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protestors in street and big colourful banners with words Restore Nature Now
TV presenter Chris Packham and actor Emma Thompson were among protestors at the recent Restore Nature Now march in London calling for the government to prioritise environmental sustainability. Andy Soloman/Shutterstock

Labour’s plans for border and economic security aren’t sustainable unless it takes the threat of climate change seriously

Britain’s new Labour government built much of its pitch to the electorate on the promise of restoring security to the country. And this understanding of security was based on three aspects: defence, border and economic security.

Yet these foundations largely ignore the profound environmental challenges we face regarding the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, and how these are entangled with social injustice and economic risk. As such, it failed to properly address these fundamental questions: whose security, for how long, and at what cost?

Labour’s first foundation is strengthening national security in light of the increased geopolitical tensions. Yet glaringly absent from this discussion is the significant and growing risk climate change poses to global instability, as a warmer world exacerbates resource scarcity and population displacement. (Not until page 49 of Labour’s manifesto was the climate crisis acknowledged as “the greatest long-term global challenge that we face”.)

So, the climate crisis is framed as an exciting economic opportunity to stimulate Britain’s domestic markets, with geopolitical threats to be handled separately through defence spending and deterrents. Worryingly, this indicates that the climate crisis will be managed, not tackled under Labour’s new government.

The second foundation, border security, largely accepted the populist far-right rhetoric of boats and strong borders, even in its imagery of a besuited Keir Starmer in front of the white cliffs of Dover looking out to sea. But the deteriorating global climate means immigration numbers are likely to keep increasing – a trend which will only be fuelled by Labour’s commitment to economic growth, much of which will depend on fossil fuels.

Although the manifesto briefly mentioned the need to take action on “humanitarian crises”, a populist framing of immigration debates distracts us from seriously and humanely engaging with the reasons we are seeing ever-growing numbers of refugees, including the role of climate change. It also risks further legitimising the far-right in mainstream politics, at a time they are already enjoying significant electoral successes in the UK, Europe and beyond.

Finally, there is an almost religious zeal surrounding economic security, or “securonomics”, and its achievement through “sustained economic growth … [as] the only route to improving the prosperity of our country and the living standards of working people”. Yet this appealingly simple vision does not seriously question if and how sustained growth can be achieved in a socially just way, while seeking to remain within planetary boundaries.

With a new public mandate and the largest majority since 1997, Starmer’s Labour party should adopt a fresh approach in order to secure our sustainable future. To fulfil its own election pledges, we believe the new government needs to seriously engage with the gravity and urgency of the approaching climate disaster by adopting these three principles.

1. Change collectively

Labour needs to accept that the complex interdependencies of the climate crisis pose a collective rather than individualised challenge. Collective, system-level responses – such as community-run organisations, social enterprises, circular economies, and new networks of local, national and international redistribution – must be developed.

This goes beyond framing climate action through ethical or green market competition at the level of the individual consumer or company. And it should not be crudely interpreted as a revamp of David Cameron’s “we’re in this together” slogan.

Solutions should recognise that nations, international institutions and corporations with greater responsibility and power need to be more accountable. Labour’s manifesto commitments to collectively imagined endeavours such as the warm homes plan and Great British Energy point in this direction. But making these visions a reality in a fair way will require big changes to existing systems and attitudes.

2. Apply 21st-century economics

The UK’s economic security needs to be reimagined to ensure it’s suited to the challenges of the 21st century. Overreliance on outdated indicators such as GDP serve only to compound the issues of climate change and social inequality, limiting our ability to mitigate and effectively adapt to the current predicament.

This is acknowledged by increasingly mainstream ideas such as the circular economy – to which Labour claims to be committed as a means of protecting nature – and doughnut economics, which involves reimagining economic indicators, considering social equity and keeping within planetary boundaries so as not to deplete resources.

close up of black books on shelf, with title Doughnut Economics
The new Labour government should take a leaf out of Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics. Haybook-Smay/Alamy Stock Photo

The Labour party needs to move beyond its pragmatic approach to climate mitigation and adaptation, particularly given many multinationals are posting record profits. This will probably involve democratically empowering and resourcing local areas with sustainable solutions, such as district heating, that would also fulfil Labour’s pledge to “transfer power out of Westminster and into our communities”.

3. Think globally

Rescaling security policies to an international rather than national level is another crucial step. Labour promises to “restore the strong global leadership needed to tackle the climate crisis” – but this is tempered by placing economic growth “at the heart of everything we do, including our foreign policy”.

The ambition of globally oriented action, such as development spending, is constrained by fiscal circumstances. Meanwhile, prioritising national growth risks continued wealth extraction and the privatisation of common resources at the expense of other nations, particularly in the context of systemic inequalities and historical injustice.

Take the case of green land grabs across the African continent. Genuine global leadership must recognise and articulate that the security of one nation requires collaboratively securing the sustainable future of all countries, while holding the multinational corporations and nations most responsible for social and environmental degradation to account – including those with ties to the UK.

The UN warned in 2019 that the world had 11 years left to prevent catastrophic climate change. Five years closer to “climate hell”, with our foot still firmly on the accelerator, the new Labour government needs to move beyond business as usual to open a new politics of sustainability, if we are to secure a truly sustainable future for all.

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