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Populists are feeding the climate crisis to culture wars

From GB News and TalkTV to the Uxbridge byelection, a far-right climate populism is taking hold - with a clear agenda. 

July 22 2023, 10.29am

A populist backlash against lifesaving green policies has been brewing for some time. In a typically breathless article earlier this year, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Allister Heath, warned of a “people’s revolution” against the UK’s climate policies. The current issue of The Spectator bears a front page squib by free marketeer Ross Clark proclaiming: “the great motorist rebellion has begun.” 

But this week, the agenda got its first electoral outing, in Uxbridge and Ruislip. From Tory right-wingers to the freshly-elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, the Tories barely holding on to Boris Johnson's old seat was framed as a resounding message to Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan - who, Tuckwell said, should “sit up and listen” to residents who oppose the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone, or ULEZ. 

We’ve heard this kind of talk before, of course - over Brexit, when “the will of the people” was suddenly on the lips of almost every Tory. What is new here is the way this populist rhetoric is being applied to green policies, with climate action finding itself on the frontline of the right’s new “culture war”. 

This (literally) toxic new politics is being incubated in right-wing media outlets - especially TalkTV and GBNews, which have become greenhouses for climate populism. Born out of Trump-era  attempts to import the Fox News media model wholesale into Britain, the two channels introduced a product the UK could really do without: old school climate science denial, in shiny new populist packaging. 

Despite TalkTV’s slightly better reputation overall, it’s hard to say which of the two channels is worse on climate. A DeSmog investigation by this reporter found that one in three GB News presenters used their platform to spread climate denial last year, while more than half attacked the UK’s climate policies. 

So, claims by CEO Angelos Frangopoulos that the channel presents “multiple sides of the climate debate” won’t wash. There is consistent “messaging” from presenters across the channel. We had GB News host and monologue artist Neil Oliver telling viewers that “Net zero [and] the green agenda” form part of “a hellish potpourri of policies guaranteed to condemn hundreds of millions to death by poverty, death by starvation.” 

Not to be outdone, presenter Mark Dolan opined that “blindly pursuing net zero threatens to hasten the decline of the west, and therefore poses an existential threat to the free world.” 

Hosts were unimpressed by the UK’s record 40-degree heatwave last summer, with presenter Calvin Robinson accusing the Met Office of “alarmism”, adding: “Man-made climate change, I don’t buy it, because how much of an impact do we really make if we’re talking about carbon levels?” 

TalkTV presenters, meanwhile, spread climate change denial even when they’re off-duty. In May, presenter Kevin O’Sullivan picked a fight with Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, tweeting that “We do NOT (sic) know the science is beyond doubt” on climate change. Another TalkTV star, James Whale, decided to take on climate activist Greta Thunberg, tweeting: “You [talk] some rubbish, the climate has and will always change, and yes, mankind has an influence, but it cannot be controlled, stop telling people lies.” And Mike Graham, most famous for claiming that you can grow concrete, remarked on his TalkTV show that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not “fit for purpose because these are the people who keep getting everything wrong.”

Climate denialism meets culture wars

It’s tempting to dismiss this as reactionary bleating from fringe outlets most people don’t watch. But it’s important to understand this as part of a political project to drag public opinion and government policy to the right. Here, the Fox News precedent is helpful.

Fox has been pumping out climate denial and misinformation for years. (My personal favourite example is now-departed host Tucker Carlson’s claim last year that liberals don’t really believe in global warming, and you can tell this because they “live on the coasts.”)

Allison Fisher, Climate and Energy Program Director at the US watchdog Media Matters, told The Lead that climate denial was central to Fox’s political agenda: “Fox was founded as a right-wing counterweight to what they saw as a left-wing mainstream press, or biased press, and that was an obstacle to the Republican Party’s success,” she said. Republicans saw climate action as a “big government response. Anything that’s regulatory is going to be fought tooth and nail by the Republican Party because they’re usually in the pocket of the industries that are regulated.” 

This has traditionally involved trotting out a stable of climate sceptic “experts” like Marc Morano and Steve Milloy, many of whom have ties to the fossil fuel industry, to contradict the majority opinion of climate scientists. TalkTV and GB News have tried this too. Last year, they repeatedly hosted climate denier Brian Catt, a business consultant with a bachelor’s degree in physics, as a climate expert. Catt had previously written on his blog that the United Nations and green campaigners were using the “methods of the Nazis” to impose a “Marxist dystopia”.

So much, so familiar. But more recent tactics have seen climate denialism grafted on  broader tapestry of culture war politics. 

“What has been unique in the last couple of years is the addition of these culture war tropes to create this one-two punch,” says Fisher. “So, they’re both telling their audiences that human-induced climate change is not happening, and then telling them that the actions that are purported to address this are designed to control them and take away their freedom.”

In other words, if viewers are not overly sympathetic to fossil fuel companies’ wish to avoid regulation, climate policy is portrayed as a broad imposition on all “ordinary” people, driven by a “liberal elite” that (for reasons not specified) is intent on curbing individual rights. 

This conveniently directs public anger at climate activists and green policies, and leaves fossil fuel companies free to continue destroying the earth for profit. In the UK, the fossil fuel influence is less direct, (though anti-regulation think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, which gets a good hearing on these channels, did receive funds from BP from 1967 to at least 2018). But the same process is at work.  

The billionaires behind populism 

For all its railing against “elites”, GB News is co-owned by the Legatum Group, a Dubai-based investment firm, and millionaire investor and hedge-funder Paul Marshall. TalkTV is owned by one of the world’s biggest corporations, NewsCorp, which is of course headed by the inspiration for Succession’s Logan Roy - Rupert Murdoch. 

Both channels employ right-wing politicians, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Richard Tice, Lee Anderson, and Nigel Farage, who never saw a tax cut that they didn’t like. Could the utter fraudulence of populism be any more eloquent?

These politicians burn with the same passion for Brexit as Legatum, Marshall and Murdoch. Indeed, they enjoyed the process so much that both channels have given airtime to Farage and Tice’s campaign for a Brexit-style referendum on the UK’s net zero target, which operates in these quarters as a catch-all symbol for malign leftism. (Or as GB News host Mark Dolan said in December: “I think the push for net zero here is another element of liberal progressivism which is infecting the west.”) 

Folding climate into the “anti-woke” crusade has attracted the likes of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has seldom expressed an interest in climate change before, but who now attacks climate science and policy as part of a bag of left-wing causes. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in October, Peterson warned that “eco-extremists are leading the world towards despair, poverty, and starvation”. In an accompanying video, JP swapped “eco-extremists” for “wicked globalists”. 

This sort of talk can easily shade into conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society mould which Fox does so well, and which GB News has fully embraced. Listening to hosts Neil Oliver or Bev Turner, one is put in mind of the general in Dr Strangelove, who warned that the Reds were coming for our “precious bodily fluids”. And as in the Cold War, this smog of paranoia is not a healthy atmosphere in which to debate policies that could affect the fate of the world. 

The goal of this kind of media, Fisher says, is to “create an alternate reality”, so that even seeing the impact of climate change with your own eyes is not enough. This propaganda doesn’t have to land for that many people to have an impact on public opinion and government policy. 

“When you have a network like Fox News that provides cover for the politicians that are actively obstructing a federal response to the climate crisis, [it] keeps us from having the type of response that scientists say is necessary,” she explains. 

As the world experiences record temperatures, the UK government’s own advisors at the Climate Change Commitee say it’s moving backwards on climate action. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is feeling the heat from his right-flank, supports new North Sea oil and gas drilling, and accuses the Labour Party, (itself wrestling over how green it wants to look), of being in the pocket of Just Stop Oil. 

The Conservative victory in Uxbridge and Ruislip this week on a straight anti-ULEZ ticket is already strengthening the right’s embrace of climate populism. TalkTV and GB News are busy shrugging off the hottest days on record as “woke weather”. It’s high time those of us who care about science, truth, and the state of the planet take on climate populism with some fighting words of our own.