Most Americans weren’t really paying close attention in recent weeks during the run-up to Great Britain’s referendum vote on leaving the European Union — the so-called “Brexit.” Maybe that was because all of the polling experts (yes, the same folks who told us in 2015 that Donald Trump would never win the Republican presidential nomination) insisted that British voters would understand the folly of leaving the EU and that — while the outcome might be close — common sense would prevail. Instead, last week’s narrow victory for the “Leave” the EU faction was a shock to much of the world. It certainly was a blow to the global economy; even here in the United States, stocks took an immediate loss of about 5 percent.
That concerns me, of course, but I’m also deeply troubled by what the “Brexit” vote might mean for the environment. Before last Thursday, the United Kingdom was closely tied to the EU’s broader efforts to work with the global community to reduce carbon pollution and beat back climate change. The broader point is this: Global warming is a crisis that affects the entire planet, and it requires an enormous level of international cooperation. Britain’s vote — albeit by a narrow margin — is a sign that its citizens are willing to withdraw from the world to some degree. And other nations feeling the fallout from globalization might follow.
Another big unknown is how this will affect the Paris climate agreement. Britain’s climate-action pledge was included in the EU’s pledge. “From the point of view of the Paris agreement, the U.K. is part of the EU and has put in its effort as part of the EU, so anything that would change that would require then a recalibration,”said Figueres. As it sorts out what to do without the U.K., the EU will likely see a slowdown in its ratification process.
Climate hawks are also concerned that a new government in Britain could be less committed to climate action. Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for the Paris Agreement, but he won’t be around for much longer. He had led the failed “Remain” campaign, and on Friday morning, after the results of the referendum came in, he announced his intention to resign in October. At that point, another member of the Conservative Party will become prime minister. Many of the conservatives who had campaigned for Brexit are also climate deniers, and they will likely have more power in a new government.
The impact could go beyond the climate. Farming minister George Eustice, a notable Brexiteer, previously announced his desire to get rid of EU environmental directives that protect birds and habitats. He and other campaigners have advocated for a new, more flexible approach to environmental protection, but opponents of the Vote Leave campaign are skeptical that such an approach will be equally effective.
“Don’t tell me that a new Brexit-led British government is going to put environmental regulations at top of its pile on June 24,” Stanley Johnson, co-chair of Environmentalists for Europe, told the Guardian late last month. “It is not going to happen.”
One irony that this piece notes is that in the short run, the economic turmoil caused by Britain’s vote might lead to a wider recession — and less industrial activity would result in less carbon pollution. But this is hardly a long-term fix to global warming — nor is it a desirable approach. It is true that millions of citizens in Great Britain remain supportive of strong environmental protection measures. One can only hope that their influence will be felt on the UK’s politics in the tumultuous months and years to come. The rest of the plant is depending upon them.
Read more about the Brexit impact on the environment from Grist: http://grist.org/article/brexit-could-have-serious-repercussions-for-the-climate/
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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