Polar Ice

Tuesday 11th of June 2024
Low sun on snow through trees

I started writing this at the end of a week (in mid-May 2024) in which both the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, had made significant political speeches.  Keir Starmer’s, in particular, had something of the feel of a “manifesto launch”.  Some weeks later, having not posted this before this point, we are now in the middle of an election campaign.

I am not naïve enough to anticipate that the climate and nature crises were ever likely to be front and centre in either of these speeches, much as I would like them to have been; nor have I had high expectations in that respect of the pre-manifesto pitches of the mainstream political parties.  Neither of the last two UK elections has featured anything like as much prioritisation of green issues as I would have preferred, even if 2019’s campaigning did air them more than might have been the case previously.

Of course, Labour’s pledges do include the setting up of Great British Energy and they are also talking about making the UK wholly reliant on renewable energy by 2030.  The UK has already made significant progress on reducing emissions from power generation through ending its use of coal, but there is a lot more that could still be done to help this transition (e.g. in investigating and potentially setting up greater – even regional or national? - hydrogen infrastructure and making the National Grid more easily compatible with new renewable energy projects but also investing in long-duration energy storage, the latter being recently highlighted by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee).

Although there have been fragments here and there within the election campaign which chime with facing up to ecological emergencies, there has still not any coherent sense of making this the priority that it needs to be.  There is even less sense that making these issues central planks in campaigning will “win hearts and minds”, the political form of which is uppermost in the psyche at this point in the electoral cycle.

I have been concerned for some months that the Conservative party under Rishi Sunak’s leadership will continue to lasso anything related to climate into a “culture wars” dynamic, as it is doing with so many other matters of too great an importance to be reduced to that form of anti-rhetoric.  It seems to me that there has been a strategic decision that polarisation is the way to go and any part of the green agenda will only be used as fuel for that particular fire.  The early part of the election campaign seems to support this view to my mind.

To that extent, I understand Labour’s desire to link their pledges in this area primarily with an economic agenda.  That may be important but I don’t think it is ever going to be enough for what the UK (or indeed the wider world) needs.  This may sound like a bad pun, but stay with me – I’d like to move from polarisation to “polar-ice-isation”.

Almost a year ago, the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, headed for the Arctic.  When I heard about this journey, I hoped that he would come back uplifted by the otherwordlinesss of the surroundings.  Maybe that was the romantic in me, but perhaps he was instead, as he says in one of his poems from this trip, “too late”:

“Looking up from the milky pool
I saw the whiteness in retreat” (from The Summit by Simon Armitage)

It may not have been exactly what I was hoping for, but there was no doubting the power of Simon Armitage’s testimony about humanity’s ability to devastate both individual creatures and the environment as a whole.  In spite of that (and not wanting to diminish for a second the urgency of the need to take seriously our wanton destruction as a species), I want to insert some hope within that sense of the crushed and the crushing, which Faber and Faber, Simon Armitage’s publisher, describe accurately if not alluringly as “the front line of environmental tragedy” (although there are probably many others).

So the following is what I have been writing over some weeks, not based on travelling to distant latitudes, but experiences much closer to home, in my local community, back garden and imagination…

Ice and Fire

It was a day like any other,

Suggesting exit from a cold, damp spring.

I was focused on the shifting lights,

Not thinking about anything,

In the shelter of a dark cocoon,

Safe from the stark glare of the afternoon.


But the blackout cloths are burning

To highlight the year is turning

And the sound check cannot quite erase

The threat of the sun’s double-edged rays.


We can continue life as normal,

Pretend to miss the signs of warming seas,

See the scientists as out of touch,

Not noticing how we unfreeze

Glaciers and polar caps, ignore

Casualties as grave as in any war.


And the blocks of ice are dripping;

We know the clock is ticking

And it’s urgent now to face the pain,

To stomach the change, make ourselves sane.


Once the idea is accepted

That Earth deserves our shoulder to the wheel,

Let the fire within our hearts be lit,

Our actions making passions real.

Let us tell those who hold the reins,

There’s light in our eyes, ice in veins.


For determination’s burning

And the lessons we are learning

Are crescendos blasting through the smoke,

Dismissing them can’t bring us our hope.


If a thin mind is not to strangle

Our good intentions as they come to birth,

Then there must be a preparedness

To risk for the sake of the Earth.

Vision may be its own reward.

Fraudulent pretence we cannot afford.


For the curtains are not blackness

But as if Aurora’s colours

Ornament a sky of ice and fire,

A dawn to assure and to inspire.