Climate change and the right to breathe clean air are rapidly rising up the political agenda in the United Kingdom.
The ruling Conservative Party is now attempting to weaponize these issues as part of a toxic culture war to prevent action on climate.
Last week, the Conservative Party narrowly held on to the hotly contested sea of Uxbridge.
The by-election had been called after the resignation of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Although the Conservatives, after twelve years of divisive rule, are lagging behind in the polls, they managed to win the Uxbridge seat. Immediately, the victory was blamed on the opposition Labour Party’s plan to extend what is known as ULEZ, short for London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which penalizes the most polluting vehicles and charges them for entering London.
The ULEZ policy is being widened to include outer-London boroughs such as Uxbridge by the Labour Mayor of London, Sadik Khan. The Conservatives used it as an election weapon to attack Labour and scaremonger voters relentlessly.
Since the Conservative election victory, it is clear their strategy is to roll back on green commitments and to use environment and climate change as an explicit political dividing line before the next British election, which is next year.
Yesterday, the Financial Times warned that a decade after former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron told his party to “get rid of all the green crap,” Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are again “ready to water down their environmentalism … The upshot is that new oil licences will be approved, costly green measures delayed.”
Many are now deliberately conflating air quality issues, climate change and Britain’s commitment to net zero. David Frost, the Conservative member of the House of Lords and former Brexit negotiator who has long argued against environmental policies, is one such prominent voice arguing that the Tories should push back on their net zero commitments. Frost, an ex-whiskey lobbyist with no scientific expertise, also now says climate change could be “beneficial for the UK.”
Fellow leading Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, added that the lesson of Uxbridge bye-election was that “high-cost green policies are not popular.” He called on the party to delay moves on phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles.
Last weekend, the British Housing Minister, Michael Gove, warned against making tackling climate change and the race to net zero “a religious crusade.” His comments were relayed on the front page of the right-leaning Telegraph newspaper, which has long opposed green policies.
The toxic tactics of labelling environmentalists are religious fanatics or on a religious crusade is nothing new. Writing in the book, Green Backlash, published in the mid-nineties, I documented how the so-called Wise Use movement used such language, amongst other derogatory terms.
Michael Gove will know this. These are deliberate words, chosen with care and crafted to divide and spread fear and hate and to marginalize those committed to climate action.
Labour is walking into a Tory trap on this issue. They must not allow such rhetoric to win. If Labour wins next year’s election, they must not backtrack on taking urgent steps to tackle our climate crisis.
However, there are warning signs. Since the defeat at Uxbridge, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said the Labour Party must be doing something “very wrong” over the ULEZ expansion. He has now said the London Mayor should “reflect on the issue.”
Often those at risk of dirty air pollution are the poorest communities in London. Last month, a report found that “the most deprived communities of London are more likely to live in the most polluted areas,” that “Black Londoners are more likely to live in areas with more polluted air,” and the “Diaspora immigrant communities are also more likely to live in areas with more polluted air.”
The right to clean air should be a human right. It is also a social and environmental justice issue. So too, is climate. Despite what the Conservatives want you to think, action on the climate crisis retains high levels of public support in the UK. And half of British voters believe the conservatives are not doing enough to tackle the issue.
Luke Tryl, the director of More in Common, told the Guardian that “if the Conservative party were to tarnish its green credentials deliberately, it would risk further damaging the party’s prospects at the next election in crucial voting areas.
And what is even more abhorrent is that the Conservative – and potentially Labour Party too – roll backs are happening to a backdrop of record heat and wildfires in Europe, record heat in the US and China, and daily alarming signs of breakdown from the ocean to the Antarctic.
Such is the dramatic climate breakdown that the issue has featured on nearly 115 front pages in 84 newspapers in 32 countries. It will be the defining issue of the Northern Hemisphere summer. It has certainly alarmed scientists:
Wow, just wow. The planet is breaking.
Antarctic sea ice extent is the headline for me this morning. There was actually a net *decrease* in ice extent day over day, and it's mid-winter there, peak freeze season.
Extent is now 6.4 standard deviations below the 1991-2020 mean. pic.twitter.com/bqfPoVayKy
— Prof. Eliot Jacobson (@EliotJacobson) July 24, 2023
The Conservative fall on climate is happening literally as British holidaymakers flee for their lives in Greece as wildfires burn out of control.
A front page for the history books. pic.twitter.com/70DDhQtFa9
— Campaign against Climate Change (@campaigncc) July 24, 2023
And today, the UK Met Office is not surprisingly warning that last year’s heatwave in the UK was the warmest on record and is a sign of things to come in our climate emergency. And this month is set to be the hottest month on record.
It is no wonder that leading climate commentators in the UK are appalled.
Joss Garman, a director at the European Climate Foundation and a former Labour adviser, said that the Uxbridge result “unquestionably risks a chilling effect on environmental policies that could set back progress towards net zero by years.”
And Britain’s only Green MP tweeted:
This week, staggering cognitive dissonance has been on display. As wildfires rage, Govt is u-turning on climate policies – ULEZ, energy efficiency, EVs – not advancing them. Why won't political leaders take #climateemergency seriously?
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) July 26, 2023
We are witnessing dramatic climate breakdown day by day at the moment. Politicians from the UK and elsewhere must ramp up their efforts to shift to renewables and shut down fossil fuels, not vice versa. As our world burns, that is the only logical and scientific choice, no matter how politicians try to spin it.