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How Climate Change Went From a Hot Political Issue to a Tool to ‘Divide and Polarise’ the Public in Just Five Years

Climate leadership is not the vote loser its opponents like to portray it as – but the danger for the climate movement is assuming public support will endure forever, argues Russell Warfield

Climate activists from Fossil Free London, Extinction Rebellion and others staged a protest outside the AGM for Shell in North Greenwich in May 2024. Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy
Climate activists from Fossil Free London, Extinction Rebellion, and others staged a protest outside in London in May 2024. Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography/Alamy

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The 2019 General Election was arguably the first climate election in the UK. Unlike any before it, climate was a doorstep issue – polling consistently as one of the top three issues voters cared about.

Channel 4 hosted the first ever climate debate. There was a veritable arms race on tree planting. And the Opposition produced a manifesto which viewed the entire economy through the lens of climate change. 

If it wasn’t for “Get Brexit Done”, the fact that climate featured so prominently in the 2019 election would have been one of the enduring talking points of the campaign. 

Just two years prior, during the 2017 General Election, climate was almost entirely absent from mainstream electoral politics.

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas had to wander around Westminster with party activists waving a giant green question mark, asking: where is the environment in this election?

In 2015, then Labour Leader Ed Miliband – today the chief flag bearer for climate for the Opposition – did not carve a word about it into his infamous Ed Stone.

Ed Miliband unveiled Labour’s pledges carved into a stone plinth during the 2015 General Election. Photo: PA/Alamy

Why did the climate emergency suddenly take root in the electorate’s concerns in 2019?

The increase in interest coincided with the arrival of a wave of street activism from school strikers and Extinction Rebellion, along with more middle-brow interventions from the likes of David Attenborough, with figures such as Greta Thunberg and actress Emma Thompson knitting the two camps together into a broad-based coalition.

The re-emergence of the Greens probably did not hurt. Committed activists pushing Labour into developing a Green New Deal also played their part.

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There was also cross-party political consensus. The campaign behind the landmark Climate Change Act of 2008 successfully built a cross-party coalition of parliamentary support, while also establishing a fully independent Climate Change Committee which helped prevent the issue from being turned into a political football.

A departing Theresa May tried to revive a tarnished legacy by passing the legislation for hitting net zero by 2050; while the incoming Boris Johnson leapt upon the upcoming UN climate talks in Glasgow with zeal, believing they could be for his premiership what the 2012 Olympics were for his London Mayoralty. 

The contrast five years later could hardly be more stark.

Today, Government ministers spout known conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities, with the Prime Minister himself delivering set-piece speeches about slowing down on net zero.

As we head into the 2024 General Election, support for climate action among all demographics of the public has stayed strong. But the political consensus is in real peril. For the first time, there has been a serious and sincere attempt to divide and polarise the public on climate change.

Boris Johnson at the World Leaders Summit at the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Glasgow in November 2021. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

What went wrong?

The increasing influence of right-wing broadcasters is one reason. As is the worsening misinformation and radicalisation online. Polarisation has become an established feature of public life since Brexit. No doubt searching for the ‘next Brexit’, some MPs formed the Net Zero Scrutiny Group as their newest hobby horse.

More sharks began to circle following the Uxbridge by-election last year, which was framed as a quasi-referendum on the expansion of a clean air zone into outer London. Labour failed to take the seat, and this was read as proof that the public despised green policy.

Soon after, Rishi Sunak reached for the anti-net zero lever in the hopes of reviving his fortunes. His polling continued to plummet, while Labour’s London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was re-elected for an unprecedented third term on his biggest yet vote share, with no notable anti-ULEZ vote in either inner or outer London. 

More people supported ULEZ than opposed it, even outer Londoners. Meanwhile, polling on low traffic neighbourhoods – another ‘culture war’ flashpoint – shows support for the scheme has gone up year on year. Climate leadership is not the vote loser its opponents like to portray it as.

The danger for the climate movement, however, is assuming that this public support will endure forever. 

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Following this year’s election, it is possible that a defeated Conservative Party will turn to a more right-wing and populist leader. Equally possible is that Reform might continue to build momentum as a pressure group with similar effectiveness as UKIP.

For decades, progressives have guarded against reactionary forces which are primarily anti-immigration in nature. It is becoming increasingly plausible that the next serious right-wing threat in the UK will coalesce around anti-green politics (not that the two are incompatible) and that its advocates will become more convincing. 

What contemporary climate deniers have correctly recognised is that the low-hanging fruit on the path to decarbonisation has been picked. We have, for example, kicked out coal from our increasingly clean energy mix, and we have days when wind alone is delivering the majority of our electricity.

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Increasingly, however, the path to decarbonisation will travel through the way we live our lives. The people who fly most will have to fly less. Road miles must be slashed. We will have to change the things we eat. This will provide more fertile soil for the politics of grievance, whether real or imagined.  

The good news is that climate policy can bring people together. If Labour forms the next government, even the watered-down version of its £28 billion pledge will likely amount to the boldest climate action pursued by a UK government.

But the risk is that, without good public engagement and equitable policy-making which puts the burden of decarbonisation on the broadest shoulders, opponents to climate action might succeed in building a meaningful constituency among the public.

The antidote to this is not to shy away from climate, but to celebrate the success of climate policy, and to communicate the good that it is doing in people’s lives today. 

An early litmus test will come in the form of lifting the ban on onshore wind, as Labour has promised to do. The de facto ban came into place in the mid-2010s, bowing to pressure from Conservative backbenchers.

In reality, it was never actually unpopular, not even among those living near potential sites. Unlocking this clean energy would slash carbon, while bringing down bills and strengthening energy security – things which would bring together voters from across the political spectrum.

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Still, a minority will protest, and they will be seized upon by those who want this unrepresentative group to have a distorting effect on the debate – confecting a much wider culture war. At this point, the next government will need to hold its nerve, and trust that the true popularity of the policy will win the day. 

The next general election after this year is due to be held in 2029, 10 years after the first time climate was a key issue in a national campaign. It will either out-perform 2019 as a high watermark for climate, with the main parties promising to go further and faster in a world rapidly transitioning to a low-carbon economy, or it will be 2019’s evil twin.

We must all be awake to the danger of insurgent, populist forces successfully polarising the public over the climate emergency. The next five years will determine which path we take at this crossroads.


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