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Bigger than Brexit: the new politics of climate change Achieving ‘net zero’ will involve such massive changes to the economy and society that politics will have to be transformed too

February 19, 2020   8 mins

The old politics of climate change is dead.  The argument as to whether man-made global warming is real is over.

It’s not that the science is absolutely settled. Science never is — especially on something as complex as the climate. But we can’t just sit there waiting for a perfect understanding that will never come. Given the stakes, there was always going to be a moment at which the world reached a working assumption. That moment has come.

Across the planet, governments and corporations have agreed that the climate emergency is real and that something must be done. Furthermore, that ‘something’ is becoming evermore significant. It is shifting billions — no, make that trillions — in public and private sector investment. It is disrupting entire industries and, will, one or way or another, change our way of life.

So forget the sideshow of ‘green politics’, what we do about climate change is mainstream politics now. Writing for ConservativeHome, Rachel Wolf (co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto) makes an excellent point:

“The Government has committed to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions because it does not want the side effects of the energy sources we have used for centuries to destroy the planet. At the same time, we do not want to return to an era where children (and their mothers) regularly died, and where the majority of people lived in what would now in the UK be considered wholly unacceptable poverty.

“This is a staggering challenge. Much, much bigger than Brexit.”

Yes, and look what happened with Brexit. Europe, though never a marginal issue, was not previously central to our politics. It didn’t define the party system, which is why the most heated arguments took place within the parties not between them. But then the push for the referendum, the campaign itself and the repercussions of the result triggered a realignment. Political parties and personalities redefined themselves around particular Brexit positions. And these dividing lines redrew the political map.

Wolf is right. Net zero is much, much bigger than Brexit. It involves more countries, in fact the whole world. It will present us with crunch decisions over a much longer period of time — the rest of this century at the very least. It will continue to transform the power industry, and much else besides: every mode of transport; how we build, warm and cool our homes; food, agriculture and land use; trade, industry, every part of the economy. Such a profound shift in the energy sources we rely upon will reorder geopolitical relations. Old conflicts will become irrelevant, but new ones could take their place — especially if we start messing around with geoengineering.

So, no, this isn’t just an environmental issue. It isn’t mainly a matter of science and technology or even of economics. It is primarily and profoundly political — and it will reshape our politics around it.

Ironically, this is bad news for the ‘greens’ and ‘anti-greens’ who dominated the climate debate when no one else paid it much attention. They’ll be like the old-school Eurosceptics, who were elbowed aside by Boris Johnson et al once Brexit became the main show in town.

Climate politics — and therefore politics in general — is in the process of organising around a new set of positions. They’re not fully formed yet and don’t have widely recognised names — so, for the time being, I’m going to label them the ‘climate Left’ , the ‘climate Right’ and the ‘climate Centre’.


The climate Left needs little introduction. Indeed they tend to introduce themselves — loudly. Only last week some Extinction Rebellion protesters made their concern for the planet known by, er, digging up a lawn outside a government building. It was a literally laboured metaphor about the government digging itself deeper into a hole. Naturally, the Metropolitan Police let it happen: an environmental movement destroying the environment; a police force that can’t protect the Home Office.

Despite the antics of XR etc, it’s important to distinguish the climate Left from the radical green movement that once had this space to itself. Traditional Green parties, while generally Left-leaning, weren’t necessarily socialist, let alone Marxist in their outlook. Seizing the means of production isn’t really the main thing when you believe that the means of production are destroying the planet. However, as the mainstream Left and centre-Left has de-industrialised itself — abandoning its traditional working-class support base in favour of young metropolitan, college educated voters — the gulf between red and green has narrowed. In a few countries, like Germany, we’ve seen Green parties emerge as the biggest parties on the Left; in others, like America and Britain, we’ve seen the mainstream Left co-opt environmental issues as part of their radicalisation and their pivot to metropolitan electorates.

Indeed the concept of a ‘Green New Deal’ as championed by up-and-coming metro-Left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the central plank of an avowedly anti-capitalist, yet trendy, political programme.

Though governments around the world are signing up to net zero by 2050, the climate Left says this isn’t enough. We have to be carbon neutral by 2030 they say — if not sooner. Just how we’re to achieve that they’re not keen to spell out. XR for instance, refers the specifics to a citizens’ assembly.

This would involve a specially selected group of citizens making decisions under the guidance of a specially selected group of experts. This, apparently, is superior to voting and parliaments and that. I, for one, am absolutely sure we can trust whoever’s in charge of the process not to manipulate it in any way whatsoever. So, who needs regular democracy — fatally compromised as it by giving everyone a say at the ballot box?

Once the Citizens’ Assembly has deliberated, who would implement the resulting Green New Deal? It could only be a greatly expanded state. Completely decarbonising the economy in the space of one decade would amount to a wartime economy, in which basically all production would be centrally-directed by politicians. But with stellar talents like Ocasio-Cortez in charge, inspired by the wisdom of that famed economist Milton Keynes, what could possibly go wrong?

This is not fringe politics. In the US, the Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders supports a Green New Deal, so does Elizabeth Warren. In the UK, the main opposition party voted for one last year at its annual conference.

Also, don’t forget that XR supporters include several of our leading actors — whose level-headed good judgement we can trust completely


On that reassuring note, let’s move on to the climate Right. This lot are distinct from (though not entirely unrelated to) the climate change deniers of old. They define themselves not in opposition to mainstream scientific opinion, but to the climate Left — which presents a much softer target.

At its best, the climate Right asks searching questions of all those who commit to ambitious decarbonisation targets: Net zero, you say? By when, exactly? How much will it cost? Who’s going to pay? What happens if we do our bit, but our competitors don’t?

When it comes to net zero by 2030 (or even 2025 as XR demands) it doesn’t take too long to expose the utter insanity of any of the Green New Deals proposed by the climate Left. Even with more moderate policies, its good to have the climate Right around to stress-test badly-designed policies before they blow up like Emmanuel Macron’s eco-tax on fuel.

As Rachel Wolf warns, climate policies that are seen to impose excessive costs — especially on hand-pressed parts of the population who feel they’ve been unfairly singled out — could provoke a populist backlash:

“Unless we get this right – and develop solutions that can mitigate the cost – the situation is ripe for a new UKIP-style party to whip up hostility (as the gilets jaunes in France show).”

However, there are other elements of the climate Right for whom a climate culture war is something to be welcomed not warned about. Whatever it takes to stop the climate Left. That’s not in itself an unreasonable objective. The radicals must not be allowed to use the climate emergency to seize control of the economy or to bypass representative democracy. Nevertheless, the climate emergency is real — to ignore it or deny it only polarises the issue to the benefit of extremists at either end.

At its worst, the climate Right exists as a tool of corporations and countries who profit from the permission to pollute. That doesn’t mean that every climate right-winger is a bought-and-paid-for lobbyist — but there’s no denying the significant sums of money that have made their way from fossil fuel companies into the think tanks, campaign groups, publications and prominent politicians that populate the ‘conservative movement’ (in America and beyond).

Just because the old climate wars (against the science itself and the case for action) have been lost, it doesn’t mean that the lobbyists have given up. If they can’t stop the great green shift they will at least attempt to influence its direction. But to what end?

Whenever you see an apparently constructive proposal coming from the climate Right, it’s always worth asking: who benefits? A particular word to watch out for is ‘breakthrough’ i.e. code for some kind of game-changing technology on which all hopes for the future supposedly depend.

If on closer examination this turns-out to be a pipe-dream about carbon capture and storage (CCS), a new kind of nuclear power station or a geoengineering scheme then it’s time to count the spoons. What all these technologies have in common is that (a) they don’t exist yet in any commercially competitive form and (b) they’d allow the dirty dinosaur energy industries of 20th century to stagger on.

As I say, the climate Right isn’t just a lobbying operation, but until it shows some contrition for its denialist past and greater transparency about its continuing sources of funding, then it doesn’t deserve the benefit of our doubt.


So, if the climate Left is mad and the climate Right is bad, then we desperately need an alternative to both. This is provided by the climate Centre.

Climate centrism takes the science seriously — enough not to indulge in scare tactics or to pretend that business-as-usual is a responsible option. It rejects the accelerated timelines demanded by green new dealers, not because action isn’t required, but because haste makes waste. Achieving net zero in the space of a single decade would divert scarce resources into the creation of a command state, when what we need is more of what’s been achieved so far through competitive markets supported by smart government.

It suits both the climate Left and the climate Right to ignore the massive and rapid progress made on renewable power, batteries, electric vehicles, energy efficient lighting and other low carbon technologies. The climate Right would have us believe that we can’t do without old, polluting industries; the climate Left that we’re doomed without eco-socialism — but both are demonstrably wrong.

Given the right policy incentives — including government support for foundational research and shared infrastructure — private enterprise can, and has, delivered sustained improvement in the performance and cost of clean technology. We certainly need more of it and across a wider range of sectors, but the way to do that is to learn the lessons from actual examples of success and failure.

Climate centrism, however, is not solely about sound science and economics. Achieving a net zero world is also about what we choose to value most as a society. Even with continued technological progress we still need think about and change the way we live our lives. Do we prioritise growth, mobility and convenience at any cost? Or are there things that we’ve sacrificed — beauty, calm and community life — that we ought to reclaim? Is choice and freedom something limited to the individual, consumerist realm? Or do we want to consciously rethink our relationship with technology and its impact on the common good?

These are deep, complex questions. Too deep to be settled by the market alone; too complex to be micro-managed by the central government. Rather, we need to devolve as many decisions as possible to a community level — understanding that what might work for a traffic-choked city won’t be the right thing for the car-dependent countryside. So, climate centrism needs to localist — putting people, and the places they live, first; and deferring upward to government and big business only where necessary.


So, there you have it: three paths for the future — Left, Right and Centre. I’ve massively over-simplified the choices, of course — but that doesn’t mean that big decisions won’t have to be made.

One way or another, they will be. And what we choose (or what gets chosen for us) will make all the difference in the world.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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