Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘Conservative Attempts to Fight a Climate Change ‘Culture War’ Betray Our Planet’

Conservative strategists are prioritising partisan games over the survival of the planet, writes Tom Burke

Then Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the COP26 UN climate change summit in 2021. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

This column also appears in the September print edition of Byline Times, which you can subscribe to here.

Weeks after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election in July, the political reverberations were still echoing around the media. This was unusual. Even when the result is a surprise, a by-election story typically lasts for only a few days.

But the cause was that, against all expectations, the Conservatives did not lose Boris Johnson’s former seat – and the deluge of political commentary that followed was unanimous in attributing this to Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to extend the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) policy to cover Uxbridge.

Turnout at by-elections is always low, and this was no exception. Such results are therefore a notoriously unreliable guide for general elections. So why the furore?

Despite Labour’s consistent lead in the polls, Conservative Party strategists will have been shocked by the 7.4 percentage points fall in its share of the vote. They may have been more alarmed by the clear evidence of tactical voting. They will also have wondered about the significance of the Green Party’s third place in all three by-elections.

It is possible that the media’s conflation of an air pollution policy (ULEZ) with a climate change issue (net zero) was simply editorial carelessness. But it is more likely that some political mechanic in the Conservative ranks, such as Isaac Levido, saw an opportunity to energise the missing Conservative voters. It would not have taken him long to persuade newspaper editors to share his view.

The result has been a sustained campaign in the media – often hysterical and abusive – to turn climate change into a ‘culture war’.

The spate of Government announcements that followed were clearly designed to enrage Greenpeace and energise Conservative activists. Consistent polling on climate change and current events make this a risk with voters – which explains the number of ‘get out of jail’ cards carefully worked into the Prime Minister’s statements.

Conservative strategists will also have noticed Labour’s inability to take advantage of the media storm. Somehow it failed to point out that both ULEZ and net zero are Conservative policies. It left unchallenged the conflation of air pollution and climate change. Neither was the very visible, and deepening, split on climate change within the Conservative Party exploited. They will also have noticed Tony Blair’s gratuitous repetition of the tired canard about Britain’s emissions being less than China’s.

More worryingly, the Labour leadership has begun to echo the Conservatives’ ‘now is not the time’ trope. You can see Keir Starmer’s problem: a trap is being set for him to force a choice between the ‘Red Wall’ voters he is seeking to regain; and the younger, greener voters with whom he has an in-built advantage. He has yet to find a way to step out from it.

BP and Shell Dish Out Bonanza Payouts to Shareholders as Climate Crisis Rages

The fight against climate change is failing to put a dent in the huge profits of the same companies who helped fuel the crisis

Emissions and Omissions

An unlikely stalker in this trap is Philip Hammond. In 2019, a letter the former Chancellor wrote to the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, was leaked. “The total cost of transitioning to a zero carbon economy is likely to be well in excess of a trillion pounds,” he wrote. This was followed up in the Telegraph this July, in which he claimed that the Government had been “systematically dishonest” about these costs with the public.

But it is Hammond who is being systematically dishonest. He could have pointed out the findings of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s 2021 review of the Climate Change Committee’s estimates of the cost of getting to net zero. But he didn’t.

It’s not difficult to see why. The OBR’s calculations show that the investment cost of £1.3 trillion would be offset by £991 billion of operating savings. £309 billion is a lot of money but it is not “well in excess of a trillion pounds”.

But there is more. From 2040, the OBR estimates, “net operating savings are projected to outweigh investment costs”, and by 2050 they “could be saving £19 billion a year”.

There is more still. Getting to net zero would produce a raft of non-energy savings to the economy by improving our balance of payments deficit or reducing the costs of the NHS.

None of these savings have been counted by Hammond. It is unlikely that this would not have been pointed out to him when he was Chancellor.

In any case, it’s not obvious why you would want to use a cost-benefit analysis as your principal policy tool for dealing with an existential issue like climate change. It’s very hard to imagine Volodymyr Zelensky having asked for a cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether to resist the Russians.

If you do not understand that it is physics, not politics, that defines the timetable for keeping the climate safe, you simply have not understood the problem

Our efforts to do so may very well fail but, if so, it will be a political failure.

How the Younger Generation is Being Betrayed on Climate Change

As the climate crisis worsens, our politicians are increasingly giving in to the demands of corporate lobbyists

Makers and Takers

We already have the technologies we need to build a carbon-free energy system that is secure and affordable – and we are more likely to improve, than to damage, our economy if we do so.

These are both very contested propositions. However, the contest is not so much about whether we can design public policies to achieve an affordable and secure decarbonised energy system but whether those policies are politically deliverable.

In the first case, the problem is choosing between the abundance of technologies available, each with its own noisy lobby. In the second case, you cannot make a technology transforma- tion that is not accompanied by a social transformation – this means changing who wins and who loses from the policy.

In both cases, politicians are discouraged from action by the need not to alienate powerful incumbent lobbies or voters in disrupted communities. The result is the kind of policy incoherence we are now experiencing. As historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle would have warned us, “if something be not done, something will do itself one day and in a way that pleases nobody”.

Getting something done about climate change is primarily about summoning the necessary political will. This is easy to say and hard to do. But we could make a start by widening the climate conversation so that we hear from some voices that are currently missing.

Today’s conversation, globally as well as nationally, is dominated by the climate makers: the incumbent fossil fuel industries and countries, and the carbon-free energy industries seeking to replace them. We are not hearing from the climate takers: those industries and countries who have to live with whatever climate results from the battle between the makers.

The takers we are not hearing from are the non-energy businesses that drive most of the economy. They are the cities and farmers and other land users that must cope with whatever climate comes their way. They are the health, education, legal and other profession- als whose essential institutions and services will be overwhelmed by the consequences of climate policy failure. It is time for these voices to join the conversation.

We have just experienced a foretaste of what European summers may be like in a world of climate policy failure. When weeks of 40°C-plus temperatures along the whole northern Mediterranean littoral become routine instead of exceptional – possibly in the 2030s – it is hard to imagine tourism as it is today.

Insurance companies in the US have recently begun refusing to insure homes in California and Florida because of the risk of fires and floods. Climate change demolishes the actuarial foundations for insurance. Try figuring out how to make capitalism work without an insurance industry. That most of the opposition to effective action comes from the politi- cal right is the paradox of the politics of climate change.

This column also appears in the September print edition of Byline Times, which you can subscribe to here.

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , , ,