I'm sorry, but we have to talk about Conservative climate sceptics

James S Murray

It has never been more important for Conservative moderates to challenge climate reckless arguments that would undermine the UK's international standing and competitiveness

Watching the latest round of Conservative leadership manoeuvring, thinly disguised as an attempt to address the UK's many challenges I am reminded of a useful heuristic Tory members would be wise to consider: climate sceptics make terrible leaders.

Admittedly, the sample size for this geopolitical rule of thumb is necessarily small on the grounds opposition to climate action is such a fringe pursuit it is currently embraced by just one government on the planet, but the correlation is still worth noting.

George W Bush may be in the process of being reinvented as a well-intentioned repositry of reasonable conservatism, simply through the contrast he provides with the viper's nest of walking pathologies that is the current White House. But his antagonism towards tackling climate change sits alongside a record that also included two disastrous wars, the biggest financial crash in nearly a century, and the full scale takeover of the GOP by a bunch of libertarian fundamentalists. Australia's Tony Abbott will be best remembered as embarrassing even for Canberra's political class; a royalty man-handling, too drunk to vote, sexist, gaffe-tastrophy. And then, there's the current US President who we can only hope is remembered as a white supremacist, pollutocrat fever dream, rather than as the harbinger of a nuclear doomsday. 

The one exception to this rule is arguably Australia's John Howard who surfed a resource boom to secure four election victories, while quietly insisting climate science warnings were "exaggerated". Then again, his victories did more than most to pioneer the mode of dog-whistle, dead cat electioneering that has proven so depressingly damaging to democracies around the world over the past two decades. Many Australians remember Howard's antics anything but fondly.

Like most rules of thumb, there is a solid underpinning behind the prediction climate sceptics make poor leaders. Just as companies with strong environmental, social and governance performance tend to outperform the market because a company that is managing non-financial issues well also tends to run the rest of the business effectively, politicians who reject scientific advice, dismiss basic principles of risk management, and are blind to shifting technology and economic trends are likely to apply those same ideological blinkers to other parts of their role.

The worrying thing for Conservatives and the country is the party's members seem cheerfully unaware of this heuristic. The latest polling suggests Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are favourites to become the next Conservative leader.

Rees-Mogg's views on climate change are as outdated as the rest of his schtick, clinging to idea clean energy is "probably unaffordable", climate impacts are unlikely to be that severe, and we should not "go back to the stone age" by cutting emissions.

Johnson's views on climate change are, like everything else in his career - editorial integrity, collective cabinet responsibility, the unpleasantness that only Emily Thornberry is impudent enough to mention - somewhat conflicted. He has made the case for climate action and pioneered a host of green initiatives as Mayor of London. He even mentioned it in today's conference speech, declaring that we are "going to crack global warming, with British clean technology and British green finance - in which we lead the world".

However, he has also penned more than his fair share of utter dross based on the simple category error of confusing climate and weather. His writing on climate change has always been poorly argued, even by sceptic standards, demonstrating a level of intellectual engagement with his topic that should be added to the long list of reasons why his dreams of making it to Number 10 feel so absurd.

The fact Johnson and Rees-Mogg can adopt such a retrograde position on one of the defining issues of the age and still be the front-runners to succeed Theresa May is indicative of one of the (many) problems currently faced by the ruling party, and by extension everyone else.

As fascinating polling by the think tank Bright Blue revealed this weekend, voters under 40 want to hear senior politicians talk a lot more about climate change, yet they regard the Tories as "weak" and "inadequate" on this most important of issues. These are not "young" voters as such - they include the young who, according to the poll, are even more disappointed with politicians' engagement with climate change, but they also include those in their 30s, the literal centrist dads and mums who would once be regarded as critical to any Conservative coalition.

That the Conservatives have over the past seven years been able to oversee a trebling in renewables capacity, a toppling of clean energy records, a surge in green jobs, the demise of coal power, and historically steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while still leaving the electorate with the impression they are "weak" on climate change is a truly staggering achievement. To be on the wrong side of the economic and technological transition that will define this century is one thing, to let people think you are on the wrong side of it while actively trying to nurture its progress is simply extraordinary.

How did the party get here? How did it manage to simultaneously defend the UK political consensus on the urgent need to tackle climate change while creating the impression it was the seeking to torch that precious consensus?

The fact is that for the past decade or more the UK has been held hostage by a small band of political extremists who cannot command a majority in parliament or the country, but who are still hampering the adoption of a rational strategy in favour of a reckless, ideologically motivated obsession with a course of action that would devastate the British economy, cripple investor confidence, and permanently tarnish the country's standing in the world. No, I am not just talking about Brexit, I am also talking about climate policy.

The parallels are obvious and have been widely commented upon. In both cases a small band of political obsessives have thrown caution to the wind and ditched any last vestige of small c conservatism in favour of the most high risk venture imaginable, rejecting expert advice and all notions of risk management in pursuit of a vision that grows more fantastical by the day. Britain as a buccaneering leader in free trade; Britain as the world's leading, and soon to be only, high carbon industrial hub.

In the case of climate policy, the climate sceptics have not enjoyed a fraction of the Hard Brexiteers', should we call it, success? These sceptics - and I am using the term in its colloquial and broadest sense to cover those who are dismissive of climate science and/or dismissive of the need for urgent climate action and the viability of low carbon infrastructure - have been unable to stop the emergence of a multi-billion pound green economy. The plummeting costs of renewables and the viability of variable energy sources as part of a modern grid have defied their predictions at every turn. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen sharply, even as the economy has grown and clean tech's popularity has soared.

Consequently, I have lost track of the number of times I have heard business leaders and green campaigners declare the best way to handle the right's recklessness on climate change is to ignore it. "They are marginal," goes the argument. "A small fringe that will not and cannot influence global investment decisions and technological trends."

And indeed they are, but this strategy, tempting as it is, misunderstands what climate sceptic campaigns and the handful of politicians who enable them are capable of achieving. They can't reverse the global transition towards greener business models, but they can slow it down.

I have told this story before and it may well be apocryphal, but it is worth repeating. A friend once told me of a lawyer who worked on a huge multi-year antitrust case. He realised early in the process it was an argument regulators were almost inevitably going to win, but the company had calculated that it made much more money from retaining its current anti-competitive position for as long as possible than it cost in lawyers' fees. Thus the legal team's unstated mission was to drag things out as long as possible, leaving the door open for the company to keep exploiting its advantageous position. This is the similarly unstated goal of many sceptic campaigns: to keep the door open for polluting incumbent business models as long as possible.

Against this benchmark, Tory climate sceptics have been much more successful than the strength of their arguments warrants. Time and again, the primary way to understand policy decisions that have slowed the pace of decarbonisation is as a sop to this wing of the Conservative Party. From blocking onshore renewables developments to the disgraceful cuts to energy efficiency spending or the watering down of building standards, Conservative leaders have ducked a fight with sceptic colleagues and their cheerleaders in the press, deprioritising crucial climate policies that are known to work and being happy to be seen to be doing so.

Of course, there have been other reasons for measures that have slowed the pace of decarbonisation. Legitimate concerns about costs and industrial competitiveness have to be addressed and some of the steps the government has taken to curb subsidies or support polluting industries can be justified on these grounds.

But Ministers would be on much firmer ground when defending such moves, if every time they took steps to address clean tech cost concerns they didn't immediately contradict themselves with moves that reveal the extent to which narrow political calculations and misplaced tribal loyalties have also informed their decisions.

If there is a genuine concern about levies on energy bills, why block the cheapest forms of clean energy, pushing up costs for everyone in order to appease the three per cent of people who strongly oppose onshore wind farms? Similarly, if we need to tackle energy bills, why cut support for energy efficiency programmes and prioritise other forms of infrastructure that deliver less impressive returns?

It is hard to imagine that a rational government committed to tackling climate change would not adopt such economically and environmentally beneficial policies were it not concerned about the political fallout of aggravating climate sceptic colleagues. Time and again government and business is forced to engage with bogus concerns based on outdated arguments prosecuted by commentators who never once come forward with a credible alternative plan for tackling climate risk. They are the like the people who respond to the news you taking up exercise, by asking 'what about your knees? Aren't you worried about your heart? I read beer was actually good for you'. And instead of nodding along politely and ignoring them, the Conservative leadership has for too long been willing to pander to these trumped up fears.

There is an argument this refusal to engage in a battle of wills with the Tory climate sceptic wing has been a carefully thought through strategy - a conscious decision to try and take the political heat out of the issue while quietly getting on with the serious business of cutting emissions. The UK's steep recent reductions in emissions suggest it might even have worked.

But there are significant problems with this strategy. The first is that if you constantly triangulate between the 21st century and the 19th century (or 18th century in Rees-Mogg's case), you end up in the 20th century. As US commentator David Roberts has argued, if you split the difference between two groups engaged in what he calls asymmetrical polarisation, where one extreme completely rejects climate risk and the other extreme simply wants to tackle those risks, then you end up falling badly short of the climate action that is required. You effectively put the handbrake on efforts to decarbonise, leading to higher emissions and handing a leadership position in the technologies that will dominate the coming decades to international competitors. You find yourself in the position of complaining about the UK's woeful productivity, while singularly failing to drive the low carbon building and infrastructure upgrades that can help boost productivity.

Moreover, you wilfully relinquish the political dividend that comes with unequivocally supporting sectors that command support amongst over 70 per cent of the public, including those crucial young voters. You take technologies that around 80 per cent of people say they want to see more of, and let those same people think you are opposed to them.

The problem for the government is this triangulation simply cannot last. The urgency and scale of what is required during the next phase of decarbonisation makes any equivocation both unviable and self-defeating. An already gargantuan task becomes even harder if the government continues to deny the cheapest renewables a route to market, diverts infrastructure spend away from efficiency improvements, or caves in to every media attack on 'green levies'.

The upcoming Clean Growth Strategy (with its repeated delays and re-positioning as a strategy rather than a plan already ringing alarm bells that its ambition could be diluted) will not be sufficient if it makes any concessions to a tiny climate sceptic demographic. And it is tiny. The government's own polling is worth quoting again: seven per cent of people are not at all concerned about climate change, one per cent strongly oppose the use of renewables, only three per cent think climate change doesn't exist, and four per cent think it is entirely caused by natural factors.

Just as Theresa May's attempts at appeasing the hard right of her party over Brexit have only tarnished her political brand and boxed her into an impossible corner, similarly compromising the UK's most compelling route towards achieving long term economic competitiveness will deliver no political upside and will simply store up immense challenges for the future. 

One of the few encouraging aspects of the last few days of the Conservative Party Conference has been the sight of Ministers with a brief in this area - Michael Gove, Greg Clark, Claire Perry, and Richard Harrington - all hinting strongly that they understand the scale of the low carbon transition and the immense importance of the Clean Growth Strategy. But this prioritisation needs to be embedded at every level of government from Number 10 down, and requires sensible Conservatives to finally face down sceptic arguments and the outsized influence they command once and for all.

It really shouldn't be that difficult, because these are terrible arguments espoused by a motley crew whose standing in British politics remains an enduring mystery. They would no doubt regard it as an ad hominem, but the two most vocal media advocates of a slower pace of decarbonisation in recent months have been the columnists Matt Ridley and Nick Timothy, respectively a key player in the collapse of Northern Rock and one of the primary architects of the biggest electoral catastrophe in Conservative Party history. To say their reputation for effective risk management is tarnished is an understatement.

Week after week Ridley publishes his column in The Times, and week after week he fails to address the single question his lukewarmist thesis demands: what happens if he is wrong? What happens if the economic and scientific models he leans on, while rejecting the models he dislikes, prove overly optimistic and delaying efforts to slash carbon emissions results in devastating climate impacts? When the stakes are the stable climate that enabled human civilisation is there not a responsibility to err on the side of caution?

Timothy's recent column on renewables policy was more conciliatory towards the case for climate action, declaring that there is "no need to abandon the Climate Change Act". But it also claimed we should instead "change the trajectory of Britain's decarbonisation plans, so a greater share of the reduction comes later, through technological innovation, rather than earlier, through the imposition of higher energy costs and lower industrial output".

It is an argument that is doubly confused. Firstly, it ignores the crucial role deployment and economies of scale have played in driving clean energy innovation and cost reduction, as evidenced in all those markets around the world where low carbon energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels. And secondly, the Climate Change Act does not simply set a headline target of cutting emissions 80 per cent by 2050. It contains five yearly carbon budgets for the simple reason the amount of carbon you emit is a function of the pace at which you cut emissions. If emissions stay flat until 2045 before then falling 80 per cent inside five years then total emissions and their related contribution to climate change over the period is massively higher than they would have been if you had followed a steadier emissions reduction trajectory.

His argument is akin to your doctor telling you to lose two stone over the next six months, and you saying "Alright doc, I'm going to eat doughnuts for the next five months and then I'll cut my calorie intake in the last month, is that OK?" If this is the level of Timothy's mathematical analysis no wonder the Conservative manifesto had no costings.

Why get in to all of this now? Why not just ignore arguments that have failed to derail the UK's largely impressive record of decarbonisation?

Well, as mentioned previously, the government is about to unleash the next wave of low carbon development. It should do so by breaking decisively with those within its own ranks that will seek to sabotage this agenda at every turn. A full blown disownment of the weak and flawed arguments arrayed against climate action would provide a powerful signal to investors and business leaders. It would also be politically savvy, especially when one of the clear messages from last week's Labour conference is that the opposition fully comprehends how climate action is both a vote winner and an effective attack line against an embattled government.

But more importantly, at a time of such febrile political manoeuvrings, there is immense strategic value in standing up to extremist arguments of all shades. As the journalist Nick Cohen has spent the past few years pointing out with ever increasing urgency, if you don't forcefully challenge political extremes then you are constantly at risk of a confluence of events that allows them to seize power. Climate sceptics' ambitions may have previously been focused on slowing green economic development, but Brexit and the tremors it has unleashed through the UK political landscape has put them within sight of the main chance.

With Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris to the fore it is easy to see how climate policy and the UK's position as a competitive clean economy could yet become a victim of the forces of recklessness that are stalking British politics, despite the fact they would almost certainly make terrible leaders.

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