Criticism of Net Zero in Britain is rife among prominent right-wingers, but will the public buy it?
With restrictions to the right to protest, and the Tory press attempting to weaponise environmental activism against Labour, the climate movement in Britain has been having a tough time of late. Meanwhile, further afield in Germany and Holland, opposition towards green policies considered radical is gaining momentum. This growing hostility towards climate action at home and abroad begs the question: can the UK’s climate change deniers successfully provoke a backlash against Net Zero?
On April 1, the Telegraph ran with a story entitled: ‘The backlash has begun against Net Zero’s relentless war on driving.’
The article speaks of a ‘fanatical obsession’ with congestion charges, low traffic zones and electric cars, which are ‘ignoring the needs of the majority of ordinary people.’
And take a look at this piece by Allister Heath named: ‘The idiot West is sleeping as the end of the world draws near.’
Heath, who is the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, claims that by ‘obsessing’ with climate change and Net Zero, the ‘global elites have got their priorities wrong,’ and are ‘bizarrely blind to the risks posed by AI, biowarfare and nukes.’
Headlines like this are all too familiar in a media that has regularly trashed climate science and renewable energy. In 2020, for example, the Sun published a piece on ‘top scientists’ claiming that predictions that Earth is about to enter a ‘Mini Ice Age for 30 years is probably wrong.’ The article was based on the claims of Valentina Zharkova, a professor at Northumbria University. Seemingly not the most impartial of scientists, Zharkova has presented her thesis to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which promotes climate science scepticism and calls decarbonisation a ‘futile gesture.’ In 2019, she was one of 500 ‘scientists and professionals’ who signed a letter to the UN stating: “There is no climate emergency.”
The question is: with such climate change sceptic reporting pushing the views from the denialist fringe to the mainstream, how much damage is being done and will the public buy it?
In the case of the Sun’s article, it seemed to invoke the intended reaction, with one amateur ‘climate scientist’ reader responding: “So much for climate change.” That said, with the Murdoch-owned newspaper recently emerging as the least-trusted news brand in the UK, perhaps such stories don’t create as much rebuttal of climate science as the editors might like to think?
Nonetheless, what we have seen in recent weeks is the Tory press attempting to weaponise environmental activism for political gain.
‘Labour has become the political wing of Just Stop Oil and their plans will cost us all dearly,’ splashed the Sun this week. In an attempt to whip up furore against the Labour leader and climate activists, the article asks: “Is anyone fooled by Sir Keir Starmer’s efforts to distance himself from the eco zealots who have been blocking roads on Saturday and interrupting a rugby match at Twickenham?”
The claims were in response to Labour’s announcement that the party will stop all licences for new oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. The article slams Starmer for accepting money from Dale Vince, a key funder of Just Stop Oil. Labour has come under pressure from the Tory press to distance itself from Vince. This is despite Starmer making it clear that his donations will have no impact on Labour Party policy and condemning the actions of Just Stop Oil. As LFF pointed out this week, the same media goes conveniently silent when it comes to the Tory party accepting money from donors with links to dictators, including the Putin regime and to the former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. It also goes quiet on how an influential Tory-linked lobby group associated with leading the backlash against the government’s Net Zero policy has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from an oil-rich foundation with large investments in energy firms.
ULEZ and Sadiq Khan
Similar weaponisation against environmental policy is being aimed at Sadiq Khan. With the London mayoral elections less than a year away, the Tories are lining up to try and use the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to defeat the London Mayor. Conservative election chiefs claim Khan, who is throwing his hat into the ring for an unprecedented third term, ‘already has a problem’ in a number of suburban boroughs. These senior figures within the Tory Party, believe opposition to the widening of the scheme designed to clean up London’s air to the M25 will give them the best chance to win back City Hall. A total of five Conservative councils have launched legal action against ULEZ expansion.
Tory chairman Greg Hands told the Evening Standard that he believes the ULEZ extension, which is due to come into force on August 29, will be an election issue, “particularly in those outer London boroughs where Sadiq Khan already has a problem.” Nickie Aiken, the Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster and the party’s deputy chairman, claims Khan has read the ULEZ expansion “completely wrong.”
Predictably, the Tory press jumped on the anti-ULEZ expansion bandwagon. Using typically hysterical language, one article in the Sun speaks of Khan’s ‘hated’ ULEZ plans.
Less ‘noise’ has been made by the populist press about the announcement this week that the number of people eligible for financial support to replace polluting vehicles, is set to increase ahead of the ULEZ expansion. Khan said there would be support for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. All families on child benefit will also be offered access to the support scheme.
Allies of the London Mayor say he would be “proudly’ campaigning on his record of having helped clean up the capital’s air. As one Labour source said: “Londoners know exactly what the Tories are about – a cost-of-living crisis, soaring housing costs, huge cuts to public services, and opposing measures to clean up our dirty air.”
In March, Sadiq Khan described ULEZ has having been ‘transformational’ and ‘one of the most successful environmental initiatives anywhere in the world.’ The London Mayor also said the scheme has been subject to a ‘sustained campaign of opposition.’
But then climate change deniers are well-rehearsed in conducting sustained campaigns of opposition.
While Net Zero commitments have been widely attributed to Boris Johnson’s government, it was his predecessor Theresa May, who had committed the UK in law to achieving a ‘Net Zero contribution to climate change by 2050.’ Under Johnson, a number of steps were made on environmental issues. The hosting of COP26 was one. Just before the conference, the government published its Net Zero Strategy, which set out policies to decarbonise all sectors of the economy. In it, the deadline for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars was brought forward to 2030.
But Johnson’s ‘Build Back Green’ promises were not without problems. His sincerity, given his proclivity for headline-grabbing slogans and promises, was called into question. At the same time the Net Zero Strategy was criticised by the independent Climate Change Commission for lacking sufficient, reliable policies to keep emission reduction on track. Meanwhile, the Tory Party’s division on environmental issues grew, and Johnson’s ‘green agenda’ faced growing opposition.
Brexit and climate change denialism
A number of influential Brexiteer voices shouted the loudest opposition. Leading the charge was the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a small but well-established group of Tory MPs who argue they have no issue with the aim of fighting climate change but question where the costs will fall. They were joined by Nigel Farage. In 2022, the ‘godfather of Brexit’ launched a ‘Vote Power, Not Poverty’ campaign inviting voters to ‘take back control of our energy policies and prices’ and demanding a referendum on the UK’s legal commitment to reach Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. Talking to Politico, Farage said the consensus behind Net Zero was “such a Westminster point of view” perpetuated by “Zac and the gang” — a reference to Zac Goldsmith, the then environment minister and one of the greenest members of Johnson’s government.
Also at the helm of the misinformation campaign about Net Zero targets was Tory MP Steve Baker, a prominent Brexiteer who was chairman of the European Research Group. In 2021, Baker announced that he had become a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the lobby group that opposes policies to tackle climate change by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. In May that year, Baker wrote an article in The Sun complaining about the costs of replacing gas central heating, and claiming that “the poorest will pay the highest price for these carbon neutral fantasies.”
The clear line of continuity between Brexit and Net Zero scepticism within political circles has been echoed in the Tory press.
Just take a look at this piece. Daily Mail journalist Stephen Glover, who has previously expressed horror that fracking is currently banned in England because er… it causes earthquakes, mocks the – yawn – ‘eco obsessed elite’, who are attacking good working people. That’s a bit rich coming from a paper owned by billionaire aristocrat.
The author even admits he has no technical expertise in the area, or even pretends to have done any research, yet goes on about the so-called pitfalls of backing electric cars and the 2030 diesel and petrol car sales cut off. Alongside his rant about the terribleness of electric vehicles, Glover sarcastically proclaims that for once he agrees with the EU, as they approved a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2035, a whole five years after the UK.
This is the same man who in 2018 was named the third worse Brexiteer of the week by the New European, for a 1,250-word rant in the Daily Mail on his bid to boycott Lufthansa and Ryanair because their chief executives had said beastly things about Brexit.
While green agenda division rumbles on through Tory ranks in Britain, there is some evidence of the right internationally weaponising an anti-green sentiment with a degree of success.
In the provincial council elections in Holland in March, the populist Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB), won a bigger victory than expected. The party was formed in opposition to anti-pollution laws, which it claims threatens the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers. The victory has been sold as a ‘warning to the green movement’ and proof that ‘people across Europe are fed up with unfair environmental policies.’
Admittedly, such exaltations were made by Unherd, which seems to have a bit of a problem with climate change, having argued ‘climate change is no catastrophe’ and ‘attempts to stop warming will backfire,’ but nonetheless show the potential power of right-wing anti-green sentimentality.
Germany’s ‘heat hammer’
Then there’s the situation in Germany. Dubbed the ‘heat hammer’ by the populist press, a radical piece of climate legislation has triggered a backlash. The bill effectively means new gas boilers are banned from being installed from January 1, 2024. From then on, newly installed heating systems would have to be at least 65 per cent powered by renewables. Ministers say that the policy is pivotal to the country’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2045. But the move has created reaction. As the FT reports, the controversy over the bill has pitched chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government into its ‘worst crisis since taking office nearly 18 months ago.’ Disquiet towards the bill is, the FT continues, reflected in the Greens’ approval ratings, which recently slumped to just 14 percent, two points behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
As for the situation in Britain: following the High Court’s ruling in 2022 that the government’s existing strategy to meet its legally binding target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 was inadequate, Rishi Sunak had little choice but to publish some form of energy strategy.
Earlier this year, Sunak and his energy secretary, Grant Shapps unveiled a mishmash of decarbonisation policies labelled collectively as an ‘energy revolution’ announced on so-called ‘green day.’
The Tory press had plenty to say on the move. ‘Net Zero is dead: Long live Energy Security?’ posed a headline in ConservativeHome in a cynical article about achieving Net Zero.
But despite the best attempts of the right-wing commentators, the climate sceptic ‘think-tanks’ and some polls like this dodgy one by the rightist Unherd that reveals Britain’s most ‘green sceptic towns’, the Tories remain divided on climate change, with the official line being, at least rhetorically, in favour of Net Zero. Climate change deniers may be stepping up misinformation campaigns about Net Zero but whether they will be enough to successfully provoke a backlash from the wider public and derail targets remains to be seen. I guess the bigger test will be if and when the UK introduces tougher measures to mitigate climate change, like the ones seen in Germany. Then the denialists no doubt will really step-up anti-climate action campaigning. And, as we saw with the Leave campaign’s successful mission to get Britain out of the EU, when the Right mobilises, propped up by the right-wing press, they can be a political force to be reckoned with. In this sense, ruling out a Net Zero backlash could be naïve and unwise.
Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press pulls out ‘Airpod-gate’ in desperation
If we thought ‘Beergate’ was a pathetic attempt to berate the opposition and distract from the government’s own epic failings, then this one goes a step further.
Earphones, yes earphones costing a whopping £139, were splashed across the pages of the Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mail, GB News, and the Express, belonging to the one figure the populist press seem to love to hate – Angela Rayner.
The usual suspects made ‘Airpod-gate’ a leading feature of their editorials. It was so christened by Guido Fawkes whose use of that tired old cliché ‘gate’ seems to epitomise the poverty of right-wing thinking.
‘Tin Eared Angela Rayner tried to sting the taxpayer for ANOTHER pair of AirPods – before hastily repaying the cash,’ was the headline in the Sun.
In a bid to give the story greater ammo, the newspaper digs up so-called accusations of hypocrisy in 2021 after the Labour Deputy apparently charged the public purse £249 for personalised Airpods. According to report, the ‘Labour firebrand’ has been ‘leading the charge on government’s overspending and luxury travel over recent months.’
‘Caught red-eared’ was the headline in the Mail, which says Rayner has repaid a £139 expenses claim after seemingly purchasing another pair of Apple AirPods.
If there is one thing the right-wing media is, it’s predictable. This non-story is the latest in a line of sensationalist attacks on the deputy Labour leader. The most memorable was the notorious ‘Sharon Stone’ story, in which the Mail et al, essentially blamed Rayner’s legs for the fact she is a better public speaker than Boris Johnson.
But that seems to be the crux of the issue, the fact that this opinionated, left-wing, northern, working-class woman, who doesn’t have a PPE degree, can slap her opponents down in an instant. They can’t stand that.
Another prominent woman within the Labour Party who the right-wing press seems to be building animosity towards is Rachel Reeves. The Shadow Chancellor was thrown into the lions’ den recently, being the focus of a rant in the Sun about her flying business class to the US. In their tirade about Reeves’ non-taxpayer funded business class plane ticket, the Murdoch-owned newspaper conveniently forgot that its owner is the master of luxury travel owning an $84 million private jet.
How can they realistically pontificate about plane tickets and earphones when Tories like Baroness Mone have been ripping off millions of pounds? In November 2022, documents were leaked that suggested the Tory peer and her children reportedly raked in a thumping £29m from Covid-19 PPE contracts. And of course, Mone’s case isn’t an isolated one involving dodgy PPE contracts. The government has written off more than £9bn alone on PPE that was procured with public money and then deemed unusable, overpriced, or undelivered.
With real toxic scandals like the Mone one engulfing the Tories, it’s not surprising that their lapdog press is searching for distractions. And Angela Rayner, with her strong northern accent and penchant for saying it how she sees it, is one target they want to topple.
Woke bashing of the week – Waterloo Road, GP clinics, and the National Trust (again!)
It’s never a dull day when reporting about the latest attacks on ‘woke’ culture. You never know which unsuspecting people, commodities, vocations, and institutions are going to be the next victims. And this week didn’t disappoint.
‘Waterloo Woke:’ Waterloo Road viewers rage ‘never watching again!’ as they blast ‘woke’ BBC for ‘insulting fans’ intelligence,’ screamed the Sun.
Really? Can’t say I have ever watched Waterloo Road, but surely whatever the popular BBC drama has meant to have done can’t be that bad? After wading through a series of anti-woke comments apparently made by irate viewers, the article doesn’t actually inform readers about what was so ‘woke’ about the latest series of Waterloo Road. Instead, it presents us with a poll entitled: ‘Do you think the Waterloo Reboot was too woke?’
Just days earlier, the same newspaper printed a similar culture war ramping piece, that time targeting a ‘woke GP surgery.’ The article gushes about the surgery apparently being under fire for asking parents to state if their baby is trans or non-binary. The clinic, the Sun delights in reporting, also gives parents the choice of registering their newborn’s gender as ‘other’ or ‘not stated.’
Now, I’ve been writing about ‘woke bashing’ for around ten months and it really is incredible how often the same names crop up in these culture war rousing reports. In this one, our old friend Toby Young is quoted. Yes, the well-known free speech zealot who continues to write cantankerous columns for the right-wing press and is director of the Free Speech Union is cited in the ‘woke GP surgery’ report, claiming that the choice presented to parents is an “invitation to woke parents to impose their crazy ideas about sex and gender on their newborns.”
How can a newborn baby have ideas imposed on them?!?
Moving on… Now one institution that is frequently under attack from right-wingers in high places is the National Trust. This time, the beef was circulated in the Daily Mail, which unbelievably managed to compose a whole derogatory article about comments by the NT chairman that the charity must ‘move with the times.’ Talking at the Hay Festival this week, Rene Olivieri said ‘the Trust is ‘not bringing enough young people’ in and added that they are ‘doing more in urban areas and not just country houses.’
A fair point surely? But not for the Mail which used the comments to incite yet more animosity towards the NT’s now three-year-old report exploring Trust properties’ historic links to slavery. The newspaper leapt on the chance to remind readers that a group of Conservative MPs had condemned the report and called for the government to conduct a formal review. The article also reminds that the Trust had recently been accused of ‘distorting history’ when they rebranded Henry VIII as a ‘disabled king’ owing to his leg ulcers, and had faced a backlash for introducing gender-neutral toilets at historic properties and asking staff members to wear gay pride badges.
Honestly, you think they would have given up on the National Trust after the right-wing insurgency group Restore Trust failed to wrest control of the institution from an alleged ‘political’ takeover. You’d also think there was nothing else going on in the world…
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward