Are British Conservatives Really Committed to Climate Action?

It will be interesting to see how the British public, which was hit so recently by record-breaking heatwaves, responds.

Lizz Truss
Leon Neal / Getty Images.

Britain's new prime minister Liz Truss' ascent to power has been somewhat overshadowed by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Yet for those of us who care about climate and the environment, it’s still a news story worth watching closely. It’s also one that sends mixed messages about the state of the climate fight in Britain. 

There had been early fears that the conservative party’s leadership race could lead to some candidates coming out explicitly against the country’s net-zero policies and the broader climate fight. And here, for now, at least, it appears the mainstream political consensus held, as Truss and all the major candidates who opposed her confirmed they were committed to the country’s net-zero goals

In some ways, this is a sign of how far we’ve come. When I moved from Britain to the United States in 2006, vocal climate skepticism and open hostility to climate action, in general, were still extremely common within the conservative party. Yet from former Prime Minister David Cameron’s "greenest government ever" to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s embrace of the bicycle, the British Conservative Party—unlike the GOP here in the U.S.—increasingly talked up climate action throughout the late 2000s and the 2010s, and actually presided over a dramatic decline in national emissions. Even recently, Johnson put his weight behind a renewables-heavy, tech-centric vision for a low carbon Britain

As a mostly glass-half-full optimist, I like to point to this state of affairs as an example that progress is possible—and that we can shift the Overton window around what meaningful action on climate can look like. Sure, the U.K. has not moved anywhere near fast enough on climate in the past couple of decades. But it has, or at least had, appeared to leave behind some of the open culture war attacks on renewables and green technology that we had witnessed in previous generations.

Or so I thought. 

Yet in an era of accelerating climate consequences, we also need to beware of what futurist Alex Steffen has described as "predatory delay," meaning the strategic positioning of fossil fuels as a necessary and supposedly temporary evil as we navigate our way toward a lower carbon future. Here, there were signs during the Tory leadership debates that both Truss and Rishi Sunak—the two finalists in the contest—were willing to toss red meat to their base by throwing renewables under the metaphorical, diesel-powered, and chronically underfunded bus.

And now that Truss has taken office, this hostility to onshore wind farms and solar panels has manifested itself in one of the most baffling policy reversals of recent memory: She has confirmed she will allow fracking to resume in England. It might be tempting to describe this stance as "energy populism," and yet the term doesn’t really fit here. Fracking has been and remains hugely unpopular in the U.K., and in particular in regions likely to be targeted for project development. 

It’s possible that Truss is banking on attitudes shifting as rising energy prices, driven by the war in Ukraine, start hitting pocketbooks. Yet in a world where project development will most likely take years and where household economies are hurting now, a far more "populist" approach would surely be to finally get serious about massive insulation, energy efficiency, and heat pump drive for households across the country.

Exactly what the political calculation here remains a bit of a mystery to me. But we probably should not ignore the fact that one of Truss’ largest political backers is the wife of a former BP oil executive. I do continue to believe that the conservative party’s lip service to action is a useful, tactical win for the environmental movement, as it gives campaigners something to hold leaders accountable to and it helps to push opposition parties to do more. 

Given that the conflicts and disruptions we are now seeing in Ukraine, Yemen, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere are unlikely to be the last political upheavals we see in a destabilized climate with unpredictable energy prices, we also need to be prepared for the fossil fuel industry efforts to rehabilitate themselves as "bridge fuels" for a transition that they will delay for as long as they possibly can. It appears from Truss’ recent fracking announcement that she and her allies are only too happy to play along. 

It will be interesting to see how the British public, which was hit so recently by record-breaking heatwaves, responds.