard says, must be much more ambitious in its thinking.
“I do wonder what our international partners must be thinking about Britain when they see reports about that, especially those countries for whom their very existence is under threat by climate change,” he says.
“Be that the communities in Bangladesh facing coastal flooding, or be that island nations that faced being lost under the waves, communities that are facing desertification.
“We’ve got to be relentless in being ambitious and it just felt like a huge backwards step, a self-inflicted wound that we didn’t need to be saying.
“It embarrasses Britain where our ambition looks so pedestrian.”
Asked if he has faith in Stratton, Pollard replies: “There are real question marks over the entire government’s handling of our climate strategy. I don’t think it’s just Allegra Stratton. Coming this close to COP26, I want to see everyone from the prime minister, to [COP26 president] Alok Sharma, to Allegra Stratton up their game.”
The government has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and, among other measures, announced a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030. But Luke Pollard believes ministers aren’t taking the necessary action now to decarbonise the economy.
“I have a real problem with ministers borrowing the language of the environmental left, but not cutting and pasting the policies that make that language work,” he notes.
In place of soundbites, Pollard calls for “a big dollop of honesty”. “We need to be frank with the public that no government on the planet is doing enough,” he warns.
“We need to be honest with people that we all need to take steps to cut emissions and lead more sustainable lives. But because we know that the lion’s share of that is the responsibility of the government to lead by example, we need them to lead the way. And that’s not what we’re seeing.”
Specifically, Pollard fears the interventions the government is calling for “are really only for the people with money in their pockets”, citing the promotion of electric vehicles and the rollout of electric charging points, which he says mainly appear in affluent communities. Ministers are failing to provide direction, he adds, pointing to the recent delay of the UK’s long-awaited Hydrogen Strategy, setting out how the UK plans to utilise the low emission gas.
Luke Pollard also wants the government to think more holistically about the UK’s climate and ecological crises, with species facing extinction and insect numbers dropping. “We can either solve both of them together or we can solve neither of them,” he says, adding that nature-based solutions have a “huge part to play” in dealing with the environmental challenges facing the country.
The UK parliament declared a climate emergency in May 2019. It was a seminal moment for Pollard, who was involved behind the scenes in putting together the motion.
“That motion mattered, and that’s why I’ve had to reevaluate things that I believed in,” he says.
The MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, first elected in 2017, had wanted to see an airport reopen in his native Plymouth. Now, he could only support such a move if it accommodated exclusively electric flights.
With the dramatic images pouring in from around the world, could this summer lead to a similar awakening for the country? “I hope so, but we’ve had these ‘turning points’ before,” Pollard says cautiously. “The government is still missing its climate, tree planting, and clean air targets. So, all the meaningful actions that could have been taken in this period have been replaced with soundbites and press releases.”
Luke Pollard knows that while we all stand to lose in the climate emergency, it will be the poorest who will be hit hardest.
“Pedestrian approaches to the climate crisis will only make it worse,” he says. “There is not a future for any of us unless the action that is taken by government, business and individuals is bold now. That needs to be the approach from governments, councils and companies, not just leading up to COP26 but after as well.”
Asked to sum up what’s at stake, Pollard concludes: “We have this once in a lifetime opportunity to recognise that the inheritance we’re passing onto our children is a rotten one and to change it now.
“If not, our children and our grandchildren will be living on a burning planet. They will ask us, ‘why didn’t you stop this?’, and there won’t be an excuse in the world that will be good enough to answer that question.”