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Climate culture war trivialises our security

The populist right fails to realise that expanding fossil fuels leave us vulnerable to Russian aggression – and would do nothing to lower prices.

By James Bloodworth

A new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a devastating picture of the urgency with which developed countries must act on climate change. The report finds that around 40 per cent of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of a warming planet.

And yet the report also offers a glimmer of hope: the worst impacts of climate change can still be mitigated – but only if we act quickly. To secure a liveable future the developed world must urgently transition to green energy.

Beyond literally saving the world, transitioning to renewables has another added benefit for countries such as the UK: in going green, it becomes less dependent on Russian gas. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will hit the wallets of British consumers just as surely as it will impact those living in continental Europe. The fact we only source a relatively small percentage of our gas from Russia (7 per cent) is largely irrelevant.

The government appears to grasp the fact that relying on international gas markets for our energy needs is suboptimal. As the Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has tweeted, while Britain is not as reliant on Russian gas as Europe (Europe imports around of 40 per cent of its natural gas from Russia) it nevertheless remains vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of wholesale gas on the world market. This has already quadrupled, according to Kwarteng, and will likely increase further now that Germany has cancelled its planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Against this backdrop, switching to renewable energy is a win-win situation for everyone, except perhaps Russia and other nations that use natural resources as a geopolitical weapon. By going green, we retain a planet that is habitable while also weaning ourselves off a source of energy that is highly vulnerable to political instability.

[See also: The war in Ukraine will deepen the UK’s cost-of-living crisis]

While the government is making the right noises on climate change and the switch to renewables, not everyone in the Conservative Party is onside. Right-wing opponents of the net-zero target – the government’s plan to decarbonise all sectors of the economy by 2050 – have coalesced in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG). The group contains at least 19 Conservative MPs, including prominent figures such as the Brexit campaigner Steve Baker, the former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, the former skills minister Robert Halfon, as well as several Red Wall MPs elected in 2019.

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Though the NZSG claims to be concerned about the cost to households of net zero rather than disputing the science behind climate change, the group’s chair, the Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, recently recruited two members of staff with links to the UK’s most high-profile climate science denial think tank to work in his parliamentary office.

In terms of policy, the NZSG has been pushing for the expansion of domestic fossil fuels, such as a lifting of the moratorium on fracking and additional drilling off the North Sea, claiming that this would help to bring down household energy bills. In contrast it opposes green levies, which it portrays as another punitive tax on ordinary Britons.

The government itself supports North Sea drilling, as well as an expansion of nuclear energy – but neither of these will “materially affect the wholesale market price” of gas, as Kwarteng has pointed out. This is because the wholesale gas market is a global one and the UK faces a price issue rather than a supply issue. In order to escape this, we must stop relying on gas altogether and switch to renewables. This is the polar opposite of the strategy advocated by the NZSG, which would lock Britain into a long-term dependence on fossil fuels.

Such short-term thinking echoes that of the former prime minister David Cameron, who pledged in 2013 (once it was no longer politically expedient to have his photo taken with huskies in the Arctic) to “get rid of all the green crap”. It is estimated that this drive to cut climate policies added around £2.5bn a year to domestic energy bills.

For its part, the NZSG is attempting to undermine the net-zero target by reframing it as another front in the culture war. This has become the default instinct of many on the right since the Brexit referendum of 2016, much to the detriment of British politics. The former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has even been pitching the ghastly idea of a net-zero referendum. Prominent figures in the anti-net zero movement talk in the now familiar language about out-of-touch elites making Britons “colder and poorer”.

The culture war has come to define almost everything. During the pandemic, even low-effort interventions such as mask wearing were represented by populists as a repressive imposition by “elites”. Masks may have helped to stop the spread of Covid, and yet because their use was supported by a mainstream consensus, the populist right felt a duty to oppose them using histrionic language about liberty and freedom.

[See also: Net zero is the energy answer to Russian aggression]

The tendency to frame everything as an ideological struggle between “the people” and “the elite” will, if groups such as the NZSG get their way, increasingly feature in the debate around climate change. An existential crisis facing all of humanity will thus be reduced to yet another frivolous culture war squabble.

And we’ll all be poorer should that happen, intellectually but perhaps also literally. Keeping the UK hooked on fossil fuels risks prolonging the cost-of-living crisis for decades to come. If it succeeds in undoing Britain’s commitment to net zero, the populist right will invariably make the country more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the Kremlin. A green revolution is required to prevent the worst effects of climate change; and a green revolution will have the happy side effect of sheltering us (to some extent at least) from political turmoil, such as that currently being wrought by Russia in Ukraine.

If the culture war consumes everything then it also trivialises everything. By treating net zero as part of the culture war, the populist right is guilty of minimising two of the most important civilisational struggles we face: the fight against climate change and the preservation of European energy security against Russian aggression.

The contemporary left is often accused of obsessing over trivial things: pronouns, microaggressions, an ever-expanding list of “phobias”. But in viewing everything through the lens of “culture war”, perhaps it’s the populist right – rather than the left – that’s guilty of parochialism.

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