Two steps forward, one step back
I’ve just come from a City Council meeting in Oxford. In January , the council declared a Climate Emergency prioritising action on climate change. It made national news — Oxford is doing something, not just studying it. It was amazing. It was a joyous moment. It was supposed to an epic force for change. Oxford was going to lead as one of the first councils to really tackle the climate crisis through its areas of responsibility and networks with other governing bodies.
Tonight the council decided that move was too ambitious.
Don’t get me wrong, the thing you’ve probably heard about, the citizen’s assembly, will still go ahead. But what the council decided was that no action can be taken between now and when the assembly meets, in about five months’ time. Between now and then we will see no change, no action. This procrastination reflects exactly the sort of paralysis we’ve seen throughout the Brexit palaver, with everyone talking about ideal outcomes but absolutely nothing done to tackle core problems or uncomfortable truths. Greta Thunberg, insightful and honest as ever, said that “political leaders in Britain are not strong enough to tackle the climate change crisis.” Boy, was she ever on point.
This is hard for me to write. I don’t want to be down right now, and I don’t want to join the rank and file of writers who will find anything to complain about. The climate protests — Extinction Rebellion, YouthStrike4Climate, School Strikers — have me buzzing. For months, I’ve felt high on group energy and a rebellion being heard.
What the council has done is pour cold water on that energy. It’s reminded us that something as petty as party politics can get in the way of something that should be as non-partisan as tying your shoelaces, or running from a zombie. The council has reminded us that what it means by ‘climate emergency’ is not a total rethink of the city, or an industrial and economic transition. It means treading carefully, acting gradually. It means blaming the Conservative government for budget cuts, the ‘opposition’ for being too revolutionary, and probably later the citizens for not agreeing.
It’s like the council had a flashbulb moment of bravery, which has been quickly followed by fear and indecision. But we need you to do this work now, not kick the ball into the long grass. Action doesn’t look like “we will think about,” and action doesn’t sound like “we will consider,” and action isn’t “by 2030”. That’s pointless waffle, and it’s infuriating.
Right now we’re at the point where we need to act. A citizens assembly is a good start, for the general public. But it is an engagement and policy-making tool for the long-game. There are a huge number of things that could be achieved between now and then. Greenpeace has a list of policy and personal suggestions that are useful. Vox has also produced a list. Many of us who were in the viewing area could easily make suggestions that would be relevant to the council. Here’s an easy one: no one on the council is allowed a disposable water bottle. Water in glasses will be provided for meetings. Here’s another: support local people to plant more trees. Or this, which will help for the assembly: start some serious talks with minority groups so they are ready to engage with the assembly when it comes around. And, for goodness sake, stop blaming each other and saying ‘you can’t,’ ‘it’s too hard,’ ‘it’s not your responsibility’. There are quick, easy, performative things that the council could, and should, do to prove its commitment and show what direct action could look like. It does not need to wait to have these ideas confirmed by an assembly.
Oxford city council should be embarrassed. I hope they are embarrassed. On the same day that Extinction Rebellion got Sadiq Khan to recognise more action is needed, I watched the whip count heads to make sure that people voted the way they were instructed, to deescalate urgency. I heard narrow-minded speeches about party politics, and accusations aimed at some imaginary opposition. I watched a grumpy councillor snarl at the viewers when they applauded something they approved of, or boo when they didn’t. We are talking about a climate crisis, here. This is not party politics. Grow up. Get brave. Make change.
I’m revising my first sentence. The city council meeting wasn’t depressing. It was disgusting.