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Inside the Fight to Turn the U.K.’s Brexit Election Into a Climate Election

10 minute read

Glued to bright pink boats in the middle of the road. Drenched in blood-red paint. Dragged into vans by police. That flair for the dramatic has helped propel climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the spotlight in 2019, both in the U.K. and abroad.

But in the weeks before Britain’s Dec. 12 general election, the rebellion has begun a shift to a more conventional kind of activism: the ballot box.

Last week, invited by a local XR group, around a hundred residents of the south London neighborhood of Battersea filed into a Victorian church for a hustings — the British version of a stump event — to hear five candidates for the local parliamentary seat argue over policy and trade barbs in a highly traditional act of party politics. But, for perhaps the first time, the topic was exclusively the climate.

From the pews, dozens of children and adults stretched their arms high in the air for a chance to interrogate the candidates about their parties’ climate plans. “I’ve never seen so many hands up at an event,” the moderator told the crowd. The more searing questions elicited cheers from the crowd. Ill-prepared answers met with scoffs and laughter.

The audience enthusiasm in Battersea reflects a sea change in British politics at this election. According to pollsters Opinium, 54% of Brits say the climate crisis will influence their vote. Parties have devoted far larger swaths of their campaigns and manifestos to the subject than at the last election in 2017. Channel 4, one of the U.K.’s main broadcasters, will host the country’s first climate debate for national party leaders on Thursday night.

Part of that surge in interest has been driven by XR, whose first two-week long rebellion in April prompted parliament to declare a climate emergency and sparked more Google searches for “climate change” than any previous month since records began in 2004. Youth climate strikers, who are planning a mass school walk-out on Friday, have also drawn huge attention to the climate in the U.K. and beyond. Both groups now see the general election — called unexpectedly in October amid political deadlock over Britain’s departure from the European Union — as a chance to channel increased environmental awareness into concrete political change.

But there’s a catch. Though the climate is now tied with the economy as the third most important electoral issue in the U.K. (up from eighth place in 2017), it still ranks behind the pressing question of Britain leaving the Europan Union. The ruling Conservative Party backs Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and wants to leave as soon as possible, while the opposition Labour party wants a new deal with the E.U. and a fresh referendum. With Brexit dominating election discussions, it’s even more difficult for activists to interrogate parties’ climate proposals. Turning the Brexit election into a climate election will be no small feat.

Extinction Rebellion take over Trafalgar Square in a climate protest on 16th October 2019 in London, England, United Kingdom.Mike Kemp – In Pictures/Getty Images

The political landscape for climate activists in the U.K. is very different to that of the U.S. Whereas President Trump has rolled back laws to reduce emissions, and has begun pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement on keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the British left and right both say climate change needs to be taken seriously. In this election, both Labour and the Conservatives have dedicated more space to climate in their manifestos than ever before. “It’s no longer niche to want climate action. We’re seeing it become mainstream across all parties,” says Daze Aghaji, a coordinator for the youth branch of XR.

But that broad support for climate action doesn’t mean activists’ work is done — nor that the necessary “transformative systemic change” to energy systems, land use and the economy advised by the U.N.’s climate scientists, will take place. A damning U.N. report published Tuesday detailed how, while world governments say they are committed to cutting carbon emissions, their current plans to do so will still lead to catastrophic climate change.

The U.K.’s election period has highlighted how easy it is for politicians to pay lip service to climate action without offering concrete steps to reduce emissions. Critics have accused politicians of greenwashing — presenting policies that sound good but actually have only a small effect on emissions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called the climate crisis “a colossal issue for the entire world” and has pledged “far-reaching” measures to tackle it. But he plans to skip the televised climate debate Thursday night. Climate activists and economists have accused him of greenwashing his party’s environmental record, which over the last nine years in government has included an effective moratorium on new onshore wind farms (because of a ban on subsidies) and increasing public spending on fossil fuels. Just two years ago, the party’s manifesto promised to “ensure that the [oil and gas] sector continues to play a critical role in our economy and domestic energy supply.”

The Conservatives have some specific spending pledges for climate action: $1 billion for developing carbon capture technology, $11.9 billion to overhaul energy efficiency in homes, schools and hospitals, $647 million to help “energy-intensive industries” transition to renewables.

Labour has grander plans. The first point on the party’s manifesto is the promise of a Green New Deal to transition to a zero-carbon economy, echoing recent demands by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in the U.S and older plans urged more than a decade ago by environmentalists in the U.K. It would be underwritten, Labour say, by a $517 billion National Investment Fund and the “rewriting” of Treasury investment rules to prioritize the climate.

The deadlines by which parties promise to deliver a carbon neutral Britain fall neatly along ideological lines. The right-wing Conservatives have plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the centrist Liberal Democrats by 2045, leftist Labour by “the 2030s” and the Green Party by 2030.

This range of goals on the climate — also evident in the partisan division over climate change in U.S. politics — may stem from the right’s aversion to the kind of big government interventions climate activists say are necessary to reach net zero quickly, says Sarah Lunnon, an XR coordinator who helped write the group’s election handbook. “Unlike Jeremy Corbyn [the Labour Party leader], we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet,” the Conservative manifesto states. “The right believes that the markets will provide the answers and consumers should be able to choose environmentally friendly products,” Lunnon says. “But it’s not a choice, we have to change our way of life.”

XR insists it is “beyond politics,” refusing to endorse any political party and pushing people to closely examine each party’s climate plans instead. In the run up to the election, national organizers sent out a lengthy set of handbooks to members, deploying the group’s considerable activist force on hustings, voter registration drives and their more typical eye-catching protests. Disruptive acts of civil disobedience are also planned in the first 12 days of December, and hunger strikes are taking place outside the main parties’ headquarters, calling attention to the likelihood of future food scarcity as climate change wreaks havoc on global agriculture in the coming decades.

In the more traditional setting of the Battersea hustings, it was clear why the climate crisis has struggled to break through during previous election cycles. The complex, abstract and unprecedented issue jarred with the local format of the campaign. The candidates stumbled on the budget for their parties’ climate plans, some were accused of cherry-picking facts, and most spent more time talking about recycling than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “It was frustrating, I felt that the audience really understood the gravity of the issues. I don’t think the same could be said about the candidates,” says Joe Taylor, the XR member who organized the event.

Even for climate activists themselves, the U.K.’s electoral system makes prioritizing environmental action a tricky calculation. Rather than voting for a national party or the prime minister, voters elect local lawmakers from the parties in their district, and the party with the most seats gets to form a government. That system, known as “first past the post” because of its winner take all outcome, has been blamed for reducing representation of the Green Party and other smaller groups in parliament, which tend to perform better in proportional voting systems, such as those for the E.U. parliament. (While the Green Party won just 1.6% of the vote in the 2017 general election, it won 12% in the 2019 European election.)

“A vote for the Green Party for example just isn’t going to count round here,” Taylor says, adding that he’ll probably “hold his nose and vote Labour” despite the problems he has with the party and his preference for the Green’s long standing commitments to action. “If Brexit wasn’t an issue, I’d vote Green,” says Lu Curtis, an attendee at the Battersea hustings. “But I want to stay in the E.U., so I might have to vote tactically for Labour to stop Brexit.”

Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers protest outside Dean Bradley House on November 21, 2019 in London, England.Getty Images

The struggle to prioritize the climate crisis in the U.K. election points to a grim challenge for the environmental movement worldwide. “Historically, [oppositional] democracies haven’t dealt very well with emergencies,”says Lunnon, the XR co-ordinator, citing the historic need for parties to join together in special national unity governments during wartime, as in Britain during the Second World War. “Our system can deal with multiple issues normally. But when you’ve got that huge threat coming towards you need to unify around action, not opposition.”

To deal with such deficiencies in governance, XR are calling for a “citizens’ assembly” on climate change, one that could research the issue, listen to scientists and make binding recommendations to the government on the climate crisis. The activists argue that would free political parties from the need to make electorally difficult decisions and separate the issue from important but less existential questions like Brexit. (“There’s no Brexit on a dead planet,” one XR slogan goes.) The government says it is planning a citizens’ assembly, with 110 demographically representative Brits, for “four weekends between late January to the middle of March next year” in Birmingham. But its recommendations will not be binding.

Despite its distraction from the climate, Brexit has helped teach climate activists like XR an important lesson in effective campaigning, Lunnon says. The campaign to leave the E.U. — waged ahead of the 2016 referendum and continuing in the last three years as politicians sought to negotiate the country’s path out of the bloc — argued in emotional terms that British people needed to “take back control” and reclaim national pride. “We would be foolish not to recognize that success. And we need to recognize the failure of the environment movement in using science and argument to try and move people,” Lunnon says. “We’ve been saying ‘We’ve got to stop global temperature rise.’ That doesn’t mean anything to people. We’ve got to show people what climate change actually means to their lives. We’re only starting to do that now.”

Correction, Dec. 1

The original version of this story misstated who in the U.K. declared a climate emergency after the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in April. It was the U.K. parliament, not the U.K. government.

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Write to Ciara Nugent/London at ciara.nugent@time.com