The Bentley-driving champion of the free market Jacob Rees-Mogg is known for pushing back against calls for greater social justice – from opposing abortion to supporting aggressive deregulation. And now, as the UK’s new Business Secretary, his position on the growing climate emergency threatens to inflict particular harm.
The former Brexit secretary’s sneering comments on green issues are a walking spreadsheet of contemporary climate denial or “delayism”. He argues that achieving net zero will be too disruptive and costly. As he put it in one interview: “I would like my constituents to have cheap energy rather more than I would like them to have windmills.” He has downplayed the urgent need to act, citing technological innovation as an alternative remedy. And he has cast doubt on the scientific consensus itself: “Common sense dictates that if the Meteorological Office cannot forecast the next season’s weather with any success it is ambitious to predict what will happen decades ahead,” the MP for North East Somerset wrote in 2013.
Circumstance is currently exposing the lies behind the above rhetoric more clearly than ever. The UK’s parched fields and empty reservoirs scream of the new climate reality. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan are the latest in a global trend of extreme weather events. Meanwhile, the argument that renewable energy is too expensive is being thoroughly upended by the soaring cost-of-living crisis caused by Europe’s over-reliance on gas. (If only Rees-Mogg had urged more of those windmills to be deployed.)
These climate and economic realities mean that Liz Truss will likely soon be forced to up her lukewarm support for net zero targets. The Tory “selectorate” might concur with her that there should be fewer solar panels in fields – but scrapping Britain’s net zero by 2050 target would cost Tories 1.3 million votes, according to a report from the centre-right think tank Onward.
New renewables and insulation are also the fastest and cheapest way to bring down bills, experts such as Joss Garman have pointed out. The newly appointed Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, is a supporter of renewable energy expansion, and “turquoise Tories” such as Zac Goldsmith and Chris Skidmore gave Truss their backing. Going against this green grain could cause her parliamentary strife.
Yet just because the facts and the politics are now against Rees-Mogg (and other climate sceptics inside the Conservative parliamentary party) that does not mean there isn’t still immeasurable damage that the new Business Secretary, who will also have responsibility for sourcing energy, can wreak.
From failing to increase government ambition on climate policies, to scuppering nature’s chance of supporting us through “baked-in” warming, below are just five of the ways that harm might unfold:
1. Fossil fuel solutionism will only perpetuate the problem
“We want to get more oil out of the North Sea, we want to get more gas out of the North Sea,” Rees-Mogg told LBC radio in April. He also reportedly advised Boris Johnson earlier this year to lift the red tape on fracking in the wake of the international gas crisis.
Truss seems to agree on both counts. Reports last week suggested the now-Prime Minister would approve as many as 130 drilling licenses in the North Sea, and she is expected to lift the fracking ban “within days”.
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Yet exploiting new oil and gas will prevent the world from meeting its crucial net zero targets by 2050, the International Energy Agency has warned. The results of new drilling also might not be seen for decades. And the fact that oil and gas are globally traded means the financial benefit of additional domestic production would be negligible to none.
2. There is no time for Doomism
It is “unrealistic” to “forecast the climate for a thousand years”, or to think you have “the ability to change it”, Rees-Mogg said in 2014, in a misrepresentation of a UN report. And “the cost of it is probably unaffordable”, he added.
But while even the most staunch advocates of urgent climate action sometimes feel and express despair, that does not mean time has run out. As the climate scientist Michael Mann argues in his book, The New Climate War (2021), portraying climate change as a lost cause only plays into the hands of those keen to continue business-as-usual.
3. Deregulation will trash ecosystems just when they need most support
Both Truss and Rees-Mogg’s support for aggressive deregulation is leading numerous non-governmental organisations and charities to fear a bonfire of social and green protections. As environment secretary from 2014-16, Truss oversaw attempts to cut nature protection worth almost a quarter of a billion pounds, while Rees-Mogg has promised a red-tape “revolution”.
The loss of EU standards on farming and wildlife protection, for example, would not only cause individual species to suffer or die out, but would also undermine the UK’s wider ability to cope with increased climate stresses – from flood to drought. Phoebe Clay, co-director of the environmental watchdog Unchecked UK, told the New Statesman. “We’re concerned in relation to his very ingrained belief that regulation is weighing down our economy, and the fact, over the last three years, [that] he has been one of the main champions for a deregulatory programme.”
4. The ideological end point of climate delay is to protect the already wealthy
The Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, a former deputy leader of Ukip, has described the pursuit of net zero as an “elite delusion” that will hurt the British public’s pocket. Yet claims such as these omit to mention the chain that links climate-sceptic individuals within the Conservative Party to the fossil fuel industry. For example, the climate-sceptic lobby group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, has received money from fossil fuel interests and has extensive ties to Mackinlay’s and Steve Baker MP’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a Tory parliamentary organisation that opposes government efforts to meet the UK’s net zero goals.
Rees-Mogg echoes this group’s concerns with his emphasis on lower business taxes and opposing windfall taxes on energy firms. Truss’s pledge to reduce energy bills by scrapping green levies could also favour the fossil fuel companies by helping squash reforms that reduce our reliance on oil and gas. Those same firms have already seen their profits triple this year.
5. Conflict of interests undermine climate action
The new Business Secretary also has conflicted interests. As a major shareholder and founder of Somerset Capital, an $8bn (£6.9bn) investment fund, Rees-Mogg has ties to fossil fuels: the fund was formerly invested £5.7m in a Russian gas company, and in 2014 it had investments of around £3m in mining firms and £2.4m in oil and gas producers. That he did not declare these interests when speaking in relevant debates led to his referral to the parliamentary standards watchdog in December of that year.
When Boris Johnson became premier, much of his deregulatory bluster was set aside in favour of less controversial (though still unambitious) policies on climate and green issues. Liz Truss may yet follow a similar path – but in naming Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary, she has already chosen to take a symbol of anti-green rhetoric into government with her.
This piece was updated on 8 September 2022 to reflect that Somerset Capital is no longer invested in Russian gas.