The Climate Election
This speech was delivered at the November Climate Strike by Imran Mulla.
In 1929, shortly after the Wall Street Crash, the United States of America fell into what became known as the Great Depression. Half of all banks in the country failed. Unemployment rose to 25%. House prices plummeted by 30% and international trade collapsed. The mid-west and southern plains were reeling from an onslaught of severe dust storms wrought by a devastating ecological crisis, the Dust Bowl. President Hoover’s Republican government had neither the drive nor the vision to lift the nation out of its predicament.
And then came the 1932 election, in which the Democratic candidate, Franklin D Roosevelt, won a landslide victory. On the night of his inauguration in March 1933, President Roosevelt set about dismantling the gold standard, and in doing so he transformed the globalised financial system in order to institute what became known as the New Deal. He subjugated Wall Street and subordinated global market forces to the will of the democratically elected government. He ended the austerity policies favoured by his predecessor, restored some semblance of economic security, rapidly increased the rate of employment and pursued an environmental strategy to solve the Dust Bowl crisis, planting nearly three billion trees and slowing soil erosion on forty million acres of farmland. The New Deal was not without its flaws; indeed, Roosevelt’s administration was chaotic and its policy objectives often incoherent. He did, however, succeed in saving America from collapse - and a slide into fascism.
Many years later, in the late 2000s, another extreme financial crisis occurred. Just over a decade ago, in the wake of the Wall Street crash, a group of fringe economists and environmentalists began drafting a plan which aimed to deal with the credit crunch in a way that could transform the economy and protect the ecosystem. Drawing on Roosevelt’s actions, they named their then obscure strategy the Green New Deal. Now in November 2019, the Green New Deal is everywhere. In America, several Democratic candidates include a version of it in their list of policy proposals. Here in the United Kingdom, we are well into a General Election in which the Labour party includes a Green New Deal in their manifesto.
Faced with the reality of climate breakdown our government has proved impotent and pathetic. They are held ransom to the interests of both the fossil fuel industry and the whims of global finance; our world is indeed governed by market forces. Witness the Conservative party, and the agony of our blustering Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a man lacking even a single shred of dignity or integrity. He has achieved his ambition of becoming Prime Minister, and yet he was probably having more fun when he was just a journalist writing racial slurs in the Daily Telegraph. Now he has to actually run a country, and simply cracking jokes and talking in Latin will not do the job. The Conservative manifesto commits to a profoundly disappointing net zero carbon emissions target of 2050. Their policies pander to the fossil fuel industry, which should come as no surprise given that they are funded by the fossil fuel industry. The Liberal Democrats, close ideological relatives to the Conservatives, have a marginally more ambitious net zero target of 2045; they remain dutiful slaves to the economic status quo. The Green party, of course, proposes an environmentally sound and admirable Green New Deal – and they are invaluable in leading the way with their climate policies – but we must be honest and admit that they don’t actually plan on getting elected. And then there’s Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which just wants to plant a few trees – their climate plan is basically a bit of gardening.
This leaves us with the Labour party, which adopted the Green New Deal at their September conference – for which we climate activists can claim a good deal of credit. The 2030 net zero target has since been disappointingly watered down, but Labour’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ remains exceptionally ambitious. Jeremy Corbyn, speaking at the manifesto launch last Thursday, likened his project to that of Franklin D Roosevelt’s.
My argument today is that this is a General Election of monumental significance, and that we need a government which has the courage to act today with the drive and ambition with which Roosevelt’s did in 1930s America. Free market economists propose carbon taxes which would pressure individuals living in a fossil-fuel based system to lower their own carbon footprints. This approach is fundamentally inefficient and unjust. The Green New Deal, by contrast, proposes that the government invest in alternative energy, transport and land use systems which we can then easily move into: the transition from fossil fuels must be just and equitable, with the costs borne by the wealthiest in society. This, of course, will require a vast amount of government spending, and an incoming Labour government would find themselves locked in a battle with the formidable forces of global finance.
Just as Roosevelt dismantled the gold standard and placed the government’s authority over that of Wall Street’s, so too must a Labour government ensure that the financial system serves us, the people, rather than a small and wealthy elite; only in this way can a green transition possibly be afforded. President Roosevelt was a not a radical, nor was he a revolutionary. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are neither radicals nor revolutionaries. They are reformers who aim to save the system from within, to stop it from cannibalising itself. It was to be expected that the billionaire-owned media would desperately demonise Labour, but those who describe themselves as liberal centrists who are doing so too should understand that they risk facilitating a Conservative victory. They may sneer at us and claim that they are the “grown-ups in the room”, but they offer no transformative vision to counteract Johnson’s shady populism.
Now is not the time for “business as usual” politics, because business as usual spells planet wide catastrophe - now is the time for bold thinking and big spending. We stand on the precipice of great change, and this means that if you can vote you must, and if you can’t vote then you must encourage your family and friends who can to do so. If we are to control our collective destiny and mitigate the damage done to our planet, we must wrench power from the economic elites. Despite the seeming bleakness of the present a brighter future is on the horizon – it shines brightly, and it is ours for the taking.