The Imperial War Museum in London may seem like a strange place to launch a report on climate change. But that’s where I am this morning, along with speakers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, the Women’s Institute and the museum itself.
Why? Two reasons. First, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our country since the last world war. It’s not only environmentalists who are saying this. Business leaders, prime ministers, major charities and generals have all recognised the level of risk.
Second, if we are to overcome this threat – and the alternative is simply too awful to contemplate – then we need to mobilise as a nation in a way we haven’t seen since 1945.
The new report – entitled The New Home Front – looks at the wartime experience of those on the “home front” in Britain and the lessons we can learn in facing today’s threats from climate change and the looming energy and resources crisis.
What struck me most about the report was how many positive – and at times inspiring – lessons we could learn from the wartime generation. People put up with so much disruption and deprivation because they knew there was no alternative, and because they believed society would emerge stronger at the end of the war.
For example, evidence suggests that the vast majority households supported rationing, because it was fairer than the alternative of restricting food consumption through prices. Small individual action added up to a massive contribution: collecting food scraps – which due to rationing were nothing like the amount of food waste Britain produces today – was enough to feed over 200,000 pigs. And while people had to forgo some pleasures, such as country drives, attendances at theatres and other amusements rose.
Meanwhile, despite rationing, nutrition improved and infant mortality fell sharply. The social change that wartime impositions such as rationing and billeting of evacuees brought about laid the foundations for reform of education, the welfare state and the creation of the National Health Service.
It would be wrong to glamorise the second world war. But it would also be wrong to ignore the experiences and wisdom of those who lived through it. That’s why, as a follow-up to this report, we’re launching a national campaign to bring the generations together and see how their insights can be applied here and now. Over the coming months, we’ll be finding ways to bring this wisdom into one place and make it available in a new report.
We’re also launching a competition to find the best ways in which the wartime posters and public education campaigns can be re-imagined to help today’s society understand the dangers of climate change and what they can do to help. Wartime slogans such as “Is your journey really necessary?” remain relevant today when so much business travel could be replaced by video conferencing.
Of course, much of what we cover in the report is really the responsibility of government. But it is as if the country’s politicians are scared of their own people. They know that we must act now on climate change, but are frightened to introduce the necessary measures in case it alienates the voters. I hope this report will increase pressure on politicians and reassure them that, once people in Britain understand what needs to be done and are convinced that everyone will be treated fairly, then they will respond with the same creativity and commitment as in the dark days of the war.
• Caroline Lucas is the leader of the Green party of England and Wales and the country’s first Green member of parliament