Silence on climate change in Tory leadership race spells trouble

Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have been deafeningly and calculatingly silent on the environment

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak fear talking about climate change will hamper their chances of winning over the Tory faithful. PA
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A senior adviser to the Conservatives once said to me that as well intentioned as concerns about the environment were, they did not win elections. “No one votes for the Greens.”

Of course, it is possible to think that judging by their seniority and vintage, they were bound to believe that.

Their generation did not see “eco”, as they put it, as anything serious. Nor was it true about the Greens — the party had made inroads, they had an MP, in Caroline Lucas, and hundreds of local councillors. And in other countries, Greens represented a political force to reckon with.

Still, it pointed to a mindset. It is one that you are seeing writ large with the Tory leadership election. Much of the debate on the hustings has been about tax.

The cost-of-living crisis, driven by rising fuel bills caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is also at the fore. The NHS receives a nod, as it must, and education, law and order, and immigration.

Of climate change, there is barely a whisper despite the UK having suffered under a sweltering blanket of a heatwave with record temperatures, accompanied by fires and drought. Its European neighbours are also combating stifling heat, rampaging fires and a lack of water.

Partly, it is because the environment does not feature highly in the vote-grabbing rankings. Partly, as well, it is down to the fact that a sizeable portion of Conservative Party members — those who will vote for the next party leader — struggle with climate change.

They simply do not believe it exists or they choose to ignore it. Regardless of how much evidence is put in front of them, of melting glaciers and burning forests, they remain unmoved.

To many of them, climate change is the product of a conspiracy among leftie academics, an attempt to curb the power of big business and bring capitalism to heel. It is something for all those pressure groups that loathe, as they see it, the traditional values espoused by the Tories to coalesce around.

That is really how they view it.

What is odd is that in their present leader — and for-now-anyway — prime minister, Boris Johnson, they have someone who is avowedly green, as is his wife, Carrie, and their mutual friend, also a Tory star, Zac, now Lord, Goldsmith.

Sunak and Truss's green conundrum

But two years ago, to great fanfare, Mr Johnson unveiled his “10-point plan” to achieve Britain’s “green industrial revolution”.

Today, there is barely a squeak about the initiative in the leadership campaign. The invisibility of the programme championed by the current prime minister and, at the time, presumably his colleagues, among them the two leadership contenders, Mr Sunak and Ms Truss, is perplexing and concerning.

It was billed as the initiative that would take Britain towards a zero-carbon economy. Instead, as the country and its European neighbours battle with record high temperatures and with them, wildfires and drought, the consequence of climate change, attention is devoted to the immediate shortage of gas and oil, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ideally, there should be room for both: by all means tackle the current problem, while earnestly developing and finessing the longer-term plan. That is what the new prime minister should be doing, cracking the whip on them both, in tandem.

The sense of stalling, of not willing to confront, is compounded by the lack of resource. The CBI accuses the Johnson “revolution” of putting too much onus on private sector funding. The government has pledged to spend £12 billion ($14.5bn), which is a tiny amount when you consider what is at stake.

Even its own adviser, the Climate Change Committee, says that it is nowhere near enough and advocates £50bn. If the US is a guide, the Biden administration is pushing through the allocation of $370bn for its equivalent eco-friendly infrastructure package.

The UK could be rushing ahead with the expansion of offshore wind power, building more turbine farms, manufacturing turbines — becoming a world leader in this technology, while creating specialist engineering skills and jobs. Similarly, production of low-carbon hydrogen should be a focus.

UK must pour more resource into wind farms like Walney Extension off the coast of Blackpool. Reuters

Likewise, promoting zero-emission vehicles. The installation of charging points is going slowly. There are too few of them and they are hard to find.

The UK is not encouraging the growth of its own electric vehicle production industry — cars are imported when they could be built in the UK, provided the manufacturers are properly incentivised.

Drivers could be better rewarded for switching to battery power. At the same time, the nation’s railways are crying out for greater electrification.

We should be doing more as well to insulate our existing buildings and installing heat pumps rather than prioritising the construction of new buildings. All this, and more, could and should be done, with intensity and purpose. For that to happen, however, requires leadership, commitment and drive from above.

Mr Johnson had it, although detail and execution were never his strong points. Mr Sunak or Ms Truss must pick up the baton and determinedly run with it.

They could show their belief and determination by saying so now. Even the Tory faithful, while worrying about the coming winter, cannot ignore the stifling heat, fires destroying houses in the party’s Essex heartland and a village in another stronghold, in Surrey, running out of water.

Published: August 17, 2022, 10:16 AM