LOOK at the forests burning. Look at the river beds cracking. Look at the river banks bursting.

Look at the sea levels rising. Look at the jellyfish lining the beaches. Look at the insects dying.

Look at the rain battering your windscreen. Look at the surface water under your wheels. Look at the cars stranded on the hard shoulder. Pray you’ll make it home.

Over the past year, I’ve driven along the M/A77 in conditions so Biblical and terrifying, I’ve often thought: “What am I doing on this road?”; not only in the sense of: “I might die,” but also in the sense of “everything might die,” and in recognition of the CO2 I am emitting.

To what extent am I responsible for the weather conditions I am driving through? Am I complicit in the destruction of the planet? How will my generation atone for the damage done to the next?

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I’m in the grip of an existential crisis. But, arguably, if you are not in the grip of an existential crisis, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Last week - shortly after Rishi Sunak reneged on two key climate change targets -  naturalist Chris Packham was sharing his own existential crisis on-screen.

In a powerful Channel 4 documentary called 'Is It Time to Break the Law?' he agonised over whether he was doing enough to stave off disaster.

The dedicated conservationist has spent most of his life highlighting the threat to biodiversity and the ecosystem. On top of his TV programmes, he has signed petitions and gone on marches.

But, he wondered: must he risk more to keep himself on the “right side of history”? It was devastating to watch him grapple with the futility of his awareness-raising work.

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Over a clip of David Attenborough’s stirring COP26 speech, he said: “By 9.30 the next morning the world had forgotten. Certainly the politicians had forgotten. The politicians who came and stood on that platform failed humanity wholesale. Because by then the lobbyists were [he made yapping gestures] in their ears.” 

Sunak pitched his U-turn as the product of his own anguished soul-searching. The decision to delay the ban on the sale of all new fossil fuel cars by five years to 2035, and water down the phasing out of gas boilers, was he claimed, not a dilution of his commitment to reaching net zero by 2050, merely a means of achieving it without hitting the pockets of the worst-off. 

It seemed briefly feasible that Sunak might, for once, be acting in good faith. But then he reeled off a list of fictitious assaults on voters’ freedoms - a tax on meat, seven recycling bins, compulsory car sharing - that his government would block and it was clear he’d been influenced by the ear-yapping of his party’s eco-sceptics.

And that he was upholding his predecessor’s tradition of making things up (even as he departed from his policies).

When Sunak wasn’t bare-faced lying, he was spinning. The UK’s 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, which he crowed about, didn’t happen on the Tories’ watch.

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And the Climate Change Committee was clear the current government’s measures were insufficient to meet its targets even before the latest row-back.

Sunak’s claim that his decision was not politically driven was undermined by the sight of the new party conference slogan, Long Term Decisions for a Brighter Future, in block capitals on the podium, and by his post-speech briefing note to journalists: Questions to ask Labour on net zero.

It certainly wasn’t done to support the country’s motor industry, as car companies lined up to express their fury that deadlines they had been working so hard to meet were being tampered with. 

In 'Is It Time to Start Breaking the Law?' Lord Deben, the Tory peer who chaired the Climate Change Committee, told Packham: “We should be on a war footing, because [climate change] is going to act like war.”

But Sunak is already preparing for an offensive - marshalling his policies for the next general election.

And the country is embroiled in a culture war in which climate change is one of the most explosive flashpoints, with low emission zones and 20-minute neighbourhoods hijacked by the “anti-woke” brigade and conspiracy theorists, who claim they are a means to control the population.

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Such views are being validated by right wing papers, which demonise the actions of Just Stop Oil as unhinged extremism rather than a justifiable (if occasionally counterproductive) reaction to the prospect of annihilation.

It was putting himself on the “right side” of the Culture War that drove Sunak’s change of direction; that and his party’s unexpected Uxbridge by-election hold - secured on the back of Tory opposition to the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone.

The absurdity of basing a policy that might contribute to the displacement of hundreds of thousands on the voting preferences of 495 motorists in Middlesex does not seem to have occurred to him.

But then the only existential crisis Sunak is experiencing is the one brought on by the prospect of losing power.

Has he overestimated public resistance? It’s difficult to tell. The complaints about the LEZs and Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme suggest some people support climate change measures right up until the point where they are directly affected by them.

There has also been a cost of living-related backlash in some European countries - Germany, for example, where the controversy over a new heating law threatened the ruling coalition, and the Netherlands where farmers have been protesting over stringent limits to nitrogen emissions.

While surveys have shown the majority of UK voters continue to back the net zero by 2050 target, a YouGov poll suggested most Tory voters supported Sunak’s deadline delays.

Interestingly, though, another poll by the campaign group New Deal Rising found 60 per cent of people wanted the government, fossil fuel companies and the country’s wealthiest to shoulder more of the burden of climate change measures.

Sunak prides himself on taking difficult decisions: is passing the costs of protecting the planet onto those who have profited the most from its degradation a challenge he is equal to?    

What most people want at times of precarity is consistency and leadership, not political pragmatism. Keir Starmer could have capitalised on Sunak’s vacillation, but, as so often, he allowed himself to be put on the back foot.

He avoided addressing the issue directly, leaving shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed to say Labour would reinstate the original deadline for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, but not for the phasing out of gas boilers.

As for the SNP, it is, of course, a constitutional matter. With Scotland “snared”  in the UK Internal Market Act, the Scottish government would have no choice but to follow Sunak’s lead on the sale of new fossil fuel cars, Dave Doogan, the party’s energy spokesman in Westminster said.

Sunak has certainly neutered the Scottish Conservatives’ power to hold the Scottish government’s climate change policies to account, as MSP Brian Whittle discovered when mocked at FMQs.

Humza Yousaf called Sunak’s shilly-shallying unforgivable; but he knows he is shouting into the gathering wind.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour wants to be the party that puts up people’s bills. Neither wants to be the party that squanders those Red Wall votes. Neither seems to care if it’s the party that strategises while the Earth burns. 

In his documentary, Packham wonders if the onus is now on him to break the law. Whether he does or doesn’t, he is unlikely to be found wanting on judgement day. Our Westminster leaders are a different matter.