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3 November 2021

A climate referendum is a deadly threat – greens must prepare to fight one now

We need to stop talking about heat pumps and carbon budgets and start talking about capitalism, wealth and power.

By Paul Mason

From the far right to the Tory right, calls are growing for a referendum on the UK’s net-zero emissions target. Darren Grimes, Tony Parsons, Nigel Farage and Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath all issued near-simultaneous calls for a plebiscite on carbon reduction, using near-identical arguments.

“Nobody voted for this new green religion,” wrote Parsons in the Sun. “Nobody voted to be colder and poorer. Nobody voted for rampant energy bills.” Steve Baker, the figurehead of hard Brexit at Westminster, tweeted in outrage at the suggestion we adopt personal carbon budgets: “Perhaps we’ll need that net zero referendum on ideas like this.” Farage used his platform on GB News to call for a referendum.

Meanwhile the Telegraph ran a poll, commissioned by anti-green lobby group Car26, purporting to show that 42 per cent of voters already want a net zero referendum. Heath, adopting a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone, warned Johnson that without a referendum both he, and the net-zero commitment, might go the way of Cameron and the EU:

“A new orthodoxy rules supreme. There is no functioning democracy, no mechanism by which outcomes might change. This is a disgrace and extremely dangerous.” 

What’s going on should be obvious. As OpenDemocracy reported, the same dark money and right-wing networks that brought us Brexit and the culture war have launched a simultaneous drive to foment a populist revolt against decarbonisation, even as the world’s leaders slap each other on the back in Glasgow. 

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Swiss voters were, this summer, persuaded narrowly to reject a CO2 reduction law, drafted to meet the country’s carbon reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement. In Ohio, Republican senators have introduced proposals to allow voters to veto any renewable energy project in a referendum. 

Here, large parts of the hard Brexit political infrastructure are being reassembled to oppose decarbonisation: Car26 was set up only a month ago, and is fronted by Lois Perry, a leading light in Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party. After questioning whether CO2 causes climate change, and whether youth involvement in climate protests is “borderline child abuse”, Car26 has drawn a direct link between climate issues and the culture war:

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“Free speech and debate are being replaced by a woke humourless consensus controlled by a remote elite abetted by a cowed media and bought-off ‘experts’ and institutions.”

The Net Zero Scrutiny Group in parliament includes around 30 former members of the European Research Group. Meanwhile, the climate-denying Global Warming Policy Forum has morphed into Net Zero Watch, whose latest pamphlet, The Worm In The Rose, overtly links Western governments’ pursuit of net zero carbon emissions to geopolitical surrender to China.

All the elements are present for a right/far-right alliance to launch a populist opposition movement to carbon reduction plans. The grievance will be rising fuel and energy costs and enforced behavioural change among working-class households whose incomes are already squeezed. 

The narrative will not just be based around climate scepticism, but around the same allegation that fuelled Brexit: that a well-off elite is virtue-signalling to the working poor, as part of a wider culture war that labels that same demographic as brainless racists. Finally, as China and India continue to drag their feet over decarbonisation, the whole thing will be harnessed to neo-imperialism: unless we go on burning carbon, China will rule the world.

Unfortunately, there is every chance they will succeed. Because while the liberal media stares boggle-eyed at the spectacle in Glasgow, the fact is that climate mitigation is failing. 

There is a political and social elite, and while it is heavily in hock to the carbon lobby (with over £1m given to Tory MPs by the energy sector since 2019), it is even more existentially wedded to global finance. Having lost the rearguard action around climate science denial and scepticism, this elite is now making its stand with totally unrealistic net-zero policies: pledges that cannot be delivered by the resources that have been allocated to them.

[see also: Can Rishi Sunak save the planet with green finance?]

Boris Johnson himself is a textbook case. In 2010 he mused that man-made climate change could be secondary to changes in the sun, warning that “everything we do is dwarfed by the moods of the star that gives life to the world”. As late as 2015 he was citing the climate sceptic Piers Corbyn, who told him that “whatever is happening to the weather at the moment… it is nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”.

Only after entering Downing Street, Johnson claims, was he decisively persuaded by government scientists that anthropogenic climate change is the real and primary cause of weather disasters. He fought the 2019 general election on a pledge to meet the legally-binding net zero target by 2050 – which makes the right-wing populist claim that “we were never allowed to vote on net zero” a nonsense.

However, the net zero plan published last month contains two massive non-sequiturs, both of which will fuel opposition to decarbonisation.  The first is that the decarbonisation figures don’t add up. Large parts of the energy transition rely on enormous behavioural change, the falling cost of heat pumps, a rising supply of green hydrogen and the roll-out of carbon capture and storage technologies that barely function today. It is the equivalent of building a bridge by starting at one end and seeing how far you get with the steel available.

The second issue concerns the cost. The Office for Budget Responsibility recycled an estimate from the Climate Change Committee that the gross 30-year cost of a green transition would be £1.4trn, with a net sum of £344bn being needed from the state. 

The Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs wasted no time in popularising the £1.4trn figure, leading Andrew Marr to parrot it at Labour spokespeople and numerous tabloids to repeat it. But the £1.4trn is not the problem: Rishi Sunak’s Treasury is the problem. 

Last month, Sunak decreed that none of the investment costs needed to reach net zero would be borne by the state through borrowing to invest. Instead, said the government’s Net Zero Review, the money would be raised through taxation and through increasing the cost of carbon itself. Either fuel, energy, food and transport will get dearer, or people’s wages will be taxed more, or both.

Though buried in the financial pages, the Net Zero Review was a gift to the climate deniers, sceptics and right-wing populists. It stated in black and white that the costs of the energy transition will be borne by people alive today, not those who will benefit from it in the 2050s and beyond. And as the right-wing mantra states: “businesses don’t pay taxes, people do”.

Because we live in a capitalist economy, in which capital is powerful and the worker, tenant and consumer weak, it is logical to assume that capital will pass on the costs of decarbonisation, while taking as much as possible of the short-term benefits in terms of state subsidies, no-competition contracts and reputational greenwash.

So we need to stop talking about heat pumps and carbon budgets and start talking about capitalism, wealth and power.

The “magic” of industrial capitalism, which has revolutionised human potential at the same time as destabilising the planet in less than 250 years, rests on the exploitation of three things: carbon, human labour and science. 

Could capitalism function without carbon, swapping out the free energy provided by coal for energy provided by renewables? In theory, yes – if it were to impose the cost of the transition on future generations through borrowing, harnessing science to the public good and de-linking work from incomes.

The problem is this capitalism, the one we have. Its elites don’t want to borrow and invest; they want to impose the social costs of transition on the poor. And large parts of the emerging and developing world elite don’t want the transition, full stop. They’re enjoying the upswing of carbon-based capitalism, as a visit to any private club in Moscow, Beijing, Rio, Dubai or Mumbai will tell you. 

So the real discussion we need to have, from the Cop26 Blue Zone in Glasgow to the bar of your local pub, is about capitalism, not carbon. 

Even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with its precisely modelled “shared socio-economic pathways” (SSPs) will not speak clearly about economic systems. It dare not say that an economic system dominated by financial rent-seeking, monopolised information, carbon-centric power elites, systemic tax evasion and organised crime is unlikely to decarbonise fast enough to save the planet. Yet that’s what everyone protesting outside the Blue Zone knows.

Cop26 has already failed on its own terms. It will make progress but not enough, fuelling the arguments of the xenophobes that we should do nothing until China and India get serious. And demands for a climate referendum will rise. 

Pro-Europeans such as myself lost the Brexit referendum because we didn’t understand the depth of cultural opposition to science, reason, social liberalism and cross-border solidarity. Nor did we understand that, faced with a reactionary minority backed by the dark money of the elite, you need to defeat those you cannot persuade.

If we don’t want another referendum to be triggered and then lost, we need to get serious about something Johnson and Sunak have rejected: a transition plan whose costs are funded through borrowing, that is driven by the state not the market, and under which the taxes of the rich rise, rather than the fuel bills of the working class.

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