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Parliament Week Event: Reflecting on Parliament’s Role in Tackling Climate Change
PSA members Dr Paul Tobin (University of Manchester) and Dr James Weinberg (University of Sheffield) recently took part in Hope for the Future's Question Time-style event for UK Parliament Week. Read Ruby Hornsby's write-up of the event.
On the 8th of November, Hope For The Future organised a Question Time style event to discuss the role of UK Parliament in tackling climate change, the actions available to government and what next steps need to be taken. The discussion took place on the last day of Parliament Week 2019 at the Diamond at the University of Sheffield. Parliament Week is an annual festival that seeks to engage people from across the UK with Parliament, exploring what it means for them. It aims to empower individuals and groups to get more involved in local and national politics. Robbie, our Student and Youth Engagement Officer Robbie, introduced the event, set out the challenge for politicians and campaigners very clearly; “Many groups within society feel highly disengaged and alienated by the climate movement, and it's our responsibility to ensure the movement remains as accessible as possible.” In this spirit, the free-access event was live-streamed in order to include as wide an audience to be able to attend as possible. If you couldn’t attend the event, you can watch the recording here.
I have been volunteering with Hope for the Future for just over two months. My role has been to promote the organization on the various social media channels we utilize, building on our already prominent profile within the climate movement. By increasing our name recognition, we are able to reach a wider audience and get our message of finding common ground across to as many people as possible.
This was the first Hope for the Future event I had attended and also the first event I’ve been to with representation from different political parties. So, before I arrived, I did have some reservations about how the politicians speaking might act. We’ve all seen debates on television where politicians dodge questions, become defensive and argumentative or constantly repeat the same slogans. However, I was very pleased with the informative, comprehensive and honest answers given by both the politicians and other panelists. This was in no small part to the format of the panel and the chairing by Dr Paul Tobin, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. Paul gave all the speakers equal room to answer the questions, space to respond to one another and created an environment for lively discussion (something I haven’t seen much of in past political debates!).
The panel was made up of Paul Blomfield, Labour candidate for Sheffield Central, Natalie Bennet, Green Party Peer and former Green Party leader, Dr James Weinberg, Lecturer in Political Behaviour at the University of Sheffield, Heather Hunt, representative of Sheffield Extinction Rebellion and co-founded the Sheffield Campaign against Climate Change (now Sheffield Climate Alliance) and our own, Jo Musker Sherwood, Director of Hope For The Future.
The thoughtful discussions shone a light into the seemingly mysterious world inside Parliament. From my own experience, being from a small pit village in East Durham, I understand how separate Westminster can feel from your own life. It was interesting to hear the panel give insights into the possible changes that could be made inside Parliament. When asked ‘Do you think Parliament is properly equipped to find solutions to the current climate crisis?’, Paul Blomfield MP empathised with the public; “I understand people’s frustration with the institution”, but went on to say, “…there is no reason why we can’t tackle the climate emergency as its currently constituted…”. He suggests that those we elect already have the tools to tackle the climate crisis …but if this is the case, how can we put this into action?
Jo Musker Sherwood suggested that entrenched division between the parties may be one the reasons for this. She encouraged the panel and all politicians to “move away from things that make this a partisan issue because its only by making this a cross party issue that we’re going to get anywhere on this”. Jo reflected on positive climate change moments from Hope for the Future’s work over the last few years, identifying cross-party working as a key link to taking action, arguing that without consensus the UK is inevitably likely to become as divided on the issue as Brexit. Heather Hunt also praised the work of green groups who have successfully worked to get climate change onto the agenda, despite the often distracting discourse surrounding Brexit.
Moving beyond the role of parliament, the panel explored potential barriers to engaging the public in political action on climate change. Natalie Bennet suggested that individuals felt that they did not have a say; “What people feel overwhelmingly in our society now is powerlessness, that is what is being taught… politics should be what you do, not what you have done to you… democracy is crucial to tackling the climate emergency.” Dr James Weinberg agreed with this, highlighting the need to more actively engage with young people; “If you receive good political education as well as active citizenship, then you will feel far more politically efficacious when you’re older and are far more likely to contact a politician when you’re older”. He said the current political education system was not “fit for purpose” and echoing Natalie’s comments, suggested that end up leaving some of the electorate behind. Heather highlighted the need for a ‘new story’, of which Extinction Rebellion is a part, redefining what society considers to be prosperity to value environmental protection.
In a final call for action, Dr Paul Tobin asked the panel; “How can we make the climate crisis of the utmost importance, in an environment dictated by Brexit?”. There were different opinions amongst the panel about whether stopping Brexit went hand-in-hand with addressing climate change. Dr James Weinberg cited the upcoming COP26 being held in Glasgow in 2020 as a key point for the UK to show leadership in front of the rest of the world.. This echoed with Jo’s earlier challenge for elected representatives to become leaders on climate change. The panellists all agreed that there was an urgent need to move the public and political discourse on from Brexit, to focus on other policy issues including climate change. Paul Blomfield concluded that climate change is an issue that “trumps everything” but in order to achieve action on the climate emergency we must still engage on lots of other issues as well.
All in all, the event expanded my knowledge of the ways in which Parliament are handling the climate emergency but it also identified that there is still a way to go. For climate change to ever be tackled then top-down and bottom-up action must run parallel, we must avoid entering into a culture war mirroring that of American politics, and certainly prevent a similar situation to the one we find ourselves in with Brexit.