On 8 November 1989, Margaret Thatcher gave a 4,000-word address to the United Nations general assembly in New York. It was an eloquent, urgent speech, book-ended with references to Charles Darwin and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and full of portents of looming climate disaster that we now know all too well: the melting of polar ice, the shrinking of the Amazon rainforest, and the prospect of more frequent hurricanes, floods and water shortages.
In response, “squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay” was a self-evident path to catastrophe: what was needed, she told her audience, was “a vast international, co-operative effort”, with no refusers or deniers. “Every country will be affected,” she said, “and no one can opt out.”
Nearly 35 years on, there is a grim hilarity about the attitudes to the climate crisis that Thatcher’s heirs have ended up embracing. Rishi Sunak first declined to go to the Cop27 summit, and then turned up to contribute almost nothing of any substance. In his party’s most recent leadership contest, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman expressed particularly sceptical views about their government’s ostensible net zero target, and Sunak and Liz Truss fell over themselves to aim the same hostility at solar farms. Badenoch and Braverman now have senior roles in the cabinet, while the climate change minister Graham Stuart no longer attends its meetings, and the Cop26 president Alok Sharma has been similarly demoted: for the first time in years, there is no top-tier minister focused on the climate crisis.
Even if outright climate denial is now taboo, mainstream Tory politics is brazenly focused on delay and dilution. Thanks to moves first made under Boris Johnson’s leadership, new licences will soon be issued to oil and gas prospectors with their eyes on the North Sea, while the de facto block on new onshore windfarms remains in place. In the absence of any clear purpose, the Sunak government wants us to understand it as an administration dealing with almost impossible crises, and therefore compelled to relegate climate action to the margins. The ban on fracking was upheld for purely electoral reasons: everything else, it seems, must be subjugated to a renewed drive to secure domestic supplies of fossil fuels, and a mess of prejudice and irrationality that deems any credible climate action as a threat to our very way of life.
Which brings us to something that plays a massive role in post-Brexit Tory politics: that cacophony of reactionary noise that comes from the Tory backbenches, the rightwing press, and braying voices privileged with both column inches and airtime, not least on the wondrous GB News. Cop27 has given them yet another pretext to combust with anger. Last week, one of the summit’s key issues triggered a particularly visceral attack of fury, when the necessity of channelling finance to developing countries suffering the worst effects of a heating world – a complex subject, involving governments, multinationals, and such institutions as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – was reduced to paranoid fantasies about the British government sending “untold billions” to undeserving governments that should actually be thanking us for the wonders of industrialisation. Here was another instalment of that endless hysteria about “foreign aid”, replete with the nastiness it always involves.
There are many Conservative MPs who find that kind of talk deeply distasteful. But their party is now downstream of the forces and voices responsible, and it is soaking up the same reactionary populism that defines the post-Trump US Republicans and many of the far-right parties that have drastically changed politics in Europe. On its fringes, Tory politics has always incubated elements like that. But when they opened their doors to the kind of politics embodied by Nigel Farage, the Conservatives began really absorbing the credo common to such parties as the Sweden Democrats, the Finns party, Alternative für Deutschland, and the Brothers of Italy, the party that now leads its country’s government – all forces that hyperventilate about immigrants and refugees, aim at pulling their respective countries away from “globalism”, and either downplay or reject the need for serious climate action.
There is a very good book that explores all of this, published last summer: White Skin, Black Fuel, authored by the Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm, and a group of “scholars, activist and students” called the Zetkin Collective. It roots the right’s climate politics in things that are as much psychological as political: nostalgia for an age of empire founded on coal and oil, a yearning for the machismo of heavy industry, and a view of the global south as a deep threat. The latter’s climate-based suffering must be othered and ignored, and its people have to be shut out, even as climate breakdown makes large-scale human movement more inevitable than ever. Malm and his co-writers summarise the essential credo of the 21st-century right thus: “We have to defend ourselves again; we must take what is ours out of the ground; the enemy is Marxist and Muslim and Jewish and here comes his next attack.”
Passages about the UK begin with the observation that in this country, “the far right is repeatedly reconstituted inside the main conservative party”. And as you read what follows, the similarities between key strands in modern Toryism and 21st-century populists – and fascists – pile up. The flatly strange belief that onshore wind turbines are a threat to civilisation links Conservatives to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Five years ago, a key figure in Norway’s Progress party summarised the need to extract oil from even pristine waters crucial to cod stocks with the insistence that “we will pump up every last drop” – almost exactly the words recently used by Jacob Rees-Mogg about hydrocarbons in the North Sea. Outwardly, Sunak is the epitome of “globalism”, but his politics are shaped by a party that now routinely speaks a language indistinguishable from that of the far right elsewhere – witness Braverman railing against “cultural Marxism”, dreaming of flying refugees to Rwanda and insisting that we should “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050”.
Given their apparently likely defeat at the next election, a spell of introspection and soul-searching awaits the Tories. Or perhaps not: whether the Conservative party has any appetite for the gravity of the climate crisis and the anxieties of voters beyond an ageing and reactionary core is an interesting question. Amid fires and floods, and an electorate whose fears about a heating world will only increase, will it find a way back towards reality? Or is its trajectory now set: beyond Thatcher, past even Johnson, into a political netherworld it will share with the most disreputable and dangerous people?