We need to prepare to fight the Net Zero culture war
The next big fight is predictable. Let's try to win it this time.
Like most people, I am looking forward to the end of the Boris Johnson era. But as disastrous as his time in office has been, there has been one positive: the continued elite consensus on the need to achieve Net Zero on carbon emissions.
Without us really noticing, it has become pretty normal in British politics to operate on the assumption that everyone who matters cares about climate change. All of the major parties are, on paper at least, signed up to the same goal of achieving Net Zero by 2050. This is particularly striking when you compare Britain to other countries – most notably the United States, where the party of the right is doing its best to make the problem worse.
But I’m worried. I’m not sure that our Net Zero consensus will hold.
Uh-oh, I’m punching left on climate change again. Subscribe now (it’s free!) to get more blazing hot takes direct in your inbox.
A warming from history
A recent episode of the excellent Talking Politics podcast scared the hell out of me, as its hosts sketched out a not-unrealistic near future where scepticism of Net Zero becomes a live political issue.
There is some evidence that it is already starting to happen. 40 Conservative backbenchers have formed the “Net Zero Scrutiny Group” and like a dog that only knows one trick, Nigel Farage has been grasping for attention by pitching a “referendum” on Net Zero, whatever that means.
Obviously at the moment, these cranks only represent a minority of public opinion, but I fear that given the cross-party consensus, like Europe before it, it leaves space open for political entrepreneurs like Farage to move into.
Or perhaps the elite consensus could break down without the need for outsiders. It is likely that whoever succeeds Boris as leader of the Conservative Party1 will be more sceptical on Net Zero. This is because they will have to pander to red-trousered BMW drivers to get into Downing Street in the first place, and because they are likely to be more ideological than Boris, who was elected on the basis that he was a “winner”, not because he was a representative of a particular ideological faction of the party. So what reason would culture warrior Liz Truss or fiscal hawk Rishi Sunak have to push hard on decarbonising policies, when sticking to them would potentially carry more of a political cost than the one paid by Boris, in terms of internal party politics?
Most significantly, the reason I can envisage Net Zero scepticism becoming a tangible political force is that to achieve Net Zero, the government actually has to do something. Cutting emissions means that money will need to be spent, infrastructure will need to be built, and trade-offs will have to be made. Making Net Zero happen will necessarily require upsetting certain pockets of voters, and given the fights that the Johnson administration has already fought and lost over HS2 and planning reform, how can the much larger set of commitments required to mitigate climate change survive contact with the electorate?
So if, like me, you think that achieving Net Zero emissions is critical, we need to prepare for the fight ahead. And that means getting real about how the battle will be fought and won.
Making people colder and poorer
When the Net Zero Scrutiny Group launched, Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said, “I didn’t become a Conservative to make my constituents colder and poorer.”
Unfortunately, for those of us who want to reach Net Zero this quote gets at something crucial. As I have argued before, the problem is that people are not going to vote to make themselves poorer. This makes it hard to pitch any policy programme that makes voters’ lives tangibly worse, whether you’re telling them that they have to fly less, drive less, or accept a lower standard of living. All of which are common claims about things that will need to happen for us to mitigate climate change2.
The other problem is that Net Zero requires massive, radical change. And though “radical” ideas are exciting to nerds like us who spend our days breaking our brains on politics Twitter, it isn’t hard to imagine how “radical” can be quite a scary label if you’re a well adjusted, functioning adult who has no idea who Aaron Bastani and Andrew Lilico are3.
So somehow, we need to square the circle and come up with a policy prescription that is both sufficiently large and transformative that it actually has a chance of achieving Net Zero – and one that is as politically palatable as possible to get past the electorate over the course of multiple general elections.
This latter part is crucial. I think “political palatability” is often an underrated factor relative to the “big ideas” part, because boring reality is less fun than coming up with exciting, radical proposals4, and because it feels grimy to mix up something as important as climate mitigation with the dirty business of politics.
However, if we take the political constraints seriously, it gives us a useful framework on what we should actually be advocating for.
For example, I think it makes nuclear power an even more important part of our energy mix5. Because instead of having to rely on a policy of mass behavioural change, or a significant remodelling of the built environment, replacing gas and coal-fired power plants would be invisible to most voters, and would significantly reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation all the same6.
It’s for the same reason I think governments around the world should invest more in research into direct air capture of greenhouse emissions. The technology is currently at a very early stage – but if we can make it happen, building carbon capture plants and leaving them humming away in the background of our lives could make a big difference. Yes, it wouldn’t be as emotionally satisfying as everyone becoming environmentally conscious and changing their behaviour, but it would still contribute towards the same Net Zero goal.
This electoral pragmatism frame also makes it clear that Net Zero advocates should aim to shift behaviour by modifying incentives instead of hectoring voters. Instead of shaming people for driving cars, or wanting to travel, we should advocate for more joined-up bus networks and high-speed rail so that green modes of transport become more attractive options. Making arguments about “personal responsibility” and “carbon footprints” won’t work on people who have families to care for, work commitments, and who can’t afford to spend their time hand-wringing on Twitter.
And to reiterate the same point I have made previously, governments should be encouraged to spend even more money on subsidising and scaling the production of heat pumps, home batteries and electric car chargers.
Of course, there are inevitable trade-offs with any set of policies. Building nuclear power plants will upset the people who live near them, and loading up the national debt could conceivably have macroeconomic consequences7. And these arguments will inevitably be deployed if Net Zero becomes a live issue – but this is why it is important that our side get our arguments straight, work out the most palatable way to make decarbonisation happen, and start making the case for our policy choices now.
From a political perspective, it means that Net Zero advocates should aim to keep the tent as broad as possible so that the consensus does not break. The chances are that there will be unavoidable, politically unpopular measures that do need to be taken to mitigate climate change8, so we need our side to have political capital it can spend without endangering the entire Net Zero project. (So that means it is deeply unwise to tie climate change mitigation to a laundry list of other left-wing policy demands.)
Maybe it’ll be fine
There is, of course, a chance that I could be wrong. Perhaps there won’t be a backlash to the elite Net Zero consensus, and our political class will be able to enact the necessary policies at home, while encouraging other countries to take climate change as seriously as we are.
There are reasons to be optimistic that this could be the case. Though the opponents to Net Zero are likely the same cast of pantomime villains who promoted Brexit, the fundamental shape of the climate debate is different.
Unlike the EU, there hasn’t been a constant background drumbeat of negative stories about climate change mitigation for the last 40 years. And in principle, the idea of doing something about climate change is actually popular with voters.
But this does not mean we should be complacent, nor that this will not become a problem. My gut feeling is that because climate change is an abstract issue compared to, say, schools and hospitals, like EU membership, public sentiment can be more easily led by cues from political leaders and the media9.
And like I say above, I think it is fairly inevitable that the backlash will grow as laws are passed and policies are implemented. That’s just how politics works, and this is why we need to be ready for the fight. We on the pro-Net Zero side need to make sure our programme is as palatable to as broad a swathe of the electorate as possible.
If we go into the fight unprepared, hectoring voters about their personal choices and telling them that they need to make themselves poorer and have worse lives for the sake of the greater good, we almost deserve to lose.
So let’s not fuck this one up. If the political climate changes, we still need to make sure the actual climate won’t change too.
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Huge thanks to Allie Dickinson for deploying her editing skillz on this and making it intelligible.
I’m posting this at 7am on the 18th January, so I expect that he will be resigning at 7:01am on the 18th January.
I imagine other activists would phrase “accept a lower standard of living” a bit differently, and then obfuscate; this is the core of the argument.
If you’re rich, you don’t like “radical” because you’re naturally protective of your current position in society and your current way of life. If you’re poor, though “radical” promises might sound exciting on paper, the turmoil that “radical” change entails could make an already precarious situation even more so.
This reminds me that the one other good thing Boris did was push the idea of a bridge to Northern Ireland. Yes it would be absurd, uneconomic, hard to construct and ultimately under-utilised, but you can’t deny that it would be cool.
This is actually something I changed my mind on over the last few years. I don’t think I was ever, completely, anti-nuclear power - but I definitely had a general unease about it. But more recently, I have accepted that we have no other choice. Not even visiting Chernobyl a few years ago has put me off.
To be clear, I obviously still think the government should promote wind turbines, and solar and the like – but we should admit that nuclear is a key ingredient here. Not least because it helps solve the problem of base load.
Though I’m yet to be convinced that there is a good argument against spending really big now on climate mitigation in favour of worrying about budget deficits. And I’m pretty sure that 99% of people who complain about public money being spent don’t actually care about the number of billions – it’s just that big numbers are a convenient political cudgel to bash things they don’t like anyway.
I can already see the line of tradespeople’s vans parked on Whitehall, noisily protesting the introduction of road pricing. Which will probably be necessary when road and petrol tax craters following the shift to electric.
We saw exactly this happen with Europe. If you look at most-important-issue polling from years before the referendum, Europe was consistently ranked low down the list of voters’ concerns, below normal stuff like taxes and the NHS. But because the referendum made Europe a salient issue, it suddenly shot up – and now Brexit is supposedly done, it has fallen again. One thing the environmental movement deserves a lot of credit for is raising the profile of an issue as abstract as climate change to the point where governments felt the need to commit to Net Zero in the first place.