The general election in the United Kingdom and Northern Island is coming up, and the campaign is already bruising. In a last-ditch attempt at electoral distinction, Conservative Party prime minister Rishi Sunak has been sketching a new battleground—a climate war—adding anti-green diatribes to his list of culture war talking points against anything even remotely perceived as ‘Left’.
First Sunak trotted out his ‘pro-car’ credentials for the cameras and headlines, and attacked his Labour rivals for their apparent ‘anti-motorist’ stance. Then, at the end of the hottest July since records began, he announced an intention to ‘max out’ oil development in the immediate form of hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.
As he lampooned the Labour Party’s announcement that it would ban new domestic oil and gas projects, mocking Labour Leader Keir Starmer for letting ‘eco zealots‘ like environment group Just Stop Oil write his energy policy, the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice, and Corporate Watch reported that the two UK oil and gas giants, BP and Shell, had made £131 billion in total earnings since the Paris Agreement. Converted to AUD, that is $257 billion, or about 70 per cent of Australia’s entire thirty-year budget for nuclear-powered submarines with AUKUS.
On the surface, leaders like Sunak seem to be doing little more than haphazardly jettisoning environmental priorities as offerings to a right-wing-dominated media landscape. And lining the pockets of the fossil fuel industry to boot.
But dig a little deeper, past the barely disguised dog-whistling, past the debate over gas or induction stoves, even past the economic motivations of the fossil fuel industry and into the dark, earthy mantle, and here we strike the subterranean nerves of cultural anxiety, thumb the chords of identity that string climate change denial and science-scepticism together with populism, conspiracy, anti-globalist, anti-woke, misogynist, racist, transphobic, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Here, amoral populist political calculations stir seemingly inconsequential initiatives into digestible battlegrounds and terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Bike lanes, changes to city planning codes, emissions reduction initiatives, domestic energy policies and international climate commitments are fast becoming some of thefiercest frontlines in the upcoming election. These green policies are opposed, not so much by an outright denial of climate science—although there are certainly elements of that—as from a sense that these policies are undemocratic and enforced by an ideological elite against the interests of ‘the people’.
A tale of three by-elections
The most recent nationwide culture war over green policies escalated out of a debate over the ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) that kicked off in the wake of three by-elections: Selby and Ainsty, Somerton and Frome, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Going into these elections, the Conservatives held all three seats, but in the end they only retained one—former prime minister Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip—just making it across the line with a less than 500-vote lead. The by-elections were viewed as a bellwether for the general election, and in the tea leaves of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip victory, Sunak read a path to his own victory, saying, ‘Westminster’s been acting like the next election is a done deal. The Labour party has been acting like it’s a done deal. The people of Uxbridge just told all of them that it’s not’. And just like that, the apparently winning strategy of targeting ULEZ adopted in the local election became the blueprint for the Conservatives’ election play.
The innocuous ULEZ program—in essence a tax on high-polluting personal vehicles in specific areas—became the lightning rod for an opposition to green policies unique in modern UK political history. Sunak’s decision to elevate green policies like ULEZ to the national stage is a significant gamble, not only with the voting public and internal Conservative party powerbrokers, but also with the United Kingdom’s international reputation.
Rupture with the past
Debates on climate change in the United Kingdom are somewhat unusual compared to those of the domestic political scenes in Australia, the United States and even New Zealand. Although never too far from controversy, climate action in the UK political system has enjoyed soft bipartisan support for almost a decade. This makes Sunak’s recent interventions all the more striking.
Not too long ago, it was Glasgow’s turn to play host to the premiere international climate change conference, the 26th Conference Of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And one of the standout moments of an otherwise lacklustre conference was when, in the COP’s closing moments, then COP President Alok Sharma fought back tears to apologise. What for? For failing to pass a communique on the phasing out of coal and instead capitulating to the phasing down of coal. The United Kingdom’s ambition in that moment seemed genuine, and even ultra-conservative Boris Johnson was broadly recognised for leading the United Kingdom at the peak of its climate leadership.
What is at stake
Sunak’s political calculation rests on there being enough frustration at perceived burdensome and undemocratic green policies such as ULEZ to fend off predicted losses to Labour. In the context of a cost-of-living crisis, these arguments may take root, but at a cost. Not only will a United Kingdom recommitted to fossil fuel expansion have flow-on effects for other economies, as well as obvious ramifications for climate emissions and their attendant social and ecological breakdowns, but Sunak’s decision to wedge Labour on green policies will continue to face internal and external blowbacks.
The United Kingdom’s commitment to net zero by 2050 is firmly enshrined in law through the Climate Change Act. Any attempts to step away from its targets will likely face judicial challenge, as happened recently when the government tried and failed to pass the Net Zero Initiative. However, an anxious campaign could still do significant and irreversible damage.
In late June, Zac Goldsmith spectacularly resigned as Minister of State for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate and Environment, popularly dubbed the ‘International Environment Minister’. Citing Sunak’s apathy and disinterest as motivating factors for his decision to leave, he observed that ‘the UK has visibly stepped off the world stage and withdrawn our leadership on climate and nature’.
What may be most damning in Sunak’s gamble is the damage to bilateral relations, especially states in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Commitments made at the United Kingdom’s very own COP in 2021 are on the government’s chopping block, alongside drastic cuts to the International Forest Unit, the Adaptation, Nature and Resilience Department and the UK Partnership for Accelerating Climate Transitions. According to leaked documents seen by The Guardian, the government is likely going to renege an £11.6 billion climate spending pledge for developing nations. The leaked briefing warned ministers that ‘The geopolitical ramifications [of reneging or delaying] are likely to extend beyond climate, damaging our standing with a wide range of developing countries, SIDs [small island developing states], Commonwealth and middle-ground nations, further undermining trust in the UK as a donor’.
The willingness to stoke a culture war over climate action could signal an end to the UK’s outsized role in international climate forums. And at a time when the UNFCCC is struggling with a reputation crisis, the broader ramifications for international cooperation are worth reflecting on. Some may look upon this positively, as a predictable revelation of an ignoble Western hypocrisy. However, with the stakes so high, many will mourn the loss of UK leadership on climate and natures.
Just how far Sunak is willing to take his crusade against green policies is an unknown. Whether he will take aim at the Climate Change Committee or even the Climate Change Act is at this point speculation. Yet as Sunak continues to cast doubt on the feasibility of achieving net zero by 2050, he will inevitably confront opposition not only from the Committee and the Act, but also from colleagues and the international community. The fate of Sunak’s gamble may well be decided by the voters of the ‘Red Wall’ electorates, a grouping of 40 historically Labour voting seats in the Midlands and Northern England who delivered the 2019 election to the Tories. Often stereotyped as the ‘socially conservative’ working class, these voters have many commentators hedging; however, early polling suggests that on the issue of climate change the ‘Red Wall’ overwhelmingly supports climate action.