Boris Johnson has a talent for grabbing the media’s attention with an eye catching turn of phrase. Most recently, at Joe Biden’s climate summit, he was keen to stress that tackling the climate crisis is not a “politically correct green act of bunny-hugging”. Unsurprisingly, the media picked up on the line.
This is not the first time he has used this type of language. Following the Climate Action Summit in December 2020, headlines focused on his insistence that climate change wasn’t just a concern for “tree-hugging, mung bean munching eco-freaks”. A few months later, when he addressed the UN, he argued against those who “say this is all green stuff from a bunch of tree-hugging tofu munchers and not suited to…politics”.
Anyone serious about the challenge of climate change would agree wholeheartedly with him that this requires political action. And yet, is this way of speaking helpful, considering the task the government faces? Ahead of the Glasgow climate summit, Boris Johnson and other ministers might want to reconsider whether this is the type of headline they really want. After all, the green agenda needs to go mainstream to succeed. Using distancing language may serve to obstruct this purpose and play into the hands of the naysayers and deniers.
We’re all tree-huggers now
Tree-hugger is defined in the dictionary as a “sometimes disparaging” term for “an advocate for the preservation of woodlands”. Despite the UK being one of the least wooded countries in Europe, there is clear support across the public for tree planting. Up to 84 per cent of people agree that “a lot more trees should be planted”. And, in the Conservative manifesto, there is a pledge to plant 30 million trees per year. Wouldn’t it be encouraging and popular for the prime minister instead to send a strong signal of support and declare himself to be a “proud tree-hugger”?
Boris Johnson’s disparaging remarks about tofu and mung beans are also curious. His close encounter with Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic caused him to declare himself “too fat” and to say he was adopting a healthy eating regime. The obesity crisis and global heating are both reasons for more people to increase the plant-based foods they eat over steak and beef burgers. Beef production is responsible for 105kg of carbon emissions per 100g, whereas tofu produces 3.5kg per 100g. Even the government’s own climate advisers say that “we can’t meet the government’s 2050 Net Zero target without major changes in the way we use the land, the way we farm, and what we eat”. Yet the government appears reluctant to take a strong stance. The announcement about the new 2035 target to cut emissions by 78 per cent stressed that it would “meet this reduction target…whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet”. Whatever the government may or may not do to reduce the nation’s meat consumption, it does understand that we need to eat less meat for a range of reasons, and being positive about healthy, plant-based foods can only help.
The PM should identify with challengers of the status quo
The prime minister is often described as an ‘eccentric’ by both his friends and enemies. Eccentrics, like so called ‘eco freaks’, may hold opinions that challenge the status quo. “The tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach”, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” Perhaps, in the year of COP26, Boris Johnson should be embracing eco freakery with more enthusiasm.
He may not want to admit it, but if the PM wants the UK to be a world climate leader, he should be turning us all into tree-hugging, tofu munching, eco-freaks. Though bunny-hugging is probably not necessary.