Ella Kissi-Debrah was diagnosed with asthma when she was seven years old. She lives in Lewisham, south-east London, just 25 meters from the congested South Ring Road.
She was hospitalized more than 30 times in two years until she died of an asthma attack in early 2013. Seven years later, thanks to her mother Rosamund’s unremitting struggle for justice, Ella became the first person in the UK. List air pollution as a cause of death.
This article first appeared in the latest issue of Renaissance and Ecologist Magazine. learn more.
This is the opening story of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s book breathe — what he calls a guide to winning support for action on climate change. Ella’s story is tied to Khan’s own diagnosis of asthma and his shift to making tackling toxic air a centerpiece of his mayoral plans.
Each of the seven main chapters explores barriers to action: apathy, cynicism, cost, and more. But having established this structure, Khan immediately abandoned it, opening with a promise of political fatalism but a linear account of his career that culminated in his election as London mayor in 2016.
The remaining chapters stick more faithfully to their themes, but are told through the narrow lens of Khan’s own experiences in the office. The resulting book is neither a reasoned exploration of the obstacles to climate action in politics nor a true political memoir.
The best political memoirs are written long after politicians have left office—looking back with clarity and honesty on their legacies. Published less than a year before Khan seeks re-election for a third term, breathe Often it reads like a campaign pitch: self-aggrandizing, a one-sided account of his record, coupled with an unwillingness to truly judge his own shortcomings in light of the challenges he poses.
One example was his embarrassing five-page defense of the Silvertown Tunnel, a new four-lane traffic artery currently under construction in Greenwich that is loathed by air pollution campaigners and environmentalists.
Local activists have tried to disprove the passage line by line. It’s hard to imagine Khan writing this twenty years later as part of an honest assessment of his legacy.
There’s also a notable omission from Khan’s chapter title: good old-fashioned denial.Khan believes the era of climate change denial is over, and that people who previously sought to question the science have now accepted the consensus and are turning to procrastination climate action.
While I broadly agree with the arc he describes, I worry that opponents of climate action are further backsliding than he believes.
Khan should have noticed this easily. The 2021 London mayoral election marked a turning point in public discourse, with far-right figures and conspiracy theorists blocking ballots and lurking outside city halls on election night.
The coronavirus has seen a resurgence in denial of established scientific reality and the emergence of anti-vaxxers and others. Just a few years later, traffic calming measures are now denounced as a globalist control conspiracy orchestrated by the World Economic Forum.
at the book launch breatheAt the scene, a man stood up and shouted that the claim that Ella died from air pollution was a “lie.” Her mother Rosamond was also in the audience.
At the time of writing, Khan is discovering just how ugly the climate discussion can get as he seeks to expand the areas in London where a charge is levied on the dirtiest vehicles.
A number of outer London councils are joining forces to challenge the High Court policy, while outsiders are trying to discredit independent data demonstrating the success of the existing Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), all of which has been welcomed news by an emerging ecosystem of right-wing media such as the UK.
But the Mayor of London is right to be confident in his beliefs. Ken Livingstone’s original proposal for a congestion charge in central London would have failed if it had been put to a referendum the day before it was proposed. Just a year or so later, there was a lot of support for the plan.
This is often a story about taking action to reduce traffic: opposition is highest before implementation, and support grows once the benefits start to be felt. Before long, few want to go back to the way things were.
Currently, a small, noisy minority is polarizing and distorting the debate around tackling traffic and toxic air, while most of us generally support (albeit quietly) the path of calm. Khan must face his opposition and demonstrate the leadership he has so painstakingly demonstrated in this fight. breathe. Londoners’ lungs depend on it.
Russell Warfield is communications manager for Green Party candidate Siân Berry in the 2021 London mayoral race. He is now communications director for climate action charity Possible and comments editor for The Possible. Renaissance and Ecologist. This article was first published in the latest issue of Renewal and Ecologist magazine. learn more.