The sight of thousands of school pupils leaving lessons to protest about climate breakdown gave many of us pause for thought.
They refused to attend class for the day because they are frustrated with the way that politicians have refused to take seriously the threat to humanity caused by climate breakdown.
I remember as a child being told that we all needed to do more to help the planet. That was more than 25 years ago and it’s hard not to conclude that warm words have not been matched by action.
The UK is now leading the world in renewable energy, which is of course a great start. But, equally since 2015 many of the initiatives to prevent climate change have been rolled back. That goes from the simple things like subsidies for energy efficiency and solar panels in homes to very technical processes for allocating national level funding. The national targets for getting rid of polluting vehicles and level of spending on public transport, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure still lags way behind too.
At the local level we need to do everything within our power to make our contribution. That’s why it’s encouraging news that Cheltenham Borough Councillors have voted unanimously to back a motion I proposed to declare a climate emergency. We’re now going to find ways to make our town carbon neutral by 2030, including demanding extra powers from the government to make it happen. The 2030 date may seem ambitious, but it’s there because the UN tells us that we have just 12 years to avert a catastrophe.
It may all seem far removed from our everyday lives, but it’s not just disappearing pacific islands that should concern us. Heatwaves over just a few days in 2018 caused the death rates to spike by hundreds in the UK. It’s vulnerable older people who suffer the most in these conditions. Will we really tolerate a situation where it’s normal for hundreds of pensioners to die in heatwaves in our country?
The council can certainly impact things by changing the way it does things itself. That might mean a new energy tariff from all-renewable sources, replacing vehicles with low emission equivalents and changing planting regimes. Some people have even suggested using the public art budget to install contraptions that suck pollution out of the air (these things do exist).
But of course there are some things that need to be done that will require the Westminster government to release its grip on money and responsibility, so councils can make a more meaningful contribution.
For the moment, Cheltenham has joined 29 other councils including Oxford, Cornwall and South Cambridgeshire in declaring a climate emergency. The message is clear, but is the government listening?
We’re keen for people to get involved with this initiative locally. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.