What’s going on? As climate breakdown grows more serious, British politics and political commentary are becoming more trivial.
The UK has had by far its hottest June on record. Spring’s wild fires in Canada were also the worst recorded, spreading a dangerous smog as far as New York. Spain has had its hottest spring since records began, Beijing had its hottest June day. There is a heatwave in India and southern US states “are enduring a period of extreme and dangerous heat”. Mass bird deaths have been recorded in Mexico. Here, The Wildlife Trusts say nature is being “pounded by extreme weather without a chance to recover”.
This is serious. Yet our national conversation is becoming ever less serious.
Voters know something is up and they want action. Climate concern ranks consistently as a top five issue. Yet Conservative-supporting newspapers are engaged in a sustained campaign to rubbish any of the actions we need to take. We all want a better environment, they say, but we want it tomorrow, and only if it doesn’t cost anything or require us to change our lives in any way.
The Sun attacks “unrealistic Net Zero ambitions”, including the phaseout of petrol and diesel vehicles. Electric vehicles, it says, are “utterly impractical for many as well as stratospherically expensive”. Heat pumps could “leave owners shivering in a British winter”. “Net Zero is a fine goal, if and when we can afford it. Until then is neither main party prepared to row back on their eco zealotry and focus on fixing our economy?”
On the World at One last week, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, took a similar line: investment in the green transition would happen once the economy recovered. But, as Theresa May told the Aldersgate Group the day before, the net zero transition is the “growth opportunity of the century”. Investment by other countries is “reshaping global supply chains before our eyes”. Going green is not a luxury to be indulged in once the economy revives: it is the way to revive the economy.
Back to the papers. There is a steady stream of anti-net zero stories in The Sun, The Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express. The Sun says Labour “is allied now to a road-blocking doomsday cult hated even by schoolchildren” (Just Stop Oil).
The Daily Mail attacks green levies because they did not “result in cheap, clean energy when the crisis started”. It says, if the Conservatives really believe in energy security, they should “start fracking”. It wants sales of petrol and diesel cars to continue beyond 2030, ignoring the changes in the car market around the world.
The Telegraph publishes Lord Frost’s ten policies “to save Rishi Sunak from oblivion”. They include building on the Green Belt, deregulating food production and delaying net zero. “Abolish the deadlines on boilers and EVs. Get fracking and build low-carbon modern gas power stations… If we must use renewables make them stand on their own two feet.”
Ministers know the disinformation is nonsense
This tide of negativity and disinformation is relentless. Conservative ministers know that what is being pumped out is nonsense and attacks their own policies. They were elected on a manifesto promising “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. They agreed, with almost no parliamentary opposition, to achieve net zero by 2050. They set the aim of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028, as a means of meeting the target. They agreed to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel, both to achieve the target and to give the UK car industry a future.
The Conservative government has much to proud of in its environmental record, and certainly in its aspirations. But it is falling well short of what is required on both nature and climate. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) latest progress report sets out, in painful detail, just how much the government is failing. This should have been the cue for some serious engagement by the government. Where is the committee mistaken? What is being done to get on track to net zero? What plans are in the pipeline?
Instead, it was met by virtual silence from ministers. Graham Stuart, the minister of state for energy security and net zero, said that the government had met its targets in the past and was confident of doing so in future. He did not say why or address the CCC’s evidence of why the government needs to shift gear.
Worse, his boss, Grant Shapps, ignored the report completely and focused on ridiculous tweets about Labour and Just Stop Oil. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise Labour’s policies, of course, but he must know this stuff is wildly untrue. Worse, he must know it risks undermining support for climate action and emboldening those in his own party and on its fringes who want to behave as if climate change is not happening.
In the 2019 general election, the parties competed as to which was the greenest. Now, it looks as if many in the government have given up on the environment and prefer to use it as a wedge issue.
Is the prime minister interested?
Last Friday, two days after the CCC’s report, the government’s most effective and passionate green minister, Zac Goldsmith, resigned from the government. His resignation letter was damning. He pointed out that the prime minister had missed a major international summit on finance for climate and nature, an area where the UK has led, preferring to attend a party with Rupert Murdoch. Echoing the CCC’s verdict, he declared that “the UK has visibly stepped off the world stage and withdrawn our leadership on climate and nature.”
Why was this? “The problem”, he said, “is not that the government is hostile to the environment, it is that you, our prime minister, are simply uninterested. That signal, or lack of it, has trickled down through Whitehall and caused a kind of paralysis.”
Whitehall watchers know that is true. The evidence of drift and under delivery is mounting. In the words of Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, Zac Goldsmith’s resignation “will add to the concern felt by voters, civil society groups, and other nations that responding to climate change and nature’s decline is no longer a top priority for the government”.
Where does this leave us? The UK is not alone in experiencing a push back against green policies. In Canada, beset by forest fires, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, Pierre Poilievre, has launched a campaign against the country’s carbon tax. In the European Parliament, the draft Nature Restoration Law looks like it is becoming a casualty of political infighting. The promise of Brexit was that the UK could do better than the EU. But we are falling into the same error: using the environment as a weapon in the culture wars.
This was supposed to be the decade of action on the environment, our last best hope of avoiding catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown. Conservative ministers should blot out the noise from know nothing columnists and declining newspapers, remember why they are conservatives and get back to the serious job of making sure we have an environment that can support us and the economy in future.