In the UK at Least, Climate Denial Turns to Climate Delay

Commentators argue that Britain shouldn't try to lead the race to zero emissions.

climate protesters in UK

Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Something weird is happening in my native Great Britain. When I left those shores in 2006, it really felt like the country had turned a corner in terms of climate politics. Having followed decades of largely partisan fighting over whether the climate crisis was real, there was finally a general consensus that, yes, the crisis was real, and yes, there was something the country could do about it.

What followed was a decade of not insignificant (although also not sufficient) progress. Offshore wind took off like a rocket. Coal-fired power started giving way to solar. And while questions remained on everything from biomass energy to the boom in SUVs, per capita carbon emissions did fall to levels not seen since the Victorian era.

Now, however, as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate talks, it’s clear that a new breed of partisan naysaying is rearing its problematic head. While outright climate denial has become a fringe element compared to over here in the United States, there is a growing chorus of voices engaging in what futurist Alex Steffen has referred to as the rhetoric of “predatory delay.”

In a thread that bounced around my corner of the Twittersphere, Dr Aaron Thierry laid out how the British press is happily boosting a diverse range of commentators, each with a specific angle on why Britain should not go too far, or too fast, in the race to zero emissions.

In some ways, the optimist in me would like to see this as progress. After all, we’ve moved on from “the climate has always changed” and “it’s sunspots,” to accepting that the problem is real. The trouble is, accepting that a problem is real means little unless you are willing to grapple with exactly how serious it is, and then figure out what you are willing to do about it.

With the Amazon becoming a net source of carbon and major world cities under threat from sea level rise, you’d think that an acceptance that the crisis is real would be accompanied by a realization—both moral and economic—that we cannot possibly afford not to do all we can in tackling the problem.

And yet, as Dr Thierry pointed out, the voices of delay have plenty of arguments up their sleeve:

  • China needs to act first.
  • Britain will be at a disadvantage if it goes too far, too fast.
  • Individual citizens need to take responsibility, rather than having government dictate.
  • We’ll solve this through technological innovation, so there’s no need for excessive sacrifice now. (Remember Boris Johnson’s private jet flight to a climate summit?)

The thing is, none of these arguments really holds water in a world where the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating. After all, it’s increasingly clear that the world will move to a zero carbon economy in the coming decades—either that or we’ll do so much damage to our ecosystems that our economies will tank regardless. So there is significant first-mover advantage to be had in demonstrating true leadership. And that leadership is not going to happen through individual acts of personal virtue, nor is it going to come from waiting for a technofix to save us.

It’s important to note that the shift from denial to delay is by no means only apparent in UK media. Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently coauthored a study showing media reporting of the climate crisis has become increasingly accurate in terms of the science. That improvement in terms of climate science, however, was accompanied by a shift toward voices debating and undermining the key policy measures that would be needed to actually bring emissions down:

“Accurate reporting in these print outlets vastly outweighed inaccurate reporting, but this is not a cause for complacency. The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In many ways, this gets at the ongoing back-and-forth between Lloyd and myself about the value of individual carbon footprints. On the one hand, every ounce of carbon emitted matters—and we should celebrate efforts to forego fossil fuels and create a viable culture of alternatives. On the other hand, there’s a reason that oil companies love to talk about personal virtue and individual responsibility. That’s because they’d much rather have a small contingent of committed environmentalists doing everything they can to live green than have a much larger contingent of concerned but imperfect citizens demanding an end to the sale of fossil fuels.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. We can ride our bikes and demand a carbon tax, too. In order to do so successfully, however, we have to understand the tenor of the public debates that are being had—and the motivation behind those who are having them.