UK right-wing hostility to climate action is deeply rooted – and extremely dangerous | John Harris
On November 8, 1989, Margaret Thatcher gave a 4,000-word speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It was an eloquent and urgent speech, with references to Charles Darwin and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and full of omens of impending climate catastrophe that we know only too well: melting polar ice caps, shrinking the Amazon rainforest, and the prospect of more frequent hurricanes, floods and water shortages.
In response, “squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay” was an obvious path to disaster: what was needed, she told her audience, was “a vast international cooperative effort”, without denial or denial. “All countries will be affected,” she said, “and no one can opt out.”
Nearly 35 years later, there is dark hilarity about the attitudes to the climate crisis that Thatcher’s heirs have come to adopt. Rishi Sunak initially refused to make it to the Cop27 summit, then showed up to bring next to nothing of substance. In his party’s last leadership race, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman expressed particularly skeptical views of their government‘s ostensible net-zero goal, and Sunak and Liz Truss crumbled to aim for the same hostility against solar farms. Badenoch and Braverman now hold senior positions in the cabinet, while climate change minister Graham Stuart no longer attends its meetings, and Cop26 chairman Alok Sharma has been similarly demoted: for the first time in years there is no senior minister focused on the climate crisis.
Even though outright climate denial is now taboo, mainstream conservative politics brazenly focuses on delay and dilution. Thanks to measures taken for the first time under the leadership of Boris Johnson, new licenses will soon be issued to oil and gas prospectors with their eyes on the North Sea, while the de facto blockage of new onshore wind farms remains in place. square. In the absence of a clear objective, the Sunak government wants to be understood as an administration grappling with near-impossible crises, and therefore forced to relegate climate action to the margins. The ban on hydraulic fracturing was maintained for purely electoral reasons: everything else, it seems, must be subject to a renewed desire to secure the national supply of fossil fuels, and to a waste of prejudice and of irrationality that sees any credible climate action as a threat to our very way of life.
Which brings us to something that plays a huge role in post-Brexit Tory politics: that cacophony of reactionary noise that comes from the Tory backbenches, the right-wing press and the privileged bawling voices both with thumbs of column and airtime, especially on the wonderful GB Nouvelles. The Cop27 gave them yet another pretext to inflame with anger. Last week, one of the key issues at the summit sparked a particularly visceral onslaught of fury, when the need to channel finance to developing countries suffering the worst effects of a warming world – a complex subject, involving governments, multinational corporations and institutions such as the Bank and the International Monetary Fund – has been reduced to paranoid fantasies about the British government sending ‘untold billions’ to unworthy governments who should in fact be thanking us for the wonders of industrialization. Here’s another installment in that never-ending “foreign aid” hysteria, full of the nastiness it always entails.
There are many Conservative MPs who find this kind of talk deeply distasteful. But their party is now downstream of responsible forces and voices, and it is imbued with the same reactionary populism that defines post-Trump American Republicans and many of the far-right parties that have radically changed politics in Europe. On the fringes, conservative politics has always incubated elements like this. But when they opened their doors to the type of politics embodied by Nigel Farage, the Conservatives really began to absorb the credo common to parties such as the Swedish Democrats, the Finnish Party, Alternative für Deutschland and the Brothers of Italy, the party that runs their country’s government – all forces that hyperventilate immigrants and refugees, aim to alienate their respective countries from “globalism” and downplay or dismiss the need for serious climate action.
There is a very good book that explores all of this, published last summer: White Skin, Black Fuel, written by Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm, and a group of “researchers, activists and students” called the Zetkin Collective . It roots right-wing climate politics in things as psychological as they are political: nostalgia for an age of coal and oil empire, heavy industry’s yearning for machismo, and a vision of the global south as a deep threat. The latter’s climate-related suffering must be altered and ignored, and its inhabitants must be excluded, even if climate degradation makes large-scale human movements more inevitable than ever. Malm and his co-authors sum up the essential creed of the 21st century right this way: “We must defend ourselves again; we must take out of the ground what belongs to us; the enemy is marxist and muslim and jewish and here is his next attack.
The passages on the United Kingdom begin with the observation that in this country, “the extreme right is reconstituted on several occasions within the main conservative party”. And as you read on, the similarities between the main streams of modern Toryism and the populists – and fascists – of the 21st century accumulate. The downright bizarre belief that onshore wind turbines are a threat to civilization links conservatives to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Hungarian Viktor Orbán. Five years ago, a key figure in Norway‘s Progressive Party summed up the need to extract oil from even crystal clear waters crucial to cod stocks by insisting that “we will pump every last drop” – almost exactly the words recently used by Jacob Rees-Mogg on hydrocarbons in the North Sea. Outwardly, Sunak is the embodiment of “globalism”, but his politics are shaped by a party now fluent in a language indistinguishable from that of the far right elsewhere – witness Braverman railing against “cultural Marxism”, dreaming of flying refugees to Rwanda and insisting that we should “suspend the all-consuming desire to reach net zero by 2050”.
Given their seemingly likely defeat in the upcoming election, a period of soul-searching and soul-searching awaits the Tories. Or maybe not: Whether the Conservative party has an appetite for the severity of the climate crisis and voter anxieties beyond an aging and reactionary core is an interesting question. Amid fires and floods, and an electorate whose fears of a warming world will only increase, will they find a way back to reality? Or is his trajectory now set: beyond Thatcher, beyond even Johnson, into a political hell that he will share with the most dubious and dangerous people?