The climate crisis is at the top of young people’s agenda but political parties are failing to meet their concerns. Is electoral reform the only hope of change?
When Shell recorded £32.2 billion in profits in 2022 following a surge in wholesale gas prices – the highest in its 115-year history – a host of voices called for the Government to respond by tightening its Energy Profits Levy.
According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, the average household’s energy bills will be 43% higher in 2023/4 than in 2022/3. The Energy Bill Support Scheme, under which households received £400 off energy bills spread over 6 months, will end for every household in March, replaced with a more targeted approach.
The UK Government has faced considerable public backlash for facilitating major energy firms’ profiteering.
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TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak described the firm’s “obscene” profits as “an insult to working families,” arguing that “instead of holding down the pay of paramedics, teachers, firefighters and millions of other hard-pressed public servants, ministers should be making Big Oil and Gas pay their fair share”.
When it comes to big money for big oil and gas, the Government remains out of step with public opinion.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the public – including 66% of 2019 Conservative voters – support a windfall tax to help reduce the energy price cap. According to a Survation poll from September last year, 37% of the public believe that higher taxes and government borrowing will be required in future to lower energy bills.
Renewable energy also enjoys significant public support: 71% of respondents backed offshore wind and 70% backed solar power, compared with just 30% who supported fracking.
Alongside public dissatisfaction with big energy’s big profits, the public are increasingly expressing their concern about the impact of the climate crisis – an issue where again the Government is not in step with the public.
Three separate environmental campaign groups – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Uplift – have issued legal challenges over a licensing round which could see 130 new licences given out for oil and gas development.
An ONS survey conducted in November 2021 revealed that 75% of British adults were worried about the future of the planet, with younger people reporting higher levels of concern. 37% of those aged 25 to 34 years and 34% of those aged 35 to 49 years reported being very worried, a figure which fell to 24% among those aged 70 or over.
Younger people were more likely to report higher levels of climate-induced anxiety, and to make ecologically conscious lifestyle choices; 67% of those aged 16 to 24 years, 67% of those aged 25 to 34 years, 68% of those aged 35 to 49 years reported feeling somewhat or very negative about the future of the planet, a figure which stood at 55% for those aged 70 or above.
More than three-quarters (80%) of those aged 25 to 34 years and 85% of those aged 35 to 49 years reported having made personal changes to their lifestyle.
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Even those who reported lower levels of concern did not do so out of scepticism of the severity of climate change. Of the 25% of respondents who were unworried or ambivalent as to the future of the environment, the most commonly cited reasons for their scepticism were lack of knowledge about the issue of climate change (35%) and believing that other priorities were more urgent (34%).
This was more pronounced among younger respondents: 62% of ambivalent 16-24 year olds and 49% of ambivalent 25-34 year olds said they were relatively unworried due to not knowing enough about the issue.
It is clear that younger people, even those with higher levels of scepticism about the immediate need to tackle climate change, are reporting greater degrees of concern about its severity, believing it to be on of the defining issues of our time.
Yet this anxiety is yet to translate into a substantive political response. The Conservatives remain in thrall to fossil fuel lobbyists, and a significant backbench minority continues to militate against the expansion of clean energy and the divestment from fossil fuels.
Can Electoral Reform Address Climate Concerns?
Some campaigners have expressed their hopes that a reformed voting system, which scraps ‘first past the post’, could lead to the climate crisis getting more traction in Parliament. A proportional representation system would more likely create a more diverse House of Commons, including increased representation for green politicians.
Proportional representation can also encourage coalitions, where political parties with shared objectives band together to achieve change.
The German Green Party has been able to influence policymaking at the national level by entering into coalitions with other parties. In 2021, Germany’s Green Party received 14.8% of all votes, its highest share of the vote since 1980, gaining 118 Bundestag seats and becoming the third largest party behind the SDP and the CDU.
While the British Green Party still trails its German counterparts in popularity, proportional representation would have allowed it to gain 17 MPs with 2.1% of the vote,
Little surprise then that Britain’s Green Party has welcomed the prospect of PR replacing first past the post.
Deputy leader Zach Polanski claimed back in September that “two-party politics is long dead. We are in an era of multi-party politics, particularly for those who support progressive centre-left policies. It is in the interests of both Labour and the majority of the British public for their Party to embrace PR”.
Indeed, PR could boost the Greens’ electoral prospects by diminishing the importance of ‘tactical voting’ – whereby voters may opt for Labour simply to prevent a Conservative majority.
The Green Party was hamstrung by tactical voting in the 2019 election, seeing its share of the vote fall from 15% in a YouGov poll in October 2019 to just 2% in the election itself. Nonetheless, it won 60% more votes in 2019 than in 2017, with more than 850,000 voters backing it.
As Labour’s rightward shift in the aftermath of the 2019 election continues to alienate younger voters, proportional representation may offer younger voters an opportunity to channel their resentment at widespread climate inaction into the party-political sphere.
Labour’s Poor Record on Climate Change
It is unsurprising that younger voters are disillusioned with how establishment politics has failed to address rising concern about the future of the planet.
Neither mainstream party has offered a viable alternative, which partially explains the Greens’ increased popularity. Indeed, opposition MPs and environmental advocacy groups have mobilised to compel Labour’s Keir Starmer to embrace a stridently environmentalist agenda; the Labour Climate and Environment Forum (LCEF), which launched at the beginning of this year, was founded to counteract the “trite” climate and nature conservation policies pursued by the Party.
Keir Starmer’s inability to commit to the Party’s 2019 public ownership proposals attracted criticism from Kate Hicks, of the grassroots campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal, who told The Guardian in 2021 that “Labour should be the party of green jobs, but Starmer has ditched the policy he needs to achieve it: public ownership”.
“Without it, we can’t wind down polluting industries at the pace that’s needed, and we can’t make sure that workers are retrained for quality, well-paid jobs,” she added.
It recently emerged that on September 12 last year, the Labour Party had accepted a £12,000 donation from Drax, a former coal-fired power station which now burns wood pellets. Drax claims that the electricity from its plant, which released 13.2 million tonnes of CO2e in 2020 is Britain’s largest source of CO2, is carbon neutral, as the pellets come from forests which sequester carbon.
Yet green groups and NGOs have disputed this; according to Sasha Stashwick of American environmental advocacy group the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Drax’s claims of being ‘carbon-negative’ were “wildly exaggerated”. “Drax’s biomass supply chain is so highly emissive, that with or without CCS (carbon capture and storage), it makes climate change worse,” she added.
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