Over the past few decades, the Conservatives have had a strange relationship with climate change, alternating between embracing and retreating from the challenge. Margaret Thatcher was perhaps a surprising advocate for green issues in the 1980s, while her ally Nigel Lawson was one of the country’s leading deniers of global warming. David Cameron began his leadership by flying off to hug huskies, before telling his advisers to “get rid of all the green crap” a decade later. Theresa May legally enshrined the goal of net zero carbon emissions in the dying days of her premiership, while Boris Johnson came to power promising the “greenest government ever”.
Now, however, the Tories seem to be turning back against the environmental agenda. Zac Goldsmith resigned from Rishi Sunak’s government in June, citing the Prime Minister’s lack of interest in green matters. In the aftermath of the Uxbridge by-election, this seems to have gone further, with the party seeing the costs of transitioning to a less polluting world as a wedge issue. Yet it seems misguided to ignore the broader concerns of voters – and fails to recognise the successful path it could make as the party of green technology.
Most of the public is concerned about our impact on the environment. A survey last year for the Office for National Statistics found nearly three quarters of adults were (very or somewhat) worried about climate change. This is echoed in other polling, which shows a similar number convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, and over 70 per cent supporting policies that push us towards net zero emissions.
The Conservatives are, however, right to identify a tension about the practicalities of this objective. Across Europe, people’s enthusiasm for green politics erodes when they are exposed to the real trade-off in their lives. Flying remains popular, while taxes on driving and congestion are often electorally disastrous. There is no appetite for restrictions on things like meat consumption, while take-up of expensive energy-reducing alterations at home is still low. This is a political opportunity – but for technological optimism rather than climate scepticism.
The alternative to lowering living standards to combat climate change is to promote new technology that allows us to live our lives without harming the planet. This includes everything from cleaner sources of energy to emerging techniques of mitigating the effects of the carbon dioxide already in the air. In just the last few weeks we have seen progress in superconductivity and nuclear fusion, which could lead to limitless clean energy, while other geo-engineering projects have hinted at ways to slow down global warming to buy us time for new technologies to become scalable.
This innovation should be a comfortable area for the Tories. The party will be more relaxed than others about people and companies behind green technology becoming fabulously rich and won’t use the climate agenda to push broader social changes. Equally, achieving abundant, cheap energy could unlock wider economic gains while also creating employment and opportunity along the way. It would suit Sunak in particular, because it leans into his finance background and tech venture-capital vibes.
There is space for a futurist vision of climate change. One that, rather than dwelling on potential calamity, looks at the tech that could prevent it and promises other dividends too. It’s the agenda of newly built, energy-efficient homes and sparkling modular nuclear reactors, which focuses on a new industrial revolution rather than what needs to be banned and taxed to get us to net zero. It could be electorally attractive to those who balk at some of the measures needed to combat global warming, but who are still concerned at the impact humans have on the environment.
This has already been the Tory approach, to an extent. In the past decade in power, it has done much to decarbonise the grid, even if its commitment to the cause hasn’t been wholehearted. It’s hard to see a future for the party in which it doesn’t have a better, more positive vision on climate change – with the issue likely to become a higher voter priority as the effects bite harder.
Today’s instinct might be to turn against the “green crap” when it gets hard, but this goes against both polling and the science. By having a positive, tech-driven approach to promoting the sorts of technologies that move us beyond carbon dioxide, the Tories could develop a strategy that suits their principles, their voter base and the planet.