Mayor of London Sadiq Khan says he believes he’s facing a coordinated attack – including from the far-right – against his low-emission policies.
In an interview with VICE News, Khan said “vested interests” including car manufacturers or fossil fuel companies could be involved in efforts to boost campaigns against London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).
ULEZ was introduced in 2019 as a charge that would deter the most polluting vehicles from using roads in central London, and in a few months it will extend to cover all of Greater London’s boroughs.
It has attracted criticism from residents as well as many of London’s own councillors who are also concerned about the impact on local businesses.
“There are people with legitimate concerns about some of the tactics and strategy used,” Khan said, referring to his own policies like ULEZ and prioritising cycling routes, “I respect that. But there are people latching onto them, people from the far-right – in London we’ve seen conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, anti-lockdown people, and they latch onto an issue where they think there’s a lot of support, I call it a vocal minority.”
Khan, who describes himself as a green mayor and chairs a network of cities worldwide who are fighting the climate crisis, is also well known for his interactions with former President Donald Trump, who tweeted that the mayor was a “stone cold loser”. Khan has frequently criticised Trump for his courting of the far-right and ignorance regarding Islam. He famously once gave permission for anti-Trump activists to fly a protest blimp of Trump as a crying baby in a nappy during his visit to London.
Khan became London’s first Muslim mayor in 2016 and is running for an unprecedented third term next year. He has been the target of racist and far-right abuse in the UK and has been vocal in his book about the damage it has caused to his mental health.
Khan, who has just published a book on fighting air pollution, Breathe, told VICE News that targeted or manipulated attacks are “one of the things that we suspect and others are looking into this. There’s a coordinated attack on our policies to address climate change and air pollution.”
In Breathe, Khan discusses his experience of adult onset asthma, London’s air quality, his green policies and the story of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the 9-year-old Londoner who was the first person in the world to officially have air pollution listed as their cause of death.
“Up to 36,000 people die a year because of air pollution in the UK – London is 4,000,” he told VICE News. “Climate change is not an issue for those in the global south in 20 years time, it’s an issue for us now.”
But he said that the “vocal minority” he pointed to earlier is part of a targeted effort to contradict his messaging. He said he was aware of certain Facebook groups as well as “some of the banners outside the meetings I attend” that hint towards coordinated abuse, in addition to the vandalising and stealing of ULEZ cameras. As of the 21st of March, 31 had been vandalised or stolen.
When asked who was responsible for these attacks, Khan said: “They're basically those with vested interests, so in the case of tackling air pollution and tackling climate change, that could be car manufacturers. That could be those who've got interested in fossil fuels, whether it's petrol, gas or other issues. People who profit from those industries.”
He continued: “One of the things that we do know is some of those people latching on to those with genuine concerns have got a lot of funding. The key thing we've got to do is to out-organise them and to outwork them but also to take people with us.”
Amil Khan – no relation to the mayor – who runs ValentProjects, a company that investigates online manipulation worldwide, told VICE News that his organisation has noticed posts about ULEZ in their investigations on coordinated activity from hard right online pages, including those on Facebook.
“We saw ULEZ turning up on Facebook groups and pages that were hard right that would talk about strikes and Brexit. So a pro-Brexit, anti-strikes kind of hard right - not straight up racist but just before that. We’ll see it come up that doesn’t look organic and isn’t a regular poster. ULEZ went from ‘no one’s ever heard of it’ to hundreds of people in coordinated demos. And it pings across these Facebook pages.”
He added that climate misinformation and specifically denialism is a “drum beat” theme in far right spaces, but that it often went together with other issues including COVID-19 or transgender issues. “People seem to be angry across all of those issues - it’s more than a coincidence that the messaging comes together.”
Breathe also details Sadiq Khan’s personal experience developing adult onset asthma in London.
Amazon reviews for the book have already been filled with individuals claiming it is a work of fiction or misinformation. One comment discussing “the climate hoax” has already been removed.
News outlets have been reporting on one chapter in which Khan revealed he was left barely conscious after a suspected heart attack during COP26, which has already been seized on by anti-vaxxers online and linked to the COVID vaccines, boosted by people subscribing to Twitter Blue.
In response, Khan said: “They want us to talk about their conspiracies because it gives the oxygen of publicity, so we don't amplify their conspiracies. What we could do is to make sure, in a non-patronising way, we educate the silent majority about what's really going on. And what's really going on is, in this great city of ours, by doing something you love - running in the city - you can get sick and get adult onset asthma.”