Climate Extremism: Democracy And Progress Are Facing Extinction

  • Date: 19/07/19
  • Iain Martin, The Times

Climate activists are bossy extremists who feel they have the right to wreck the economy without even consulting voters

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Extinction Rebellion was busy blockading traffic in Bristol this week as part of its plan to save the planet. It turns out, though, that traffic jams caused by hippies and radicalised youngsters don’t go down well with everyone.

A caller to BBC Bristol claimed that he had been told by doctors to rush to his dying father’s bedside before it was too late. The tailback caused by the protest meant he did not get there, he said.

The Bristol incident is another indicator that the argument over climate change is fast becoming a defining dividing line in Britain’s dreaded culture war. Along with the national grudge match that is the fight over Brexit, the battle over the environment is entrenching divisions over class, political attitudes and tribal affiliation.

Younger voters tend to be deeply concerned about global warming. They blame climate change on the alleged self-absorption of a consumerist older generation greedy for more GDP growth than the poor old planet can handle. The radicals want immediate action against cars, planes and gas boilers. And they are convinced they are unimpeachably right.

There is a snag. The evidence of recent years is that bossy middle-class people lecturing their supposed inferiors (educationally and economically) is not going well. Resentment and a desire to kick back against sanctimonious, hectoring elites played a notable part in the Brexit referendum result.

Will most voters like what comes next on the green front? To deliver on the government’s pledge to take Britain carbon neutral by 2050, consumers must be told soon by their betters about the expensive replacement of millions of gas boilers, about compulsory and ineffective induction hobs in the kitchen and potentially punitive taxation on petrol and flying.

Extinction Rebellion says that even the 2050 target is woefully insufficient. Britain must go carbon neutral by 2025; growth must effectively end; and the mass disruption on the streets will intensify until they get what they want.

Already overstretched police forces are deeply worried by Extinction Rebellion’s protest plans. Bristol this week is just a midsummer rehearsal for much bigger pre-Brexit protests planned for October, senior police officers warned yesterday. The Times reports that the police are seeking much tougher sentences for repeat offenders.

The concerns of senior police officers reflect the warnings in a report, Extremism Rebellion, published this week by the think tank Policy Exchange. The authors, one of whom, Richard Walton, is a former Metropolitan Police head of counterterrorism, have been criticised for branding the protesters as radical and extremist anarchists hellbent on ending democracy. But they are dead right. Democracy is at risk. Extinction Rebellion doesn’t accept basic democratic tenets and wants to replace the British parliamentary system.

This became clear listening to the superficially reasonable-sounding Rupert Read, the philosopher turned official spokesman for ER, who was on air defending the protests this week. Read has failed several times in his attempts to get into parliament. Might there be a connection between this and his seeking to alter the political system under which he has failed?

Extinction Rebellion isn’t remotely anti-democracy, it simply wants a new kind of democracy, Read told the BBC. This could sound appealing, given the way that the Brexit farce has undermined faith in our institutions. ER proposes a citizens’ assembly — a soothing term — to tell ministers and MPs (the MPs we elect) what to do. “A citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice will break this deadlock,” says the organisation, “by giving politicians access to public judgments that have been reached in a fair and informed way.”

The model has been used in several countries to unlock difficult moral subjects. But no country has applied it — for good reason — to the task of completely remodelling its economy and society and ending economic growth.

The inherent inconsistencies of the citizens’ assembly wheeze when applied to economics are glaring. What happens if the citizens chosen for the assembly don’t propose precisely what Extinction Rebellion wants? ER has said that this climate emergency is an existential crisis, hence the blockades, so it seems unlikely to back off, even if voters at a subsequent election discover the size of the bill and throw out the foolish MPs who handed control to a citizens’ assembly, presumably established under a watching committee headed by Rupert Read.

There is a fundamental democratic objection. Anyone seeking to do to the economy what Extinction Rebellion plans to do should surely put it in a party manifesto, be scrutinised by the media and voters, stand sufficient candidates, win by beating the other parties, form a government if they have the seats and, via legislation and/or referendum, implement the end of the economy as we know it.

No wonder Extinction Rebellion eschews the conventional approach. It will never be a winner. While the public is receptive to generalised ideas of protecting the planet there will be nothing like a majority of voters for a slate of policies to ban flying and economic growth when British emissions have fallen sharply and new economies are pumping out so much more.

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