When the United Kingdom surprised the world last month by voting to leave the European Union, a brief period of panic ensued as global markets struggled to absorb the news: The world’s sixth-largest economy had just voluntarily withdrawn from a powerful consortium whose 28 partners collectively represent nearly a quarter of global GDP.
Once the practical details of Brexit began to emerge, markets stabilized and much of the anxiety subsided. A mix of genuine concern and speculative curiosity took over. Who would replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who had kept his pledge to resign should the “Yes” vote he so vigorously opposed carry the day? Might remorseful voters or cagey MPs find some way to wriggle out of it? If not, how long would it take for Brexit to become final—and what would the terms and conditions of the divorce look like?
In all the uncertainty of the moment, one question few people thought to ask was: What impact would the Brexit vote have on the U.K.’s laudable efforts to curb pollution and reverse climate change, which the country spelled out very clearly during last year’s COP21 gathering in Paris?
We didn’t have to wait very long to get a hint.
Queen Elizabeth II named Conservative MP Theresa May the next prime minister of England on July 13. May’s first order of business was to publicly affirm that Brexit would indeed be taking place. Her second order of business, alas, was to announce that she would be shuttering her country’s Department for Energy and Climate Change, merging it with the newly created (and somewhat ominously named) Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Environmental figures within the United Kingdom immediately deemed the decision to be “deeply worrying” and “a terrible move.”
And May certainly didn't assuage environmentalists’ fears with her next move: naming Andrea Leadsom—a fellow Conservative MP whose voting record on climate change, deforestation, and wildlife issues leaves much to be desired—as her country’s environment secretary.
Hopefully, what we’re seeing from the new British government has more to do with transitional awkwardness than any sort of creeping agenda. Although May’s voting record on climate and energy issues is by no means stellar, she’s no American-style climate denier. The person appointed by May to lead the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, seems to understand the gravity of the threats posed by climate change; Clark has said in the past that green policies will create jobs, cut energy costs, and reduce Britain’s dependence on foreign oil. And Philip Hammond, the new chancellor—the equivalent of the U.S. Treasury secretary—has publicly voiced his agreement.
But with so many Brexit-related question marks floating around 10 Downing Street—and with so much political maneuvering taking place at such a furious clip—it’s impossible to tell where things are going with any degree of certainty. At moments like this one, Britain may well need the guidance of its most trusted friend and ally.
After meeting with newly named British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that the connection between our two countries was, as ever, “special and unbreakable,” intentionally echoing language that Winston Churchill famously used to describe this relationship back in 1946. As Britain’s brand-new government tries to find its environmental-policy footing amid the tumult of Brexit, it’s worth reiterating that candor is always at the heart of any close friendship.
With that stipulated, then, it’s incumbent on the United States to candidly tell its partner across the pond that now is not the time—now cannot be the time—for the United Kingdom to start cutting corners on the ambitious climate commitment it made in Paris. Surely our special relationship allows us to let Britain know, in no uncertain terms, that it’s now more important than ever for it to adhere to its 2008 promise to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. And if this relationship is truly unbreakable, then presumably no harm can be done by reminding the United Kingdom that the world is watching closely to make sure it follows through on its vow to phase out coal energy over the next 10 years, with the country’s last coal-fired power station slated to shut down by 2025.
Supporting our friend during this tumultuous time also means speaking to her honestly and forthrightly. The last woman to hold the office of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, memorably urged President George H.W. Bush not to "go wobbly” when considering whether to take military action against Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a decision she strongly supported. The Iron Lady never shied from sharing her opinion; in this instance, her thinking prevailed.
As we all learned in Paris, dismantling and defeating climate change is going to take worldwide cooperation and commitment from all partners. There’s no room for backsliding or second-guessing.
Don't go wobbly on us, Theresa.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.