Opinion

Climate denial sharks are circling since the Ulez by-election. Don’t feed them.

A knee-jerk reaction from the Conservatives and Labour have put green policies up for debate. But we don't have time for climate denial, writes Adam Barnett

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak congratulates newly elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell after he won the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Image: (Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP)

Opponents of climate action have seized on the Conservative victory in last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection — by a whopping 495 votes and on a pledge to “stop” the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) — as a de facto referendum on green policies as a whole. It’s got Labour and the Tories wobbling at a time when record temperatures are a fresh reminder of the climate crisis. But there’s something fishy going on here.

Unnamed cabinet ministers were quoted as saying the Conservatives should now take a “balanced” and “sensible” approach to the climate crisis. The Sunday Telegraph called for a Brexit-style referendum on the UK’s net zero targets. The Sun said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “must be bold and delay our net zero deadlines or the cost will be ruinous”. Lord (David) Frost said “the lesson is surely that green policies are very unpopular when there’s a direct cost to people”. He and others are using the Ulez row to call for delays to the phaseout of new petrol and diesel cars and new gas boilers. 

Much like the terrible wildfires in the Greek island of Rhodes, this reaction didn’t spring from the head of Zeus. It’s the result of a deliberate campaign to undermine public support for green policies by climate science deniers. 

Lord Frost is a director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation think tank,  which rejects the science on human-caused climate change and campaigns for new fossil fuel extraction. This week in a House of Lords debate about how to protect the UK from climate change, Frost stood up and made the claim that “rising temperatures are likely to be beneficial”. 

Perhaps Frost would like to try that argument out in southern Europe, where people are suffering a deadly heatwave made 950 times more likely by human-caused global warming, according to the World Weather Attribution group. 

Speaking of facts, the UK’s net zero targets are affordable and could be cheaper than relying on natural gas, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, has laid out a range of ways the UK can meet these targets — which climate scientists say must be hit to limit global warming below 1.5C. The public tends to support climate action, including net zero, according to recent polling by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit group.

Instead of listening to experts or the public, the government appears to be running scared of the media demagogues and their tiny Uxbridge mandate. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK would “make progress towards net zero”, but “in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their life”. 

The opposition is no better. Keir Starmer said Labour must “learn the lessons” from the byelection, making the dubious claim that “we are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet”. 

The CCC recently warned that the UK is moving backwards on climate action under Sunak, while Labour seems embarrassed by its own pledge to invest £28 billion a year in green jobs. The debate about new North Sea oil and gas drilling has been reduced to a meme war between Starmer and Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps over who can be meanest about Just Stop Oil protesters. How lucky we are to have these people in charge. 

The trouble is, you can’t out-flank dark money on climate inaction. The sharks of climate denial were circling long before this byelection, and believe they smell blood in the water. The Daily Mail has attacked the BBC’s climate editor Justin Rowlatt as a “hypocrite” for flying to Spain to cover the heatwave. TalkTV presenters are denouncing heatwave warnings as “woke weather”. In a vacuum of political leadership, this junk will have more and more influence on a weary public.

Whatever you think of the ULEZ expansion, it would be a mistake for either critics or supporters to turn it into a symbol for all climate policies, or to take one byelection as a shout from a silent majority. We elect governments to act in the public interest, not to get spooked by a few hundred votes in Greater London or by a demagogic media campaign. Global warming is not a constituency you can appease with some clever political triangulation.

As veteran US environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote recently, you can’t “fool the atmosphere”. The climate is indifferent to party politics, and the “cost of living” with climate change is rising every day.

Adam Barnett is a news reporter at DeSmog.

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