The prime minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to intensify attacks on green groups and exploit opposition to environmental protests could rebound badly for his party at the next general election, academics have warned.
They argue that public support for achieving net zero emissions by 2050 in the UK is now entrenched and unlikely to be overturned. This view is backed by opinion polls, which show that 71% of the British public support moves that will lead to curtailment of the country’s fossil fuel emissions.
“Sunak is largely performing for a pretty specific constituency within his own party,” said Prof Joe Smith, director of the Royal Geographical Society. “It is a weak tactic and the party will be punished for it because the demographics are clear. A large percentage of younger people of all political stripes are looking for purposeful action on climate change.”
The climate war between government and environmentalists came to a head learlier this month when Greenpeace members draped Sunak’s North Yorkshire house in black fabric to protest against his plan to “max out” the UK’s North Sea oil and gas reserves by issuing a new round of licences for intensive drilling. Activists scheduled the demonstration for while Sunak and family were on holiday in California and the house was empty.
Similar stunts in the past saw the homes of David Cameron and John Prescott targeted by campaigners. However, Conservative reaction was far more aggressive on this occasion. Ministers told civil servants to cease all engagements with the group, a decision that limits government officials’ ability to collaborate with environmentalists over issues such as deep-sea mining and marine protection zones.
“The demonisation of Greenpeace and other environmental groups seems to be part of a new extreme strategy by the government to side with the polluters instead of the polluted,” said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. “However, the overwhelming majority of people share the aims of environmental groups and want sewage-free rivers and beaches, clean air and a safer climate, so this wedge strategy is likely to lead to national and local electoral oblivion for the Conservatives.”
By trying to exploit concerns about how net zero targets are to be achieved, Smith added, Sunak is ignoring the fact that the UK’s Climate Change Act has been in place since June 2008. “Only five MPs voted against that bill, which led to the establishment of the Climate Change Committee. It has since kept a constant commentary on the government’s environmental performance. There is absolutely no chance that any of the mainstream parties are going to walk away from that commitment. It is a really strong foundation for action.”
The environment movement argues that the key issue is to make the most of that astonishingly powerful political commitment. “At the moment,” said Smith, “established green groups are looking a bit spooked by the very forthright behaviour of Extinction Rebellion and need to be more careful and focused about how they pursue their goals.
“In any case, we should not be leaving the battle to reach net zero to the environmental movement. Researchers, business, the media and other cultural institutions should feel more ownership of the task of having a public conversation about how we build a better tomorrow.”
The problem with giving publicity to Sunak’s anti-green rhetoric is that it suggests deep divisions over green issues in this country. Smith added: “I was profoundly pessimistic 30 years ago about the idea that we could win round a majority of the population to the idea that climate change was happening, was caused by humans and that action was badly needed. All of that has been achieved, however, and that is very encouraging.”
Source : The Guardian