August 14, 2023   6 mins

In 2019, the Conservative manifesto promised to “lead the global fight against climate change, by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero”. In the wake of the Uxbridge by-election, that ambition looks much more precarious. As the Prime Minister pledged to “max out” the North Sea oil-fields, the Energy Secretary took aim at Labour, calling it the “political wing” of Just Stop Oil, and blaming its “dangerous plans” on “eco-fanatics” and “the eco-mob”.

For a party that is trailing in the polls and uncertain of its direction, hostility to Net Zero has an obvious allure. As a rallying cry, it can speak both to the tax-cutting, libertarian wing of the party and to its culture warriors, eager to renew the fight against experts, elites and international organisations. It offers a bridge between the tech-bro-utopianism of the prime minister and the concerns of motorists and lower-earners, who are facing rising emissions-costs. For many Conservatives, Net Zero smacks of subsidies, price guarantees and market interventions: a centralised re-planning of the economy that owes more to socialism than to science. And while the Uxbridge by-election centred on air-quality, not Net Zero, it offered a glimmer of electoral light to a party raking through the ashes of its recent poll-ratings.

But climate scepticism does not (yet) have a monopoly on Conservative thought. The Conservative Environment Network lists more than 200 MPs and peers on its website, drawn from across the party spectrum. The conflict over Net Zero, then, is not a contest between the “woke” Left and the “radical” Right. It brings into collision different visions of Conservatism, in a struggle for ownership of the Conservative tradition.

Tory environmentalists can point to a strong record on the issue, stretching back to the Fifties. It was Conservative governments that created the Department of the Environment, the National Parks Authorities, the Environment Agency and the Hadley Centre for Climate Research. Tory administrations introduced the Clean Air Acts, the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Environment Act, as well as the Landfill Tax, the Road-Fuel Escalator and, in England, the Plastic Bag Charge. And it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, who made Net Zero a legal obligation.

When global warming first entered public consciousness in the Eighties and Nineties, it was Margaret Thatcher who sounded the most trenchant warnings. Addressing the World Climate Conference in 1990, she accused the world of “playing with the conditions” of life. “We have treated the air and the oceans like a dustbin”, endangering “the biological balance … on which human life depends”. This was a distinctly Conservative environmentalism — even taking care to warn business that “there will be no profit… for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet”.

For Conservative environmentalists, this is not simply a record to defend. It is a reminder that there are powerful strands within Conservatism that can be mobilised against its climate sceptics. The first is the instinct to “conserve”: the idea on which both “conservatism” and “conservation” are founded. For the Conservative intellectual Roger Scruton, global warming engaged “a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it”. He drew inspiration from the writings of Edmund Burke and his call to partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. For Burke, the living were but the “temporary possessors and life-renters” of society. As such, they had a moral responsibility not to “commit waste on their inheritance by destroying at their pleasure”, or “to leave to those who come after a ruin instead of a habitation”.

That belief intersected with an emphasis, drawn from Christian conservatism, on “stewardship”: the belief, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that humans were not the lords of creation but “the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged… with preserving life itself”. As she told the Conservative party conference in 1988: “The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy — with a full repairing lease.”

For much of its history, the Conservative Party was pre-eminently the party of the land; rooted, not just in the “landed interest”, but in a patriotic commitment to the natural environment. As Stanley Baldwin put it: “England is the country and the country is England.” Its sights, sounds and smells — “the corncrake on a dewy morning… the wild anemones in the woods of April” — should “be the inheritance of every child born into this country”. Scruton called this “oikophilia”: the love of home, understood not as nostalgia, but as a desire to pass on the heritage into which we were born. It was an impulse, he noted, that had mobilised millions behind the cause of environmental protection, through bodies such as the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Conservatism also has a tradition of thinking critically about markets, though it has been less visible in recent decades. For Scruton, markets were not a “quasi-religious” institution but a means to an end. In so far as they tended to equilibrium, markets were a useful “social organism” that contributed to “the maintenance of the social ecology”. But if costs could be dumped on “future generations”, or if “waste and spoliation” were treated “as cost-free externalities”, markets would become “anti-social and exploitative machines”.

Scruton offered a passionate, Conservative critique of the view that “growth” was always to be prized: “Growth is good only if it does not fill the sinks. In this sense much of the growth that we have seen since the Second World War has not been a gain but a loss — a vast appropriation from the future of assets that are being used up and not replaced.” Even Thatcher insisted that “free markets” would “defeat their object” if they did “more damage to the quality of life through pollution” than the well-being they promoted by “the production of goods and services”.

In this spirit, not with the laissez-faire insouciance they’re remembered for, the Thatcher governments intervened directly in markets, using taxes to discourage leaded petrol and banning products containing harmful CFCs. This owed something to Thatcher’s respect for scientific opinion: as she warned in 1988, “a nation which does not value trained intelligence is doomed”. It also marked her aversion to debt and her belief in “precautionary action”. If it was wrong to burden future generations with the costs of borrowing, it was equally wrong “to leave environmental debts for our children to clear up”. She compared climate action to household insurance, warning that it would be “more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later”.

This was climate politics as good housekeeping. It was also ecology as national security. “Spending on the environment”, Thatcher told an American audience, “is like spending on defence — if you do not do it in time, it may be too late”. In the decades that followed, the security implications of climate change would become ever more pressing. The 2021 Integrated Review, published by Boris Johnson, listed climate change alongside terrorism as a threat to security and prosperity. It was in response to such warnings that Johnson named “tackling climate change” as his “number one international priority”.

What does this mean for the future? Climate change asks new questions of all political traditions, but Conservative environmentalism has rich resources on which to draw from across its intellectual firmament. For those who are not Conservatives, the results may sometimes be frustrating. Conservative environmentalism may be more drawn to market solutions, or more sceptical of international agreements. The localism prized by Scruton may seem hopelessly inadequate to a global crisis, while the commitment of the Conservative Environment Network to “grow our economy faster” will alarm for whom “growth” itself is the problem.

Conservative environmentalism will not look the same as its Labour or liberal equivalents — but that is precisely why we need it. Faced with such an awesome challenge, conservatism can bring a set of tools, ideas and insights that would otherwise be missing, in a mutually enriching exchange. As John Stuart Mill reminded the liberals of his own day, “from points of view different from his, different things are perceptible; and none are more likely to have seen what he does not see, than those who do not see what he sees”.

If Conservatism turns its back on the climate question, it will be a dereliction of the Conservative tradition and those who claim to represent it. In 1936, in a debate over German rearmament, Winston Churchill, issued a warning that is as resonant today as when it was first delivered:

“Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of danger… The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

“We cannot avoid this period,” Churchill concluded; “we are in it now”. Conservatives, and everyone else, should rise to the challenge.

Robert Saunders is a Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary University and author of Yes to Europe!