Climate populism means that the wealthy are now feigning solidarity with the working class to attack environmentalism.

In Britain and far beyond, anti-environmentalists have a new favourite argument. No longer able to claim the climate crisis isn’t happening, they have switched from denial to class warfare. They argue that green policies and innovations from electric cars to heat pumps, low emission zones to eco-taxes and levies, are all unaffordable for working-class and many middle-class people, yet are being imposed regardless by an out-of-touch elite of politicians, bureaucrats and wealthy “woke capitalists”.

Most of the people making these arguments in the rightwing media were never previously much troubled by the financial struggles of what they now piously call “ordinary people”. But shamelessly shifting position is a familiar activity for the modern right. Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has given its anti-green message more force.

Climate populism is also gaining strength through an alliance with some of the super-rich, such as Rishi Sunak, who have additional reasons to oppose environmentalist policies. As the people with by far the largest carbon footprints, left by their frequent air travel, multiple homes and lavish consumption, they have the most to lose if lifestyles are to become climate compatible. Those who see only electoral calculation in Sunak’s anti-green policies are almost certainly missing deeper motivations.

Alliances between the rich and financially stretched or anxious parts of the working class and middle class have often sustained the right, ever since the arrival of democracy made a more popular conservatism essential. These coalitions have used the same basic argument against necessary reforms as the anti-green movement is using now. This says that the cost, practical difficulties and general disruptiveness of change are too large. Meanwhile, the status quo is either rosily presented as stable and sustainable, or as the least bad option.

Yet behind such reassurances something important and potentially explosive lurks unmentioned: that the rich will be able to avoid the climate crisis for longer than the rest of us. When the weather becomes intolerable in one country, they can more easily move to another. Or they can retreat into climate-controlled private spaces. In his 2016 book Vertical, Stephen Graham shows how the growing segregation of cities is creating “apartheid atmospheres”: air-purified towers and below-ground complexes for elite residents. Like latter-day castles, these enclaves shut out an increasingly harsh outside world. Meanwhile, through the heat expelled by their air conditioning systems, they make that world worse for everyone else.

How might the power of this entrenched anti-green lobby be overcome? One step would be for environmental activists and left-of-centre politicians to create a different kind of climate populism, one that makes the role of the wealthy in the climate crisis more clearly and widely understood. “High-consuming households have rarely been the focus of academic studies or policy initiatives,” according to the journal Energy Research & Social Science, “although … many of them have a huge potential to reduce their environmental impact.” Last year, the journal Nature Sustainability reported that since 1990 the world’s wealthiest 1% had been responsible for 23% of global emissions growth, while “emissions from low- and middle-income groups within rich countries declined”.

A new green populism that highlighted, and condemned, such selfishness could drive a wedge between the more and less privileged parts of the anti-climate coalition. People who are worried about being able to afford greener lives might realise how little they really have in common with the private flying class.
As a Labour activist suggested to me, only half-jokingly, after the party’s by-election defeat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip last month, a better way to sell the ultra-low emission zone to voters might have been to fund a more generous scrappage scheme with a tax on helicopters.

Some argue that the climate crisis is too serious to politicise. In the Times last week, Keir Starmer criticised “those – from both the left and the right – who want it to be an ideological identity issue”. In one sense, he’s correct. The crisis is universal and needs solutions on the same scale: cooperation within and between countries, not years of division while the situation worsens.

Yet in another sense, the crisis is unavoidably political. It’s about how a finite resource – the amount of emitted carbon the planet can tolerate – is to be divided up between different interests. Today’s anti-green movement is rarely completely frank about its motives. It is hard to say openly that you don’t care about the long-term future of the planet because you won’t be alive to see it, or because your short-term profits are more important. So respectable-sounding arguments about the affordability of climate policies are made instead.

But the pushback against these policies should be seen for what it is: a highly political attempt to spare the rich and other heavy carbon emitters from making sacrifices. While the movement’s public figures rage against green measures, they may even be secretly pleased that much of the population appears to support these policies. As during the pandemic, many of us may restrict our lives to help address a global crisis while a minority party on.

If a successful pro-climate politics is to be created, it needs a positive element as well, a promise that life would be better in some respects with fewer emissions. The US government is beginning to find the right way to say this. “President Biden sees action on climate change as an opportunity to lower [energy] costs for all Americans, create good-paying union jobs for workers and address the cumulative impacts of pollution on disadvantaged communities,” wrote his energy adviser John Podesta last year. Fossil fuel capitalism is so socially and environmentally damaging that winning over voters to an alternative should not be impossibly hard.

Labour has yet to promote its similar policies with the same confidence. Being bold after a long period out of power is often harder than doing so in office. Yet the party needs to realise that diluting or postponing climate policies in order to compromise with the anti-green lobby is likely to be a doomed enterprise. By the time that lobby has accepted, if it ever does, that a greener world is not an extravagance or a conspiracy but a necessity, it will probably be too late.

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com