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Caroline Lucas: ‘We’re staring climate catastrophe in the face and Sunak is looking the other way’

The Green Party MP hits out as the PM dithers over whether to attend COP27, and points to real environmental leadership elsewhere

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, addresses campaigners from Fuel Poverty Action. Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

If we got the leaders for the times in which we live, Caroline Lucas would be prime minister. This is no hagiography – it simply reflects the fact that humanity is facing an end-of-days climate apocalypse and the only Green MP in parliament is uniquely equipped to understand it.

How could she not be better than the latest winner of the musical chairs of Tory power, currently demonstrating his inability to understand the magnitude of the problem? Rishi Sunak has excluded key climate figures from his cabinet and initially refused to join other world leaders at the United Nations’ climate conference in Egypt on the grounds that he’s “too busy” for the biggest crisis facing the planet.

When I meet her in Westminster as Liz Truss’s government is collapsing and tell her she should have been the successor instead of the third Conservative premier since August, Lucas looks slightly nonplussed and quips, “Well, it’s looking increasingly likely. After all, everyone else is having a go.”

The urgent need for a climate activist prime minister is underscored by the slew of reports released ahead of next month’s COP27 in Egypt. Government pledges to cut emissions are not enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst effects and we are heading for a catastrophic, irreversible climate breakdown — a devastating 2.8 degrees is projected for the end of the century. A 45% cut in greenhouse gas emissions this decade could give humanity a fighting chance, but they’re projected to grow instead. As the increasingly desperate UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: “If we are not able to reverse the present climate trends, we will be doomed.”

“If yet more evidence were needed, the UN’s latest reports confirm not just that we are in the midst of a climate emergency but that we are staring catastrophe in the face,” Lucas says. “Whilst our new PM has chosen to look the other way by refusing to attend COP27, real climate leaders across our global and local communities are doubling down on the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, urgently transform our economies and secure a just transition to a liveable future.”

Her disdain is warranted. Sunak has demoted current COP president Alok Sharma and climate minister Graham Stewart from his cabinet, picked an unsuitable environment secretary, Therese Coffrey, who hasn’t even read the reports, and won’t allow King Charles, a longtime environmentalist, to attend COP27 either.

The contrast between the slippery, slapdash politicians in charge and the articulate, well-informed Lucas is enormous. It can’t be fun having to watch the Tory psychodrama from the sidelines as they fiddle when Rome burns.

“It feels absolutely maddening, frustrating, infuriating!” she exhales, as she sits down for a coffee in Portcullis House. She sees British politics today as a betrayal of constituents increasingly alarmed by climate change and living costs.

“If someone were to come here from another planet and see just how serious the crisis is that we face in terms of no less than the future of the species on this planet, and understand that we were just spending all our time wondering whether or not the prime minister has sacked a minister, they would think we’ve gone mad,” she says, exasperated.

The UN characterises as “lost” the year since Glasgow hosted COP26 — in which the world saw unprecedented heat, wildfires, droughts, storms and floods from France to Pakistan. It certainly was in the UK, beginning with Boris Johnson leaving Glasgow in a private jet to attend a bash with climate sceptic Charles Moore and plot to save Tory MP Owen Paterson from punishment over breaching lobbying rules. The scandals and two changes of leadership that followed completed an ugly 12 months of inertia.

Yet the Conservatives remain in charge. In 2009, a year before she became the first Green MP, Lucas said while it took 24 years between the first Labour MP and the first Labour government, the Greens needed to move faster because of the urgency.

As alarm bells grow louder, and the public increasingly supports measures to stop climate change, she’s still alone. Have the Greens missed the biggest open goal in political history?

Lucas shifts in her seat, sips her coffee pensively, then sighs. She has the answer but hesitates, knowing it might be dismissed as an excuse, though this does not make it less true. “At the risk of sounding boring, under First Past The Post it’s still horrendously difficult for small parties to get representation,” she says.

Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system shuts out new voices and ensures a parliament does not represent the true views of the country, making a Green government all but impossible. In 2015, the Greens won one seat with 1.16 million votes, approximately a tenth of the votes for the Conservative, who had 331. In 2019, the Conservatives had 365 times the seats with 16 times the vote.

“The political system is so out of sync with the reality on the ground and the consequences of that are pretty existential,” she says. “That’s the sort of paradox and tragic dilemma that I live with every day.”

Fear of wasted votes reduces Green support, even though Lucas maintains many policies, from renationalised rail to green energy, are popular with voters. “If I had a pound for every time someone on the doorstep said ‘I agree with everything you are saying’ but I don’t dare vote for you because I’ll let in the Tories or let in Labour’ under this hideous, dysfunctional, outdated electoral system, I’d be very rich.”

The other problem is the complexity of climate issues, which lack the bombastic appeal of the nativist tropes that helped UKIP overcome the same electoral disadvantages by courting the predominantly right-wing media.

It’s not for want of trying. Lucas is nothing but clear-eyed and firm about climate solutions, which she articulates regularly on social media, in speeches, in many newspaper articles, and in parliament, where she is an active member.Currently, she is putting a bill through parliament on increasing the 8% of land covered by Right to Roam to around 30% – the greater public access to nature is vital for public wellbeing, she says.

Lucas is attached to several climate initiatives, such as the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, and is campaigning for the removal of charitable status from so-called think tanks, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which produce one-sided reports to counter scientific consensus. One of the three MPs to successfully sue the government over Covid contracts, she was named Politician of the Year several times.

This month, Lucas, a former MEP, became vice-chair of the European Movement, which campaigns for a better relationship with the EU. She believes that the UK should get closer to the EU, joining the customs union, signing a veterinary agreement and returning to the scientific Horizon and educational Erasmus programmes, rejoining if the conditions are right and a settled majority wants to. Hard Brexit exasperates her: “If we weren’t so arrogant and bloody-minded, we could have worked with the EU to the advantage of people in our country.”

But she is also a critic, opposing the single currency and the setting of maximum environmental standards that can be imposed on companies. She dislikes the Common Agricultural Policy and agrees that Michael Gove’s policy of changing farm subsidies to reward environmental protections was a singular Brexit benefit. While supportive of the EU’s new green “taxonomy” – which defines environmentally friendly investments with a view to pushing money away from destructive industries – she is aghast that it considers nuclear and gas sustainable transition fuels.

While frustrated by the tortuous decision making process in the European Parliament, she applauds its necessary embrace of compromise.

“I’m very struck by how much more grown-up, frankly, the political process was in Europe,” she tells me now. “When we did get to results they were generally more sustainable and more robust as a result of all of the debate that had gone into forming them.”

In the years since Lucas became a figurehead for the Greens, the party once dismissed as lefty, hippy and inconsequential has polished its image, gaining political currency and making extensive headway in local elections. But she knows this isn’t enough. She desperately needs help in parliament, and hopes Green co-leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay can win seats in the next election.

“One of the most frustrating things about my job, the most difficult thing, is that literally every hour of my day there are 10 things I should be doing and I can only do one of them at any given time,” she says. “I can’t be in the chamber at the same time as talking to you; I can’t be in the select committee either.”

Lucas first entered the political sphere campaigning for nuclear disarmament at the Greenham Common women’s peace protests. Her conviction is undimmed: “In what world does it make sense that we can’t even feed our own people but spend billions on a weapon that would just decimate the world as we know it and kill millions of people? If we’re really saying our security relies on nuclear weapons then we don’t have the moral authority to argue that other countries shouldn’t seek to acquire them.”

In 1986, she joined the Green Party, became an MEP in 1999, returning to UK politics after two terms to become party leader in 2008 and an MP in 2010. All the while she protested, facing fines, reprimands and, at an anti-fracking protest in 2013, arrest.

She has seen many examples of climate measures driving positive change, providing her with a strong riposte to those who think saving the planet is bleak and expensive.

“Nothing that we are talking about in terms of our vision for the future isn’t already happening somewhere in the world,” Lucas explains. She cites cycling-friendly, car-reduced cities in the Netherlands “where they cycle and walk far more than we do in the UK so you’ve got a much healthier cityscape, the air is cleaner, and kids can play in the streets again.”

Then there’s the “Incredible Edible” project in Todmorden, where a community group built a sustainable fresh produce business, inspiring and helping over 800 others worldwide to do the same and influencing policy. In Balcombe, where locals followed their (and Lucas’s) successful anti-fracking campaign by opting for green energy and raising money for solar panels on their village hall to demonstrate the alternatives.

Moving to a zero carbon society means more affordable public transport, less pollution, and preventing fuel poverty by switching to cheaper, sustainable energy and insulating homes, she says.

Here, she likes to cite a 2009 cartoon by Pulitzer prize-winning Joel Pett to demonstrate the irrationality of resisting this vision. It depicts a professor on stage, in front of a white board that displays some benefits that stem from changes required to reduce carbon emissions: “Energy independence; preserve rainforests; sustainability; green jobs; liveable cities; renewables; clean water, air; healthy children, etc”

In the audience, a man asks: “But what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for no reason?”

“And that’s the real prize here – that better world,” Lucas says. “I don’t think anybody would look at the way we live now – the levels of mental health problems, anxiety, loneliness, obesity — and say it’s good for us. It’s not rocket science to say that. What’s offered by the shift to a greener society is not just a healthier planet but a healthier human species.”

Regardless, governments still argue they can’t afford to fight climate change at the speed demanded by scientists, to which Lucas responds, crisply: “We can’t afford the alternative which is an unliveable planet and there is no money on a dead planet.”

This “obsession” with GDP growth at all costs, particularly under the Truss government, was outdated and “banal”, Lucas said. “To call them unsophisticated is too kind.” The affordability argument also fails when you consider how much the UK sacrificed for Brexit, and note the falling price of renewables — now an average nine times cheaper than gas. Had Europe invested more in green energy before the Ukraine war, they wouldn’t be suffering as much from high prices now.

Even laying those aside, Lucas maintains that the money required is not even that enormous in the scheme of things: “I was hosting a meeting in parliament with the Club of Rome, who 50 years ago first put on the map the idea that endless economic growth on a planet of finite resources might just not be possible, and their updated figures show that 2-3% of GDP for the next few decades would sort it. So relatively speaking we’re talking a tiny amount and a lot of it we could redirect from what’s bad now – billions of pounds go into subsidising fossil fuels for example. It’s madness.”

The International Institute for Sustainable Development said in a new report that redirecting $570 billion of annual planned new oil and gas investments could fully finance wind and solar expansion in line with the 1.5 degree target.

Governments often say such demands by campaigners are unaffordable, but the pandemic amply demonstrated how readily entrenched behaviour can change, and that taking action is a choice.

“The way people responded to the messaging around Covid demonstrated that when you do have a shared sense of the threat and consistent messaging from the government then you can persuade people to do things,” Lucas explains. “And the cat is also out of the bag in the sense that we now have evidence that governments can act when they choose. Very early in the pandemic about £13 billion of NHS debt was just wiped off the slate overnight. There was extra funding provided to all local authorities with instructions to use it to house the homeless, and that happened almost overnight.”

So far, the opportunity to refocus after Covid and the energy crisis is being blown, but what angers Lucas most is the ignorance of the origins of Covid, which shows the risks of viruses jumping to humans as industrialised agriculture encroaches into wild areas. “That terrifies me — because experts will tell us that there are thousands of other viruses that could easily make that jump and compared to that, we frankly might have got off lightly. On so many levels lessons are not being learned.”

Before I leave, I quiz Lucas again about her party’s quirks – the co-leadership, nuclear-disarmament in a world cowed by Russia’s threat to Ukraine, the deference to members on policy, and her own support for Jeremy Corbyn. Regardless of merit, don’t they constitute a danger to electability?

She disagrees. On nuclear, nearly 100 countries signed the UN’s treaty to ban nuclear weapons, she says, those in favour are the outliers, not her. Corbyn faced concerns such as anti-semitism and patriotism, but his policies – rail back in public hands, water companies the same, rather than reaping private profit while dumping sewage in rivers — were from the Green manifesto, and popular, she argues.

“I love the way we do politics differently… it’s not as if politics the way we do now is going really well, is it? Nobody’s thinking ‘why can’t they be more like the Conservatives?’, because quite frankly they’re in an utter mess.”

And, depressing as these times are, she finds solace in the energy of the young, who have been protesting, campaigning and supporting the Green movement with growing energy.

“The younger generation fills me with hope. They’re the ones who are going to live through the worst impacts of the climate emergency, and they’re determined to act while we have the chance,” Lucas says. “A huge amount of the Green Party’s dynamism comes from our young members and voters, and with a new generation of inspired climate activists, I’ve no doubt that will only increase in the years ahead. Young people are our future – we need to make sure they have one.”

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