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Tory populism on climate change will cost them votes

Journalist Faima Bakar explains why ignoring climate change will devastate the planet and Tory re-election hopes.


September 01 2022, 12.37pm

There’s sewage on our beaches, above average levels of nitrogen dioxide on our balconies (to fatal consequences), and sizzlingly hot temperatures setting off wildfires and droughts like never before. The planet is in a dire state, but what's being done about it? 


Despite the global climate crisis not abating any time soon, it doesn’t seem to be top of the priority list for many governments, including the UK’s. Although the UK hosting COP26 inspired some hope and there appeared to be some unanimity in taking much needed action, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia war and enforcing Brexit while the country’s governing party was in the middle of a leadership battle has taken precedence.


Throughout the leadership race, Conservative leadership hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss both begrudgingly pledged to make net zero targets – cutting greenhouse emissions as close to zero as possible. But neither candidate, much like their predecessors, had a detailed policy to achieve it.  


It’s hard to grasp either’s commitment to environmentalism; the newly-installed Prime Minister Liz Truss reckons wind turbines are eyesores while her challenger Sunak couldn’t decide if he wanted them or not. Sunak said all he knows about climate change he learned from his daughters and looked to recycling and using energy more efficiently. Even though Truss championed net zero in the past, she supported gas fracking and her cabinet shortlist is stuffed with zero-sceptic MPs.


It’s not surprising both candidates had tepid stances on the environment; throughout the race they tried to appeal to MPs for whom it’s not a priority and for whom there’s more climate skepticism than enthusiasm. Former PM hopeful Kemi Badenoch also admitted she would delay the 2050 net zero target – despite previous support – saying it would ‘bankrupt the economy’. Recently, business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng skipped a key evidence session on energy security with parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. In 2019, a survey of more than a hundred MPs found that Tories are more likely to be skeptical about global warming than their counterparts, while in November 2021, a poll showed that one in fifteen Conservative MPs believe climate change is a ‘myth’.


So how can we hold the new Prime Minister accountable? Well, the climate agreement isn’t just a policy promise. 


“Net zero is a legally binding goal”, says Neil Verlander, a spokesperson for environmental organisation Friends of the Earth. “In agreeing to net zero, the government has signed the Climate Change Act.” 


Recently, the High Court ruled that the government’s climate strategy breaches the Act because of its lack of detail on how to meet targets. As a result, the Prime Minister has until 31 March next year to come up with a revised plan that’s fit for purpose.


But by waiting around for further proof and environmental disaster, the government is delaying much-needed action, says Verlander. “They haven't paid attention to the climate emergency, despite the record-breaking heatwave and drought that’s battered Britain. Unbelievably, they indicated support for more fossil fuel exploration.”


By choosing to defer such matters, the Tories miss how tackling climate change can also benefit the economy, and the population. Verlander adds: “[They] have given scant regard to the enormous role that energy efficiency and renewables could play in tackling both the climate emergency and cost-of-living crisis.”


“A comprehensive, free home insulation programme, focusing on those most in need, would reduce bills for millions of people, as well as cutting climate-changing emissions.”


While Tory MPs and some voters may consider global warming a myth, it’s hard to ignore its devastating signs. From Haiti to Kenya to Afghanistan to Bangladesh, the most vulnerable countries in the world are reaping the cost of carbon emissions amassed by their Western counterparts. And floods, wildfires, hurricanes and droughts not only haemorrhage people’s livelihoods but destroy populations.


Watching Bangladesh's extreme flooding has been painful for Afzal Ahmed, a Bangladeshi campaigner working for non-profit Nijor Manush. “Bangladesh is suffering and it breaks my heart seeing my parents' village flooded,” he says. “It feels like a repeat of the same brutal relationship between the UK and Bangladesh.”


He explains how Britain looted much of the world’s resources and hoarded them. “This country freely pumped out carbon emissions as one of the first industrial nations,” explains Ahmed. “The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and it has the resources that the world needs to tackle climate change. But it’s not taking responsibility for a global green transition. The countries most vulnerable to the consequences have the fewest resources to deal with it.” 


As a British-Bangladeshi, Ahmed is aware of how the UK has leant on the global south for its growth and driven up their emissions while ignoring the connection. “It's completely unacceptable for the UK to push the burden of green transition onto poorer countries,” he says. “The UK owes countries like Bangladesh a huge historic debt and needs to realise it is more responsible for current global emissions than they like to admit.” 


While the Tory cabinet buries its heads in the sand over the climate disaster, the tide is turning among their voters.  A recent poll showed that most Conservative party members are hugely supportive of energy efficiency and green power: 85% of Tory voters support incentives and investment to improve home insulation and energy use, and nearly three quarters back more wind and solar energy. 


Tom Burke, from E3G, a climate think-tank, explains that now there is a growing gulf between what Conservative party members want and what MPs are delivering. “The voters, who decide who the next prime minister is, are pretty hostile to the government's inaction in decarbonising the economy,” he explains. “There’s a gap that's beginning to emerge between what Conservative voters think and what the leaders of the party think their members think.” 


Burke reckons party leaders risk losing voters if they continue neglecting the issue. “I think there's a real danger that they'll fall into this gap between the two because they're trying to please audiences that are moving in different directions. There's voters who are clearly getting more and more alarmed about the state of a climate because events in the real world are confirming what science has been saying for decades. So voters want more and more from the government. Meanwhile, the Conservative party seems to want to do less and less.”


Liz Truss is now our Prime Minister and in the following months, the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) will publish its results on how countries are tackling climate change. The UK has fared well in the past, placing in the top 10. Whether it will hold on to its ranking is yet to be seen. The Prime Minister might want to get to it ASAP, not just to secure a decent ranking, but to serve the millions of people whose lives are devastated by climate change daily.