BOris Johnson’s recruitment for the global crusade against carbon emissions is, by his own admission, recent. On a visit to New York last month, the prime minister confessed to a back catalog of newspaper columns that he “did not fully support the current struggle.” He was making excuses for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, his secretary of commerce whose record of climate skepticism leans toward outright denial. (In 2012 he mocked “global warming fanatics” for believing the polar ice caps were melting.)
Around the same time, Johnson was questioning the scientific consensus, dabbling in crazy theories about sunspots, and disparaging wind farms. In his defense, the prime minister has since declared that “facts change and people change their minds.” At most, half of that statement is true. It was a fact that human activity was warming the planet when Johnson was enraged, and it is still a fact now.
A newly acquired belief is not necessarily false. Or rather, sincerity is the wrong test to apply to a man who believes things while saying them, but adapts what he says to suit the audience. When Johnson was a secondary MP, plotting to be a Conservative leader, it was convenient to have a set of convictions. As the host of the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow next week, you need a different set of opinions.
In terms of Britain’s contribution to carbon reduction, the recentness of the prime minister’s conversion matters less than the forces that might keep him on the cause or away from it. He did not choose a side in the Brexit referendum until February 2016, but the shallow roots of that conviction were not an impediment to radicalism. When forecasting Johnson’s behavior, the salient factor, probably the only one, is the calculation of their political interest.
The omens are not good. In the short term, there is pressure to be green. At Cop26, the world will be watching. The pride of Downing Street is at stake. The government’s net zero strategy, launched today, reflects that scrutiny with ambitious promises to boost green investment and infrastructure.
And after the summit? The familiar The flow of Westminster politics resumes, with the prime minister’s eyes drawn to events much closer than the 2050 horizon, where Britain must be carbon neutral; more close than 2035, at which point fossil fuels are supposed to have been removed from UK electricity generation; closer to 2032, when all new cars sold should be electric. The farthest point in the distance that Johnson can keep a eye on is the upcoming election, to be held in May 2024, but possibly sooner. Meanwhile, you are vulnerable to distraction by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle.
This problem is not unique to Great Britain. Future generations enjoy the rewards of good climate policies; the costs are paid by the people who vote now. That’s not an attractive gamble for most politicians, least of all the shortsighted ones obsessed with headlines and ratings.
There are good arguments for present sacrifices in exchange for future rewards. Johnson himself used them recently when he raised national insurance to fund health and social care. But the calculation of self-interest was simpler. He does not want to fight in an election in which Labor could accuse the Conservatives of failing to fund the NHS through a pandemic. Run the same equation with subsidies to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, or the price of roads to offset a drop in excise duties on vehicles, and it doesn’t balance as well.
Even tax-allergic conservatives submit to the political logic of bailing out the health service. They have limited patience for what they see as a pattern of shaking to the left by a leader who neglects his party’s core values. There is already a group of deputies – the “zero net scrutiny group” – ready to cause trouble as the bills for a green transition start to land. Broadcast by serial Brexit maverick Steve Baker, the NZSG does not explicitly reject climate science (although it’s fair to say its members still have some ground to cover on the journey to get away from skepticism). The argument is expressed in terms of value for money and equity: carbon neutrality is a luxury service, and the government should not extract the subscription from ordinary families, who will likely be squeezed in the coming months due to inflation.
That view gets a sympathetic hearing from the chancellor, though the penumbra pinching gloom was removed at the 11th hour of a Treasury review published alongside the net zero strategy. The number 10 clearly didn’t want rain on the Johnson parade route to Glasgow.
However, the prime minister cannot resist indulging the caricature of ecology as a metropolitan lifestyle fetish for vegan and remaining. That was the implication of an article he wrote in the Sun this week, assuring readers that “the green shirts of the boiler police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and take carrot-toe your faithful old combi ”.
There are conservative-friendly ways to refute net-zero skeptics, and ministers do them from time to time. They point to potential job growth and a competitive advantage for the UK in new industries. They might also point out that Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer of political leadership on environmental issues, advocating a ban on CFC gases to plug the hole in the ozone layer. There is an appeal to the principle to preserve a precious relic, the natural world, as a legacy for our grandchildren. The clue is the name of the party.
For the most part, British Conservatives are thankfully not infected by the most unhinged tension of climate denial that has captured American Republicans. But Climate politics is still trapped in a polarizing vortex where a cause can be sacred only to one side. The right-wing decides that cutting carbon emissions is a socialist ruse to smother markets and takes a belligerent stance against regulation, more Thatcherist than Thatcher. The left denounces this position as proof that the real obstacle to progress is capitalism, which seems to vindicate the resistance of the right.
There is a compromise zone in the old-fashioned central zone, where the problem of moving from a dirty economy to a clean one is solved through a combination of state intervention and private sector innovation. That is indeed the approach taken by Johnson’s net zero strategy. What the government says on the subject is not wrong, but what the prime minister says has not always been a reliable guide to what he will do. Today he is a climate evangelist. Not long ago I was a skeptic. Today you are on the right side of the discussion because the political facts changed to make it worth staying there. But the mood in the Conservative Party changes more often and more violently than the scientific consensus. Boris Johnson knows who his true teacher is.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism