Tick, tock. Tick, tock. The Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical measure of proximity to global collapse, ticked ten seconds closer to midnight on Tuesday (24 January). According to the annual assessment by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the world is closer to catastrophe than ever thanks to the combined effects of nuclear escalation and the ecological emergency. “An alarm for the whole of humanity,” was how Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the announcement.
Whatever you think of the clock’s utility as a device for raising awareness, the grim underlying realities must be faced sooner or later. Yet instead of acknowledging the existential crisis posed by climate change, some Conservative politicians in the UK continue to play down the threat of continued reliance on fossil fuels. In doing so they are helping feed a vast narrative in which climate action is framed as elitist and out of touch.
Just this week, when asked about his government’s approval of the first deep coal mine in 30 years, the energy minister Graham Stuart said we need to stop “viewing all fossil fuels as the spawn of the devil”, referencing the idea that some methods of extracting coal are less polluting than others. “There is no red button which ends all use of fossil fuels tomorrow.”
Stuart’s comments, in a briefing for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment, contradict the warnings of UN leaders, scientists and energy experts, who have called for countries like the UK to phase out coal by 2030. They also contradict the message of a net-zero review commissioned by the government. The approval of the mine would “never have happened if we had a planning system that was fit for purpose”, the review’s author, the MP and former energy minister Chris Skidmore, said at the same APPG event.
Stuart’s choice of emotionally loaded words represents a deeper and more insidious trend in climate-sceptic rhetoric. Suggesting that people think of fossil fuels as “the spawn of the devil” encourages the notion that there is an “us” and “them” divide between those who support or oppose urgent climate action, with those favouring delay on the side of reason.
Implying that ending fossil-fuel use would be sudden and shocking (pressing the “red button”) is also dangerously misleading. “No one is talking about red buttons,” the Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out in a written response to Stuart. “We’re talking about a transition – which means not green-lighting 100 new oil and gas licences.”
As a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which researches ways to end polarisation, extremism and disinformation, has shown, this is far from an isolated instance. Arguments opposing climate action, such as the “necessity” of fossil fuels or the idea that “environmentalism is a religion”, are spreading rapaciously online. Aided by advertising from fossil-fuel linked entities, climate denialism spread especially fast on social media in the build up to the Cop27 climate conference last year, the researchers found. Twitter, for instance, promoted the term “climate scam” despite data showing more engagement with hashtags such as “climate crisis”.
The lines between politics and what is fomented on social media are also ever more blurred. During Cop27 Jacob-Rees Mogg, at the time the secretary of state for business, energy and industry, tweeted that there was “no need to pay reparations”: a loaded reference to the call to pay climate loss and damages to the developing world that echoes language used by commentators on GB news and by the Republican senator John Kennedy (who has reportedly received $1.3m in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry).
The Doomsday Clock’s end-times rhetoric may in some ways be an unhelpful addition to this situation – but at least its message is on the side of science, not the fossil industry’s self-interest. In fact Boris Johnson, just over a year ago, chose to open his speech as prime minister at Cop26 with a reference to the very same countdown: “It’s one minute to midnight on that Doomsday Clock and we need to act now.”
The current Tory party’s failure to heed its former leader’s words is running that clock ever further down. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
[See also: Why Labour thinks it has solved the Brexit conundrum]