Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Environment
31 October 2021

Climate concern doesn’t divide by income: politicians should stop portraying it as a “class war”

Right-wing interests present eco-anxiety as a middle-class issue, but lower income groups will suffer most from climate impacts.

By India Bourke

In October, Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned Insulate Britain climate activists as “irresponsible crusties who are trying to stop people going about their day’s work”. The attack came days after the Telegraph newspaper ran a story entitled “How eco war became the new class war”, in which it claimed British workers were asking environmentalists to “check their privilege”. (More recently, the same publication has run calls for a referendum on achieving net zero.)

But caring about climate change is not an issue determined by income. Data published on 31 October shows that anxiety about climate change doesn’t divide by class, but is, in fact, equally split among income groups. YouGov polling, commissioned by think tank GlobalFuture in partnership with York University, reveals 39 per cent of the UK’s working class and 42 per cent of middle-class voters experienced significant eco-anxiety. Seventy-eight per cent reported some degree of fear. 

“This government needs to be called out for not being the party of working-class people, despite posing as it,” said Rowenna Davis, director of Global Future and co-writer of the “Crisis in Common” report. “If you’re a pensioner in fuel poverty, getting your house insulated could save your life. If you’re a construction worker, it could give you a job. But we don’t hear about those things. Instead, we just get a barrage of insults against activists.”

While a clear majority of Extinction Rebellion protesters are middle class and southern, Davis added, there is arguably good reason for this: they feel protected enough by their economic privilege to risk arrest. Just because people aren’t protesting, doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Other countries have also seen attempts to stoke class division over climate change. On 28 October, Republican representatives speaking at a US congressional hearing on climate disinformation tried to undermine President Biden’s energy reforms by pointing to gas price hikes and lost jobs from cancelled pipelines.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content.

Yet while climate concern does divide strongly along party lines in the US, Pew Research shows a vast 74 per cent of the American public are willing to make either some or a lot of changes to help reduce climate change’s effects. 

In fact, in 2020, a median of 70 per cent of people across 14 different countries considered climate change a major threat to their nation. (A similar number said the same of infectious diseases.)

Just because concern about climate change is shared by both rich and poor, however, does not mean the responsibility for addressing it is equal. As Oxfam research demonstrates, the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent create double the emissions of the poorest 50 per cent. And this is not just about the global poor.

Content from our partners
Prevent and protect – why looking after our oral health begins at home
Polling on the protocol: Westminster is a long way from Northern Ireland
How smart energy can deliver for smaller businesses

Those with fewer resources in developed nations will also be less able to adapt their livelihoods to climate stress. In the US, a 2018 federal report revealed that low-income communities will be disproportionately affected by climate change, as extreme weather continues to exacerbate existing inequalities.

Instead of disunity, the climate threat should invite greater solidarity with the vulnerable. And if the UK really wants to show climate leadership at Cop26, it could do worse than by ending its politics of climate division at home.

[See also: Why Big Oil is about to experience its “Big Tobacco" moment]