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What Your Future Prime Minister Thinks About Climate Change

The Conservative leadership race is heating up, but not half as quickly as our environment.

by Joe Sandler Clarke
10 June 2019, 11:23am

Background photo: Ken Welsh / Alamy Stock Photo

For 40 years the Conservative Party has wanted nothing more than to leave the European Union. Now it finally has the chance to do just that, but it seems gripped by sweaty anxiety – too close to the fantasy to grab it with both hands. Like a kid locked in a sweet shop who realises they don’t actually like chocolate that much. Or a Labrador who has been offered an entire ham, but can’t decide if it’s really allowed to eat it.

With Theresa May out as Tory party leader, 11 candidates so far have put themselves forward for the job. The BBC confirmed the first TV debate on 18 June, with Channel 4 announcing their own hustings on 16 June. That’s a lot of people saying the same thing in slightly different and more irritating ways.

It’s tempting to ignore all this. To laugh it off and make a joke about the horror of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister. But the decisions made by powerful people in rich countries today will shape the future of our lives and of our planet. The next Conservative leader could play a key role in deciding the future of our planet.

Brexit is a distraction from this other self-inflicted crisis. But it’s also symbolic of a growing divide in our politics between liberalism and right-wing fundamentalism; between pushing for action on climate change and arguing that it’s some kind of hoax.

Many PM hopefuls and prominent Conservative figures who support a no-deal Brexit have expressed doubts about climate change in the past.

After becoming energy minister under David Cameron in 2015, potential next Prime Minister Andrea Leadsom startled aides by asking them if climate change was real (though she later added that she was "now completely persuaded" on its existence).

Philip Davies MP, whose partner Esther McVey is running for the leadership, is a frequent speaker at events organised by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that touts the benefits of CO2 and produces weirdo reports on how polar bears are actually thriving.

Trade secretary Liam Fox, who backs Jeremy Hunt for Tory leader, was forced to clarify remarks in April which suggested he thought the scientific consensus on climate change could be questioned.

That’s without even mentioning what a no deal and a subsequent trade deal with noted climate change denier Donald Trump would mean for the environment.

For leadership candidates who have shied away from outright scepticism on climate change, there’s an alarming complacency about the size of our crisis and the threat it poses to society.

This column has already touched on an emerging narrative in British conservatism that the UK is doing its bit on the environment and that it’s time for other countries to step up.

PM frontrunner Boris Johnson demonstrated this when he wrote that Extinction Rebellion activists should leave the UK and “take their pink boat to China” to protest the country’s rapidly rising carbon emissions.

But even as emissions fall and the country breaks records for days without coal power, it’s clear that the UK could be doing more. The Conservative government has undermined the renewable energy industry through subsidy cuts to such an extent that the number of jobs in the sector has fallen by a third in recent years.

In 2017 it was reported that the government would miss its own target of planting 11 million trees by 2020 by a wide margin. To put that figure in context, the independent advisory group Committee on Climate Change has called for the UK to plant three billion trees by 2050 as a way of reducing emissions.

All the while, the UK has invested billions in oil and gas projects overseas through UK Export Finance, a government agency that seeks to boost international trade.

For PM hopeful Michael Gove, who has tried to appeal to liberals as an eco-Tory Environment Secretary who bans plastic straws and meets Greta Thunberg, this lack of action is pretty awkward.

With the 11 leadership candidates talking about Brexit and little else, action on climate change is likely to slip even further down the political agenda as long as the Conservatives stay in power.

That will suit those in the party who seem intent on watching the world burn.

Paying attention to the leadership contest might be exhausting, but this curious election matters a great deal.

Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed.

@JSandlerClarke