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It is easy to mock almost every aspect of the Extinction Rebellion protests. It can be annoying to find the streets blocked by protesters who claim “governments are doing nothing” and “businesses are doing nothing” about climate change.
But although mockery is tempting, it would also be a mistake. For it would obscure the profound conservatism of these protesters.
Their street theatre conceals a traditional outlook. They are anxious not just to recapture the first fine careless rapture of the 1960s. They want most sincerely to preserve the planet. What conservative, or Conservative, objects to such a motive?
From a political point of view, it would be madness to suppose that scornful contempt is the right reaction. Many of these protesters are young, and Conservatives are already sufficiently unpopular among the young without picking a fight about climate change.
And if one characterises the protesters as a load of hysterical, self-indulgent, grandstanding idiots, it becomes pretty much impossible at the same time to persuade anyone that Conservatives take the environment seriously.
This does not mean agreeing with every word uttered by Greta Thunberg. Nor does it mean getting into an auction about how quickly the United Kingdom can achieve zero emissions of greenhouse gases.
It simply means demonstrating that Conservatives are committed to sensible, practical policies to protect every aspect of the environment, without destroying the British economy.
As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday evening, Margaret Thatcher took climate change seriously long before most of the Extinction Rebellion protesters were born.
She prided herself on being a scientist. Science, she knew, is the ally of environmental protection, and on 26th April 1989 she convened an all-day seminar in Downing Street on climate change.
As Charles Moore relates in the final volume of his biography of her, the scientists were astonished by her ability to ‘preside as if she’d presided over science meetings all her life’, while the Cabinet ministers who were made to attend were grumpy that they had to keep quiet and listen to what the scientists had to say.
It would be surprising if, within the next few weeks, Boris Johnson were able to find a whole day he can devote to such an exercise. But he will be well aware of the need to do something like this in the fairly near future.
He has already pointed out that once Brexit has taken place, the United Kingdom can impose a ban on the live export of animals. A sovereign country has the ability to act, rather than merely to preach.
But in order to mobilise public opinion behind the rapid reduction of harmful emissions, it will be essential to show that this can be achieved without wrecking the economy.
The answer is not, as one might guess from the Extinction Rebellion protests, to start living in tents, pitched wherever these can cause maximum inconvenience.
The new technologies required to reduce emissions will come from businesses and universities which set out to find better ways of doing things.
This ought not to be a difficult argument for Conservatives to make. There is no disagreement about the objective, which is a healthy and sustainable planet.
The dispute is about how to attain that end. Is it best to take to the streets, declaring that the end is nigh? Or to work at developing and implementing practical solutions?
For a few days, taking to the streets may fill a moral need to stand up and be counted.
There was a time when the trade unions had to be taken seriously because they could bring the country to a halt. Extinction Rebellion perhaps envisages a similar role for itself.
But in the end, the politics of protest only get one so far. Bringing the country to a halt is only worth doing if it can be set going again on new and better terms. And that pragmatic task demands political leadership, which each new generation of Conservatives has to show it is better equipped than its rivals to provide.