What a difference a couple of months makes. On 28 February the Commons debated net zero carbon emissions. Few MPs attended. The Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove wasn’t there. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t there. If they popped in, they didn’t speak.
But on 2 May a crowded Commons debated the environment and climate change. Corbyn made a passionate speech in favour of declaring a climate emergency – a topic which he didn’t appear to view as much of a crisis two months earlier. But neither did most MPs.
Gove was equally passionate.
MPs fell over themselves to show green credentials. MPs congratulated Gove, Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Environment Secretary, Michael Howard, North Kesteven District Council.. and on and on…’
Ed Milliband, former SoS for Energy and Climate Change, received an honourable mention by Gove for the Climate Change 2008 Act which, Gove said, had cross-party support. We don’t know what Gove’s position was – he was absent. And statistics show Gove’s been rather lukewarm about climate change issues.
Gove also invoked the ghost of Thatcher. She was the first world politician ‘to make it clear that climate change was an emergency,’ he said. This tribute was echoed by Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Both forgot, and no-one reminded them, that Thatcher had later recanted and became a climate change sceptic.
What, then, has changed from seeming indifference at the end of February to fervour in just a few weeks? A cynic might say it’s chasing the young vote.
Climate change is something young people are passionate about. From strikes by school children to Extinction Rebellion via Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, young people are making their voices heard. It follows, then, that donning a green cloak could entice the next generation of voters.
Michael Gove, in particular, seems to swivel from one point of view to another. As education secretary, he deplored pupils having time off school. But when school children took to the streets he appeared to have changed his mind. He addressed school climate strikers:
‘Collective action of the kind you are championing can make a difference, and a profound one... together we can beat climate change.’
When he met with Extinction Rebellion he’d lost enthusiasm for such tactics. He ‘shared their high ideals’ but was ‘not a fan of direct action’.
A cynic might say that Gove is positioning himself as future PM: that sharing the ‘high ideals’ of Extinction Rebellion might obliterate the memory of his being sacked as education secretary when he became ‘toxic’ and for his stab at the leadership after betraying Boris.
Private Eye (3 May) says Gove told Greta Thunberg he feels ‘responsibility and guilt’ for not having done ‘nearly enough to address climate change’. But, as Caroline Lucas said, ‘It’s not enough for him to feel guilty.’ His ‘honeyed words’ need to be backed by action.
CORRECTION 4 May 2019 08.47: The original article said Corbyn hadn't seemed sufficiently interested in the climate change issue to attend a debate on net zero carbon emissions 'two weeks' earlier. It should have read 'two months'. Apologies. This has now been put right.