For an instant my blood ran cold. A spokesman for the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria was being interviewed on the radio. Opposition to it is based on its inconsistency with Britain’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases. The interviewee had barely started when he took the line that Britain only contributed 1% of greenhouse gases, and what the country does doesn’t really mattered compared to China, where they were still building coal power stations. It was first time I had heard this line of argument in this country. It felt like a portent.
To their credit I have not heard Conservative party ministers take this line, even as they prevaricate when short-term projects collide with longer term ambitions, as in this coal mine project, and in the case for expanding Heathrow airport. The government has been setting ambitious targets on greenhouse gas reduction – meaning that there is something of a consensus on the issue among the main political parties. With the UK hosting the international COP26 conference on climate change in November, it is under intense international scrutiny, as it tries to persuade other countries to increase their ambitions. It is a welcome difference with the USA, where the Republicans oppose serious action for reasons that range from outright denial to feeling victimised to just general obfuscation. Could Britain change?
The ominous precursor is Britain’s membership of the European Union. There was a similar political consensus that Britain should stay in amongst the party leaderships – but then the Conservatives came under serious pressure. This was from Nigel Farage’s Unitied Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which skilfully stirred up trouble, tapping into deep discontent amongst older voters, and many others who were disengaged from the political process. This became a serious electoral threat to the Tories, as a large part of their voter base was defecting, and many of their grassroots activists sympathised with Mr Farage. First the Tories had to head off the threat with a referendum, which the leadership then lost. And as the government floundered with the process of departure, Boris Johnson took on the leadership of the party, and moved it straight into Ukip’s ground, offering a hard Brexit and strict limits on immigration.
Mr Farage was a busted flush. His next move was into lockdown scepticism. But this showed that he did not have his finger on the pulse of Britain’s discontented. Most people, including Leave supporters, felt this was cranky and antisocial, and he never broke out to the level of support needed to create political waves – in the region 20%, say. But scepticism on climate action seems tailor-made for his style of political campaigning. Climate action will soon enough be forcing unwelcome change on ordinary people – through the cars they drive to home heating, to say nothing of unsightly wind farms. A huge array of arguments can be deployed, from throwing doubt on the climate science to whataboutery (like that spokesman’s “what about China?” to “we agree but this is the wrong way to do it”. The arguments need not be consistent, they just need to play on the idea that a privileged elite is trying to pull one over on ordinary people. I haven’t seen any clear polling, but it is one of those issues where the answer depends on exactly what question you ask. Most people are happy to go along with the general concern expressed by Richard Attenborough and others, but less happy when action could cause personal expense or inconvenience. Scepticiam could easily reach the levels that Mr Farage, or somebody like him, need to create serious trouble for the Tories. The Gilet Jaune movement in France is a worrying example.
Mr Johnson’s strategy is his familiar one of “have your cake and eat it”. Boosterism on how much Britain is doing to reduce carbon emissions, using the COP26 summit as evidence, but nothing that has a serious impact on household finances or any other aspect of daily life. This is unsustainable in the long term. People who are seriously worried about climate change – and there are a lot of them – aren’t taken in for a second. To them it is probably a case of “if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. But increasingly there will be tensions. That coal mine – and airport expansion – is a case in point. There will be bumps on the road for energy distribution. There has been inadequate investment in storage capacity to manage the peaks and troughs of renewable energy, for example.
If scepticism gains traction, then the Conservatives will inevitably be pulled in that direction in order to hold their base, especially in the newly-won seats in north England, the Midlands and Wales. That will give other parties a chance to bring their climate action credentials to the fore. If these parties are able to form some kind of alliance (Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens anyway – the position with Scots and Welsh nationalists is harder) then there could be real momentum for change. The election would become a real moment of decision. Something like this happened in Australia’s most recent general election – though there the sceptics pulled off an unexpected victory. But Britain is not Australia – which has a vast coal-mining and natural gas sector.
It is, of course, possible that Mr Johnson will successfully duck and weave for long enough to reach the next election without serious conflict arsing. But climate change is bound to become a hot political issue eventually.