What a strange, heady, anxious summer that was. For all the talk by many journalists and politicians about the cost of living crisis as something that will decisively arrive in the autumn, it is already here. At the same time, the landscape of this small corner of northern Europe is parched and straw-coloured, while those terrifying images of flooding in Pakistan have illustrated the climate emergency’s even more nightmarish flipside. The pandemic, it turns out, was merely one more crisis on the way to something completely convulsive: payback for our fragile dependence on fossil fuels, and a way of living that is no longer sustainable. With perfect timing, next weekend will see the return to London’s streets of Extinction Rebellion, whose protests will trigger the usual sneers from climate deniers while hammering home 2022’s awful sense of urgency.
Meanwhile, as if the immediate future is being decided by a TV scriptwriter who specialises in the bleakest comedy, Liz Truss is seemingly about to move into Downing Street, after two months of surreal and largely pointless debate in which the climate crisis has barely figured. She and Rishi Sunak may have paid lip service to the government’s nominal target of achieving net zero by 2050 – but, whatever their other differences, they have largely spoken with one voice on climate policy: the cursory, slightly bored tone of people who think of it as an optional extra.
Both have said they support the lifting of England’s current moratorium on fracking. Sunak began the contest opposing more onshore wind turbines, but then changed his mind; Truss has repeatedly said she wants fields to be cleared of solar panels, a position Sunak also supports. Last week, in the wake of a Spectator interview in which Sunak agreed with the contention that “we need more fossil fuels in the short to medium term”, there came apparent confirmation that Truss and her team are discussing plans to issue as many as 130 new licences for drilling in the North Sea. Any results might not be seen for 20 or 30 years: the fact that oil and gas are globally traded commodities would mean that the effects of additional production on prices would be negligible to nonexistent. But, like her fracking stance, the move is performative: a half-cocked answer to some of the questions triggered by the energy crisis, and a signal that even Boris Johnson’s limp flirtation with green politics was too much for the Tory party to bear.
As Truss prepares to take over, Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to be on the up, and there is very serious talk of him being put in charge of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – a move that would hand the climate portfolio to someone who has long met any suggestion of convincing action with weary sneers. “Coal is plentiful and provides the least expensive electricity per megawatt … unfortunately, coal-fired power stations are being shut down because of European Union regulations,” he said in 2013. He went on: “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.” His media archive contains reams of this stuff, full of a blithe insistence that whatever is happening to the climate is beyond human understanding or control, and we may as well do what we want. In April this year, he said that “every last drop” of hydrocarbons ought to be extracted from the North Sea.
Iain Duncan Smith is tipped to return to government, bringing with him the view that net zero is a “new religion”. The civil servant turned zealous Brexiteer David Frost reportedly wants to stand to be an MP and thereby clear the way to a major role into Truss’s cabinet: with his usual subtlety and restraint, he recently insisted that “the current evidence does not support the assertion that we are in a climate ‘emergency’”, and said that wind power is “medieval”. As a grim punchline, there have been rumours of a role at the Treasury for the veteran Tory John Redwood , a longstanding friend of hydrocarbons (“More gas is the answer to a gas crisis,” he says), who characterises international climate moves as the work of a “world establishment”. Some of the noise about Truss’s probable appointments may be conjecture, but as mood music to her quest to “go for growth” and fixate on deregulation, it is deafening. Throw in the almost-certain promotion of such net zero-sceptics as Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, and you have a pretty vivid sense of her government’s most likely approach to climate breakdown.
Here, clearly, is yet another victory for the hard-right Toryism that now seems to run the party, and a reminder of the financial links that connect Conservative politics with big hydrocarbon companies and devout sceptics and deniers. It is not hard to detect the influence of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the climate-sceptic lobby group founded in 2009 by Margaret Thatcher’s one-time chancellor Nigel Lawson, which now numbers the fantastically influential Tory backbencher Steve Baker among its trustees (three years ago, work by the Open Democracy journalist Peter Geoghegan revealed that the foundation’s chair was the co-owner of a company that had donated £25,000 to Johnson’s and Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaigns in 2019 and £100,000 to Vote Leave; this year, another firm he own gave £10,000 to Braverman’s short-lived leadership campaign). Baker’s European Research Group of Conservative MPs now blurs into the Net Zero Research Group: another Tory MP to watch is the latter’s chair, Craig Mackinlay, a former deputy leader of Ukip who has skilfully channelled the fierce climate denial of his former party into his new one. Mackinlay thinks the pursuit of net zero is an “elite delusion”, which suggests a familiar sleight of hand: using a confected idea of the put-upon masses to protect the interest of fossil-fuel giants.
A lot of what is happening reflects the nostalgia that surfaced in our exit from the EU – this time centred on half-remembered visions of a coal bunker in the back garden and Sunday-afternoon motoring on a tank full of five-star petrol. There is also a sense of the same twitchy paranoia that courses around the Daily Mail, GB News and the more worked-up corners of the internet: a conviction, in essence, that anything even remotely associated with the political left must be a conspiracy to limit people’s freedom, and a power-grab by the state, and the climate crisis is no exception. As evidenced by the Tories’ leadership contest, what all this leads to is utterly absurd: people claiming that “woke” social attitudes are a huge threat to civilisation and that illegal immigration is even more dangerous, and then responding to 40C heat, failed harvests and endless floods by effectively telling us that no one need worry.
There is something truly monstrous about that, but it highlights a way of thinking that we are going to be living with for the next two years at least. By way of symbolising it, at last week’s final leadership hustings at Wembley Arena, one member of the audience asked Truss if she might be prepared to abolish motorway speed limits. “We need to be prepared to look at that,” she replied. In that mind-boggling moment, there was a sharp sense of where we are about to be taken: deep into the realms of doing what you want whatever the consequences, thanks to petrolhead politics: the credo of people apparently happy to let the world burn.