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11 February 2021updated 12 Feb 2021 1:33pm

How the right-wing press is embracing green politics

There is much to be said for the UK leading the climate “race”, but the world can’t afford to let anyone lose.  

By India Bourke

They have spent decades spreading climate scepticism and denial, but this week The Sun and The Express both announced new climate-focused campaigns.

The Sun has appointed its political correspondent Natasha Clark to cover environment and climate news ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in November. Meanwhile, Monday’s Daily Express front page invited readers to “Join Our Green Britain Revolution!”, arguing for more support for green entrepreneurs and an end to VAT on eco products.

Long-time environmentalists have welcomed the shift, even if with a healthy trace of “I told you so”. The former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett wrote on Twitter: “We’ve won the argument, but now we need #ClimateAction, not just words.”

As Bennett rightly suggests, what will be important now is the kind of climate response these papers advocate in their coverage. “The UK government aims to paint itself as the poster boy for climate action – and this is likely to be buoyed by the nationalist stance of these papers,” Greenpeace’s UK policy director Doug Parr told the New Statesman. “As long as these media outlets use their influence – together with their new-found interest in climate – to demand more action from the government, rather than trying to pin responsibility on individuals, then they could play an important role.”

So far, some of these news outlets have adopted a bold, slightly boisterous climate-swagger. This is visible in The Sun’s “Team Green” slogan, echoing the Olympics, and in The Express’s call for Boris Johnson to “lead the world” in a green “crusade”.

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The UK’s right-wing press is not alone in this approach. A similarly patriotic slant on tackling the climate crisis can be seen in the US, where the General Motors advert at the Super Bowl last weekend featured the comedian Will Ferrell on a mission to prove America “is coming for” Norway in the roll-out of electric cars. Heated’s Emily Atkin has described this shift as one from petro-masculinity to electro-masculinity, noting; “We’ll take what we can get.”

The shift is cause for celebration. Patriotism and pride can be powerful motivators, and successive UK governments have already proved climate leadership can do an incredible amount of good: Britain currently leads the world in offshore wind and has promised to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. This has created ripple effects around the world, such as in Japan, where there are concerns that car markers would be excluded from global markets if it fails to transition.

Yet when it comes to the global “race” to tackle climate change and reach net-zero emissions, the world cannot afford to allow anyone to lose. A central theme at this year’s COP26, which is being hosted in Glasgow, will be climate justice and how to support vulnerable countries in becoming resilient. The OECD has estimated that $7trn of investment is needed each year to 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and so far there are few plans in place for how that figure can be achieved. “The resources are just not forthcoming,” Tasneem Essop, the executive director of the Climate Action Network, told me during the New Statesman and Spotlight’s Global Policy Forum on Sustainable Recovery.

Readers of both The Sun and The Express have, in the past, made clear their support for cutting the UK’s “bloated” foreign aid budget. There is a risk that the papers might apply this line of thinking to their coverage of climate finance. 

Ultimately, while this climate-focused editorial conversion is welcome, it is worth considering why these publications have made the shift now. Is it a simple reading of their audience? A 2019 survey of Sun readers found 82 per cent thought they should green their habits, while nearly three-quarters said they were more concerned about their environmental impact than they had been five years ago. As The Sun‘s Natasha Clark told Future News: “Everyone is going green these days.”

Then there’s the political context of the Conservative Party’s desire for this year’s UK-hosted climate conference to reflect well on Boris Johnson’s government.

There is also, perhaps, the need for Brexit – backed across the right-wing press – to be seen as a success. In pushing its “zero for zero” campaign to remove VAT from low carbon products, The Express emphasised this is possible “now Britain has freed itself from the EU shackles”.

Finally, there is the biggest underlying reason of all: the realisation that under-reporting on humanity’s gravest threat has gone on for too long. “In the past The Express has neglected to highlight the most important issue we face,” Express editor Gary Jones told Press Gazette.

History, in other words, has made its case. But as climate hardships increase, there is also evidence to suggest that intolerance and prejudice could also rise. It is crucial that any positive impulse for national pride regarding climate action also reflects a collaborative effort with the rest of the world. How far the press can convey this will be the real measure of climate coverage success.

[See also: To have climate credibility, Britain must cancel its new coal mine]