Tonight, Channel 4 will host the first ever election debate on the climate crisis. All of the major party leaders have confirmed their attendance, save for Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The Brexit party doesn’t have a climate platform, so that squares, but Johnson would be a curious absence. The Conservative government recently passed a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; the party’s manifesto repeats that pledge, and includes new spending for environment and climate policies. Until now, the Tories haven’t seemed afraid to talk climate.
This distinguishes them from other rightwing parties in the English-speaking world. The US and Australia especially seem doomed to forever re-fight the climate denial battles of the mid-00s – witness Donald Trump’s tweets about cold weather contradicting “global warming”, or the now Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, triumphantly brandishing a chunk of coal in parliament.
But in the UK, since they overwhelmingly supported the 2008 Climate Change Act, the Tories seem to have come around and fully accepted the science. No one in the party openly questions the link between carbon emissions and warming, or the need for action. Its once-vocal science denier fringe has been almost entirely silenced, or, like former minister Ann Widdecombe, decamped to the Brexit party.
But it should be clear to us now that it is possible for leaders to accept the scientific consensus, attend the meetings, meet the activists, nod gravely, sign the pledges and then effectively do nothing. It’s time to ask whether this approach is really a marked improvement on denying the climate crisis altogether. There is a term currently floating around activist circles, “new denialism”. This is attached to ways of thinking that acknowledge the reality of climate change, but don’t lead to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” needed to avoid 1.5C warming.
New denialism accepts the basic atmospheric science, but rejects the immense volume of further scientific work suggesting that we can change things – either because it would be too disruptive to our current way of life, or to the way we’ve organised our economy. It can seem like a vague category: it encompasses over-cautious incremental policies and tepid market-based solutions; insistence that some not-yet-existing technology will emerge to wipe out our carbon debts; and even arguments that we’re too far gone, and should focus our efforts on adaptation. These all acknowledge the problem, but reject the solutions that scientists insist on: immediate, radical reductions in carbon emissions.
This seems markedly less evil than the cartoon-villain propaganda of climate science deniers. And at close range it is. But any future moral accounting of the climate crisis is unlikely to distinguish bad faith from good intentions; rather it will be weighed in megatonnes of carbon, which hit another all-time high this year. As the academics Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud noted in 2013, the thinktanks behind climate denial never thought they would win the war of ideas with academic science – they simply wanted to stall for as long as they could anything that would threaten the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Seen this way, new denialism isn’t anti-science specifically – it’s a reactionary project, which seeks to uphold or reassert the status quo. And if denialism is about stopping action, then anything that needlessly obstructs action is denial. Ultimately, then, there’s no fundamental difference between outright denialism and new denialism. New denialism is visible in the gaps between words and actions: oil companies claiming to decarbonise while approving enough fossil fuel production to shoot us well past 2C; governments promising emission reductions with no credible plan to do so. Two weeks ago the UN called the majority of existing climate policies “totally inadequate”.
The truth is, the Tories are fine with that. Johnson won’t talk climate today because Labour and the Liberal Democrats have unveiled transformative multi-billion pound infrastructure programs and regulatory measures that would actually address the climate crisis, while the Conservative manifesto commits more spending to potholes than to electric vehicles. It’s the same bait and switch that has kept climate action stalled for decades: promise, then don’t deliver. Johnson’s purported commitment to a 2050 target won’t stand up to scrutiny from the public, or from the other parties – but it’s still there in the manifesto, a grand signpost pointing absolutely nowhere.
The Tories have got credit over the years for their rhetoric on climate – from supporting the Climate Change Act to David Cameron’s “greenest government ever”. The reality has been less impressive: they have failed to enact any major policy and outright killed promising programmes such as zero carbon homes.
And yet, they’ve avoided major condemnation as long as discussions inched along, committing to new targets without plans to achieve them, the rhetorical consensus intact. The other parties have broken that, thankfully, by promising bold action that acknowledge the true demands of the crisis. We say a person who won’t accept tough realities is in denial. We shouldn’t be scared to extend that label to Johnson and his party.
• Stephen Buranyi is a writer in London