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The Conservative Party’s Climate Climbdown

Sascha Lavin explores why the Tory leadership contenders are moving away from the green consensus

David Cameron in 2006 with Husky dog Troika. Photo: PA/Alamy

The Conservative Party’sClimate Climbdown

Sascha Lavin explores why the Tory leadership contenders are moving away from the green consensus

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Ever since David Cameron repackaged the Conservative Party as environmentalist in 2006 – encouraging Britons to “vote blue, go green” while changing the party’s logo to a tree – the Tories have attempted to corner the market on climate change, even if their words have not always translated into deeds. 

Despite Boris Johnson’s chequered history of flirting with climate denial – he once wrote that “there is no evidence that the planet is suffering from the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change” – the outgoing Prime Minister has continued Cameron’s environmental legacy, pledging to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest country on Earth”. 

But now, as the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file members select Johnson’s replacement, that green ideology has fallen by the wayside – at a time when it is most needed. 

After Johnson’s resignation, Environment Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith warned that most of the likely Conservative contenders “couldn’t give a sh*t about climate and nature”.

Before Kemi Badenoch was knocked-out of the contest, she promised voters – after some flip-flopping – that she would drop the net zero commitment, calling the Government’s green pledges “unilateral economic disarmament”. Her fellow failed leadership contender, Suella Braverman, called for the UK to “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050” in light of the energy crisis. 

While Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the final two candidates left in the race, have both claimed to support the net zero target, neither have committed firmly to tackling the climate crisis.

Truss has vowed to overturn the ban on fracking and to end green taxes. Sunak has refused to relax planning rules for onshore wind “in recognition of the distress and disruption that onshore wind farms can often cause” – this is despite the fact that Conservative voters overwhelmingly support the creation of onshore wind farms in their local areas.

It is also rumoured that Sunak has promised to promote an MP who previously backed plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport to the position of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary. This would raise eyebrows among green Tories, with Lord Goldsmith tweeting that Mark Spencer heading the department would be “grim news for nature”. 

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Blue, Not Green

Although outright climate scepticism has become unfashionable in mainstream politics, prominent right-wing think tanks and the right-wing press have been pushing against more climate action in recent years – seemingly hoping to persuade the Conservative Party to depart from the green agenda. 

Controversial news platform GB News, which boasts close links to the Conservative Party – two of its MPs being GB News presenters – similarly platforms people who cast doubt on climate science.

Its presenter Darren Grimes delivered a self-described “ode to oil”, while Dan Wootton has accused the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of “spreading terror”. DeSmog has uncovered tweets from GB News chairman Alan McCormick in which he has shared articles by climate sceptics. One article, posted by McCormick in 2015, likens believing that carbon dioxide is the main cause of climate change to “believing in magic”.

A GB News segment last week – during which the presenters told a meteorologist to stop doom-mongering about the climate – was widely compared to a scene from the Netflix film ‘Don’t Look Up’. Adam Kay’s apocalyptic satire is a parody of the climate emergency set in the context of a comet set to destroy Earth.

The Daily Mail, likewise a lodestar for Conservative thought, published a front page this week claiming that “sunny day snowflake Britain” was having a “meltdown” over the threat of rising temperatures. The next day, images of buildings burning in London during the unprecedented heatwave led its front page.

This process – of influential right-wing thinkers and publications questioning mainstream scientific opinion – has worrying echoes in the lockdown-sceptic movement during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, while the rationale for locking-down was accepted universally at the beginning of the crisis, a slow tide of resistance grew during the pandemic – led by the right-wing newspapers (that were suffering the financial effects of lockdown).

Now, it is established opinion among the right of the Conservative Party that lockdowns were implemented too frequently and for too long – with former Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost recently calling them a “serious mistake”.

It appears that the same process of gradual radicalisation and science scepticism is taking place in relation to climate change – with the consensus of opinion now fracturing on the Conservative benches.

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Pound notes have also been greasing the wheels.

As this newspaper has previously revealed, unsuccessful Conservative leadership contender Penny Mordaunt accepted £20,000 from a company run by Terence Mordaunt, who chaired the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) between 2019 and 2021. The GWPF is described by investigative outfit DeSmog as “the UK’s principal climate science denial campaign group”. Mordaunt has subsequently said she doesn’t share the opinions of her namesake.

Last October it was reported that the Conservative Party had accepted £1.3 million from fossil fuel interests and climate sceptics since 2019.

Liz Truss is also closely associated with the Institute for Economic Affairs – the influential libertarian think tank – while they share similar environmental stances. In 2018, Truss tweeted: “Good to see PM supporting fracking against NIMBY question. #frackontrack”, echoing the IEA’s championing of fracking – the environmentally controversial practice of drilling for gas and oil.

Meanwhile, Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute – another influential libertarian think tank – recently wrote that “we’re not sure we wholly agree” that climate change is caused by emissions. 

The Centre for Policy Studies, meanwhile, whose director Robert Colvile co-authored the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, has devoted attention to the subject of “green growth” – though Colvile has questioned the balance of the state and the private sector in this endeavour.

“Any serious effort [to push on net zero] will be beset by vested interests – both people pleading for money for their pet projects and the ‘green blob’ seeking to lure the government into ever more interfering, meddling, regulating and taxing in the name of saving the planet. And nothing will ever be enough for Greta, who will continue to howl green murder,” he wrote for The Times in January 2020.

Elsewhere, the outright pushback against green policies is prominent in certain sections of the Conservative Party, with a recent Independent investigation revealing that one-in-15 Conservative MPs do not believe that climate change is real.

Conservative backbencher Craig Mackinlay has even hired two members of staff from the controversial Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the GWPF’s campaigning arm.

With Tory MPs responsible for whittling down the leadership candidates to two, it therefore is little wonder that the contenders were reluctant to position themselves as environmentalists in the leadership race. 

As Rishi Sunak and Truss make their pitch to the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file members, there is similarly no need for them to inject their campaigns with green promises – just 4% of Tory members surveyed by YouGov said that reaching the current target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was in their top three priorities for the next Prime Minister.

As the appetite for environmentalism wanes among Conservatives and influential groups pushback against pro-climate action, the future of the party is not green – no matter who succeeds Boris Johnson. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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