This article was first published the day after the December 2019 general election.
Last month I chaired the Island’s environmental hustings. Today we’re waking up to a new government. So has the wellbeing of the world we live in taken priority for the incoming politicians? When the hangovers dissipate and the business of governing begins we will find out. Or perhaps we can already guess.
Headlines throughout the recent election campaign often focussed on sustainability issues. And with good reason. My own experience at the hustings showed me just how strong the worry is here, and it seems we are not alone. Voter concern about environmental issues in this country is now at the highest ever recorded. Poll company YouGov reported on the 6th November that 27% of all voters said the environment was one of three top issues – behind Brexit and the NHS, and equivalent to the economy and crime.
Amongst young people it is even higher. A huge 45% of 18-24 year olds believe that environmental issues are one of the nation’s most pressing concerns, second only to Brexit (57%). Here on the Island, at Cowes Enterprise College candidates faced students and staff for the Question Time for Climate Change event, which Conservative candidate Bob Seely described as the best hustings event he had been to in his political career.
A striking feature of this upsurge in worry for the future of the planet has been the way people are starting to engage as if we actually are experiencing a climate emergency. The phrase is well-chosen. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2019, Greta Thunberg famously said “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” She was addressing the rich and famous, but her words had an electrifying effect upon those who were not in such a privileged position.
The emergency is real to us here on our comfortable island where the Isle of Wight Council has declared a climate emergency. It is more real to those who have lost their homes or their lives in floods, storms and wildfires during the hottest decade in recorded history.
As champagne corks and glitter are swept from the doorstep of Number 10, I am encouraged by this enormous change in public mood. I’ve been employed as some sort of ecologist for most of my life, working for wildlife and the countryside. It has often felt as though care for the environment is an impediment to human progress, to economic change, and to helping people get a better life. Those like me who advocated care for the world we live in could be dismissed as cranks or uncooperative crusties. That is no longer true. Thinking about the environment and sustainability is mainstream now.
And this transformation has not come from the older, more experienced and more powerful people in our society – indeed, for a shameful number of them it has not yet even registered. This movement has come from the people who will inherit the earth. And regardless of the election result, their time has come.