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‘From Brexit to Clexit? Delaying Climate Action is the Right’s Next Big Political Culture War’

The manner in which the Conservatives’ anti-net zero campaign has been waged has resonant parallels with that which produced Brexit, writes Julian Petley

Then Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the COP26 UN climate change summit. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

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In the Uxbridge by-election in June, the perceived unpopularity of Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the city’s outer boroughs was successfully mobilised by the Conservatives to engineer the victory of their candidate – albeit with a majority of only 495 votes (reduced from 7,210 in 2019).

Climate-sceptic Conservatives MPs then immediately pressured the Government to roll-back its net zero policies. This in spite of the awkward facts that ULEZ is not a net zero policy, its purpose being to improve air quality, not to reduce carbon emissions; and that it was first announced in July 2014 by Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor, and backed by then Prime Minister David Cameron.

However, right on cue, the Telegraph announced on its front page this week that, at the upcoming Conservative Party Conference, Rishi Sunak would announce plans to block councils from introducing new 20mph zones and scale back low-traffic neighbourhoods. These and other measures would be part of a “plan for motorists”, the newspaper claimed – adding that the policies “come in the wake of the Tories’ shock victory” in the Uxbridge by-election, “amid anger at Labour policy towards motorists”. 

That this mobilisation has been able to take place so quickly and effectively bears witness to the presence of deep reservoirs of climate scepticism in the Conservative Party which were simply waiting to be tapped.

The manner in which the resultant anti-net zero campaign was waged also has resonant parallels with that which produced Brexit – hardly surprisingly, since many of the dramatis personae in the former are exactly the same as in the latter. 

And as Matthew D’Ancona observed in observed: “Politically, psychologically and strategically, the two projects are intimately connected. They are two sides of the same ugly coin.”

‘There’s Nothing Patriotic about Anti-Green Extremism’

It is no coincidence that the Government’s backtracking reflects the anti-green rhetoric often involving those who pushed for Brexit

Many of those who clamoured for Brexit were already climate change deniers – for example: Lord Lawson, founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF); Matt Ridley, coal owner, Times columnist and GWPF advisor; Owen Paterson, who was fired as Environment Secretary after giving a speech to the GWPF (partly written by his brother-in-law Ridley) in which he argued that the “Climate Change Act should be effectively suspended and eventually repealed”; and James Delingpole, former executive editor of Breitbart London and a regular contributor to the right-wing press, who on his website describes his dislikes as including “the European Socialist Superstate” and “the ‘global warming’ myth”. 

The winter floods of 2015-2016 provided them and others with unrivalled opportunities to bang both the climate change denialism and the Brexit drums.

For example, Delingpole, writing in The Sun, on 31 December 2015 – in an article headed “EU know who did this to Britain” – blamed the flooding not on climate change but on the European Water Framework Directive, which discouraged dredging. Thus the real causes of the disaster were “our unelected masters in Brussels… driven by lunatic green ideology”.

A similar line was taken in Ridley’s column in The Times, of  4 January 2016, titled “Don’t blame climate change for these floods”, in which he accused the Government of “gold-plating” the Directive, which, he helpfully pointed out, also marked “one of the first times the European Union invited the big green environmental organisations to get directly involved in policy-making”.

Indeed, after the Brexiters’ success in the EU Referendum, a new group by the name of ‘Clexit’ was formed. As DeSmog has reported, its 1,200-word founding statement declaimed that “Brexit was Britain’s answer to the growing over-reach of EU bureaucracies. Clexit is our answer to the push for global control through climate hysteria”. It stated that “nations should not tolerate UN and EU bureaucrats manipulating science in order to justify their dreams to redistribute wealth and revert to the central planning that enslaved and impoverished the old command economies”.

As is the case with so many organisations of this type, Australian and North American mining and petro-chemical interests loomed large among the membership. But in the present context it’s worth noting that its first president was arch-denialist Christopher Monckton.

Monckton joined UKIP in 2009 and then became its chief spokesperson on climate change, followed by its deputy leader, head of its policy unit, and its president in Scotland – although he was sacked by Nigel Farage in November 2013 in a characteristic bout of factional infighting. His numerous global activities on the climate front have included being policy advisor to the Heartland Institute and to the Science and Public Policy Institute, both US-based and vehement proponents and enablers of denialism. Monckton’s sister, Rosa, is married to Lawson’s son, Dominic, whose Mail and Times columns have regularly espoused climate scepticism.  

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More recently, the elective affinities between so-called Euroscepticism and climate scepticism have become abundantly clear in the overlapping memberships of the Conservative European Research Group (ERG) and the Net Zero Research Group (NZRG) and are epitomised by figures such as Tory MPs Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay. 

In 2015, Baker co-founded ‘Conservatives for Britain’ (the president of which is Lord Lawson), the purpose of which was to lobby for an EU Referendum. From 2016-2017 and 2019-2020 he was chairman of the ERG. In May 2021, he joined the Board of Trustees of the GWPF. And ahead of the COP26 UN climate change summit, he and Mackinlay set up the NZRG, which brings together backbench Conservative MPs who oppose many of the Government’s net zero policies.

This has very close links with the Institute of Economic Affairs, a powerful pro-Brexit think tank which has long opposed government climate policy. Baker has also written articles critical of the costs of these policies for Net Zero Watch, a campaign launched and managed by the GWPF. 

Meanwhile, Mackinlay was one of the founders of the Anti-Federalist Party, the forerunner of UKIP, serving as the latter’s leader in 1997 and as deputy leader from 1997-2000 before entering the Conservative Party in 2005. He was a founding member of Conservatives for Britain. In the 2015-2017 and 2017-2019 Parliaments, he was a member of the Exiting the EU Select Committee. In the 2015-2017 Parliament, he was also a member of the European Scrutiny Select Committee.

On the climate front, he leads the NZSG. Since 2020, he has chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fair Fuel for UK Motorists and Hauliers. A prominent member of this group is Howard Cox, founder of motoring lobby group Fair Fuel UK, which is a vocal opponent of fuel duty increases and the Government’s ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles (originally slated for 2030 but now put back to 2035). He is running as the Reform Party candidate in the 2024 London mayoral election on a pledge to scrap London’s ULEZ scheme entirely and to remove low traffic neighbourhoods.

Given this fusion of concerns among a significant number of Conservative MPs, and the vociferous support which they have received from the right-wing press, it is entirely unsurprising that climate change has risen so rapidly up the political agenda.

Indeed, last January, Baker predicted that this is precisely what would happen (and then ensured that it did). As he wrote in The Sun, on 25 May 2021 – in a clear echo of the arguments made for the EU Referendum – the “elite policy-makers who govern our lives” had not been upfront about the cost of net zero and that “you, the voter, have not had a choice”. In his view, if the Conservatives lost touch with their voters and “forced the public into buying expensive, ineffective heating” and made us “give up our cars, we will reap what we have sown. The cost of net zero could deliver a political crisis greater than the poll tax”.

And, as he told Sky News: “I’ve started three big projects of MPs on the issue of the day – one on Brexit, one on COVID, which of course affected everybody, and one on net zero. Of the three of them, the one that grew fastest by miles was net zero, simply because members of Parliament know this is going to hit all voters and hit them hard and hit them fast and they aren’t going to like it.”

But this is a ‘culture war’ issue as much as it is an economic one – however hard the Conservatives, and what Tim Bale in The Conservative Party after Brexit fittingly calls the “party in the press”, try to persuade us that they’re trying to protect the poor – which, to put it mildly, would be uncharacteristic.

So what are the ideological factors in play here?

‘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

They appear to be the same as those which animated not only Brexiters but also anti-lockdown ‘libertarians’: distrust of expert opinion, dislike of international treaties and top-down government interventions, paranoia about the activities of  ‘metropolitan liberal elites’, and fear that personal freedom is in peril from a form of creeping socialism – or worse, in the form of the ‘Great Reset’. And, entirely unsurprisingly, these sentiments have been amplified by exactly the same right-wing newspapers that supported the COVID ‘libertarians’. 

Up until around 2016, climate change denial was a staple of papers such as The Sun, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express and their Sunday equivalents. However, as a highly detailed analysis by Carbon Brief has demonstrated, outright denialism has given way to scepticism of a kind – and it should be noted this has very significantly increased since the study concluded in 2021, particularly in the wake of the fuel price rises caused by the Ukraine war.

In particular, there have been attacks on climate activists, complaints that the UK is doing too much and other countries too little, and growing criticisms of the cost – particularly to that Conservative staple, “hard-working families” – of achieving net zero by 2050.

These are examples of what have come to be called the “discourses of climate delay“, which accept the existence of climate change but justify inaction or inadequate efforts and focus attention on what they claim are the negative social effects of climate policies and raise doubt that mitigation is possible.

The effect, and almost certainly the intention, is as D’Ancona points out, to “undermine the public and political consensus on climate change, to sow the seeds of doubt and to create political division”.

This is exactly the line pursued by Net Zero Watch, which states on its website: “We will scrutinise policies, establish what they really cost, determine who will have to pay, and explore affordable alternatives… We all want to see a cleaner and better environment for future generations, but if climate and energy policies are rushed and their costs and implications not fully thought through, they will almost certainly do more harm than good.” 

And this approach is faithfully echoed to the letter by the climate-sceptic newspapers. To take but one example from the myriad possible ones, a Mail leader, of 30 March 2023, proclaimed: “No one denies global warming. But the UK is responsible for just 1% of global CO2 emissions. We need policies based on rational analysis, not the hysteria of climate alarmists. We need to ensure energy security and not impoverish ourselves. Our green dream must be the springboard for a leap forward – not a leap in the dark.”

This is straight out of the disruptors’ playbook, and it was precisely by such means that Brexit was pushed remorselessly up the political agenda from the mid-1990s onwards. Now now Farage and Reform Party Leader Richard Tice are agitating for a net zero referendum, with newspapers such as the Telegraph (which has a climate-sceptic columnist Allison Pearson, which it doesn’t inform us is a director of the GWPF) taking up the call.

So, for example, in a column this month headed “Nobody ever asked us if we wanted green energy. They just did it”, Kathryn Porter, commenting on Sunak’s modifying of the Conservatives’ net zero policies, suggested that: “Perhaps the Prime Minister has recognised, as Nigel Farage has been saying for some time, that there has been a democratic deficit around net zero that is similar to the deficit that eventually led to the Brexit vote. Because, as with EU membership, political elites have taken us down the road to net zero without waiting to see if this is a road we, the public, wish to travel.”

Significantly, Farage delivered his thoughts on this subject in the same newspaper in January, in which he opined: “I cannot think of an issue on which the Westminster class, along with their media friends, are more out-of-touch with the rest of the country. It is time MPs got off their high horses and listened to some common sense.”

Don’t say you haven’t been warned. 

Julian Petley is a Honorary Professor of Social and Political Sciences at Brunel University London. This is an edited version of a chapter from the collection ‘Toxic News: Covering Climate Change’ which will be published by Bite-Sized Books at the end of October

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