Something is stirring deep beneath the earth. Or rather, someone. The veteran eco- warrior Daniel “Swampy” Hooper, alongside his teenage son, the daughter of a Scottish laird raised on an off-grid island and an undisclosed number of other protesters have spent weeks secretly excavating a honeycomb of underground tunnels beneath Euston Square Gardens in north London. Now they’re refusing to leave their muddy burrows in protest at the building of the HS2 high-speed train route, due to terminate nearby.
To the protesters, the project is a monstrous scar on the landscape, destroying ancient woodlands and wildlife habitats in its path. But to northern Tories in particular, it’s a potent symbol of “levelling up” between north and south, bringing jobs to places and people neglected in the past. And this particular muddy standoff symbolises a rather bigger political conflict.
When Dominic Cummings was summarily evicted from his own No 10 burrow late last year, we were promised a kinder, greener government in return. Angry culture wars would supposedly give way to a “Carrie agenda” revolving around saving the planet. Boris Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, is a famously keen environmentalist, although there’s something exasperatingly sexist about the portrayal of her as some kind of wildlife-loving Lady Macbeth figure, as if the need to tackle impending climate doom wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to anyone in Whitehall.
Allies of Cummings retorted that Johnson could kiss goodbye to his new friends in the north if he put the environment at the centre of policy – a warning that, if true, would apply equally to a Labour party trying to win those voters back while working towards net zero carbon emissions. All our chances of averting a climate catastrophe now hinge on proving that sourly defeatist verdict wrong.
It doesn’t bode well that ministers have flatly refused to stop the digging of a new coalmine in a Tory marginal seat in Cumbria. The new mine promises to safeguard jobs in the local steel industry, but has been described by the climate scientist Prof James Hansen as a signal of “contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature”. But that’s just the start of difficult choices to come.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has a budget to deliver next month, and a big decision to make on fuel duty. It’s been frozen for nearly a decade now, and petrol is one of the last things he should be subsidising to the tune of billions when we all need to drive less. But in provincial towns with threadbare bus services and tortuously slow trains, where more people rely on cars to get around, steep hikes in petrol prices would hurt those on low wages. Some Tory MPs in the so-called “red wall” seats recently captured from Labour are already threatening revolt. Expect similar rumblings over reports that ministers are considering a form of carbon charge, potentially pushing up the price of meat, cheese, gas heating or anything else whose production carries a heavy environmental toll.
The Conservative party now is not the Conservative party of 1996, when a younger Swampy was dangling from trees to protest against the building of the Newbury bypass and the then Tory transport minister, John Watts, joked about wanting to see him “buried in concrete“. Zac Goldsmith, the influential current environment minister, is an anti-fracker who once resigned his seat over the threatened expansion of Heathrow and is passionate about returning intensively cultivated land back to its natural, more wildlife-friendly state.
Johnson himself has taken to blaming the emergence of coronavirus on “an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world”, in a speech admittedly better remembered for his careering off piste and blaming people grinding up the scales of pangolins to make traditional Chinese remedies. Even the Treasury this week published a landmark report on the economics of biodiversity, arguing for the richness of life on planet Earth to be treated as an asset as valuable as any share portfolio, and for focusing on something bigger than GDP. When forced to choose between saving jobs in the existing car industry and accelerating the shift towards electric cars, or between the survival of some long-established older farmers and a more environmentally friendly post-Brexit agricultural subsidy scheme, this government has proved surprisingly ruthless in pursuit of climate targets.
But the glaring reluctance to intervene in Cumbria is a reminder that Johnson was elected on a promise to bring prosperity to the north, a task only made more urgent by a pandemic shattering the economy. Like David Cameron, who trekked to the Arctic to highlight climate change in opposition but worried about “green crap” weighing on business once in office, he is finding that power brings hard choices.
Thankfully, there are ways of squaring the circle. There’s every sign the chancellor will go for green growth, investing in technologies such as offshore wind along the Humber coast – a better bet for future jobs in Grimsby and Hull than waxing nostalgic about the heyday of fishing – or hydrogen plants in Teesside, which can create good, skilled jobs behind the red wall while taking Britain closer to net zero. And at least some environmental case might be made for HS2 taking traffic off the roads.
The problem is timing. New green industries take years to develop, whereas jobs in old polluting ones can vanish overnight, and the latter are disproportionately clustered in the former industrial heartlands of the red wall. Change is always painful for someone, often those whose lives were precarious to start with. Environmental justice must therefore go hand in hand with the social kind, which means generous help for the millions who can’t just afford to rip out their old gas boilers or buy electric vans tomorrow, and support for industries and communities in flux. A just transition might be an expensive one. But the cost of doing nothing is worse.
Yearning for a better government to come along one day and manage this doesn’t change the fact that this is the government we’ve got, and the planet can’t wait five years. The Downing Street reset has had some small early successes, pangolins notwithstanding: Whitehall seems calmer, and Johnson’s tone more measured. Stunts such as writing an open letter to parents struggling with home schooling suggest his new press secretary, Allegra Stratton, has identified what he’s actually good at, which isn’t mastering detail but connecting with people.
Johnson’s brand of charm may cut little ice outside his own Tory tribe. But it’s his people who need convincing here, judging by a survey of Conservative Home readers showing only half accept that global warming is both happening and being driven by humans, and he has a duty now to use his connection with them for good. Riding high on the back of a successful vaccine rollout, he has some public goodwill in the bank. Now is the time to spend it.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist