On the surface, the film Titanic is a love story between Jack and Rose. It develops other themes: a sentimental take on women’s emancipation; how poor people’s safety takes second place to rich people’s luxury. It’s also a story of hubris over nature – the very idea of having an unsinkable ship. And it’s a story about denial.
There’s a scene just after they’ve hit the iceberg. Thomas Andrews, the chief engineer who designed the ship, strides onto the bridge with Captain Smith and the officers. Andrews lays the blueprints out on the table. “We can stay afloat with the first four compartments breached. Not five. As she goes down by the head, the water will spill over the tops of the bulkheads at E-deck, from one to the next, back and back. There’s no stopping it. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.”
“But this ship can’t sink,” says Ismay, representative of the owners. “She’s made of iron, sir. I assure you she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” Despite that inevitability, most people didn’t feel the effects at first. They continued drinking in the lounges, the band was still playing.
The parallels with the climate emergency are uncanny. The captain knew there were icebergs in the area, but steamed ahead at 22 knots. Business as usual – safety came second to profit. The Titanic was designed with enough space for lifeboats to hold twice the number of people on board. But it was decided they would spoil the view for the first-class passengers, and so they were not fitted.
In both cases, the laws of nature supersede the laws of humans. Britain may now have a net zero target of 2050, but atmospheric molecules of carbon dioxide interacting with infrared light are not aware of that fact. Targets count for nothing unless they are delivered. Only a few years ago, the target was to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, now it’s net zero by 2050. Once more people grasp the mathematical certainty of what we face, these targets are going to change.
Once we pass a tipping point, natural feedback effects will take over. As more Arctic ice melts, less sunlight is reflected. As more tundra warms, more methane is released. The Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Just like water spilling over the Titanic’s bulkheads.
COP26 will dominate the news. More images of climate destruction will be beamed into our homes. The Greens polled 2.8% in the 2019 election. They now poll 5% on a bad day, and up to 10% recently. They’re in coalition in Scotland. Labour cannot win without those votes, and under first-past-the-post, they let the Tories in.
Johnson, in his usual grab-the-headlines-regardless-of-truth way, has claimed this territory for the Tories. In May’s elections he made sure he was seen riding a bike with Andy Street in the West Midlands. Yet he’d taken a helicopter there from London. In last year’s budget, Rishi Sunak promised £1bn for green transport. And in the very next sentence ebulliently announced “£27bn for tarmac!”. The Green Homes Grant was such a fiasco it was scrapped after six months. And gas and oil companies are still getting exploration licenses in return for donations to the Tory party.
I’d bet that even amongst LabourList‘s politically engaged readership, fewer than one in 100 could correctly list all ten points of Johnson’s climate plan. But this shows two things: they’re making more noise than we are, and they’re vulnerable on the details. If Labour launches a costed Green New Deal plan, with all the benefits – lower fuel bills, warmer homes, faster public transport and hundreds of thousands of jobs – we can choose the terrain we fight on. Because defensive skirmishes around a culture war will see us defeated.
We can back this plan with evidence of what we’re delivering. In the North of Tyne, my authority has invested £25m in our offshore wind and subsea sector. Improving infrastructure, like stronger cranes to handle bigger turbines, and funding high-tech solutions like digital technology with sensors, cable arrays, and digital twins to reduce the costs of installing offshore wind. We’ve landed the UK’s first Gigafactory, manufacturing electric batteries to decarbonise Britain’s vehicle fleet. We’re investing in mine water heating, to turn our high-carbon past into a low-carbon future.
Too many of our brightest and best have innovative ideas, but can’t raise the capital to get them off the ground. That’s why our Green New Deal directly funds investments into solar capacity and energy efficiency. This £18 million fund is creating hundreds more jobs, lowering people’s energy bills and reducing fuel poverty. All the thousands of jobs we’re creating are backed by our Good Work Pledge, guaranteeing the Real Living Wage and trade union conditions. We’re working every day to deliver a zero-carbon, zero-poverty North of Tyne. It’s not an aspiration, or a policy objective. It’s real, and it’s happening now.
And it’s not just us. My fellow Northern mayors are all over this agenda and delivering. Steve in Liverpool is making great progress on his Mersey Tidal Power project. Andy is revolutionising bus travel in Manchester. Tracy opened the UK’s first solar-powered park and ride. And Dan is making great strides in active travel in Sheffield. Imagine what Labour could do with the full resources of government.
There is no route to a Labour government without going big and bold on the Green New Deal. Not gestures, but big enough to deal with the problem. Retrofit every home. Zero-carbon, low-cost public transport. A grid powered by 100% clean energy, and a complete replacement of fossil fuels. Matched by the radicalism to devolve this to nations, regions and local authorities around the country.
Every year now, every month, we will see more and more fires, and floods, and climate breakdown. Either we claim this agenda, or increasing numbers of voters will seek the necessary radicalism elsewhere. Or worse, take hope in Tory false promises. It’s a mathematical certainty.