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The Long Desertion: how the right came to turn their backs on the planet

MILES ELLINGHAM explores the political right’s long-held role as wardens of the climate crisis and discusses how conservatives came to abandon conservation

IN June 2019, to frustrate the quorum necessary for a new cap-and-trade climate Bill, GOP Oregonian senators fled state lines and vanished, disappearing into the vast American countryside where they went into hiding.

The game was to run out the clock until the Bill expired, some even claimed to have their passports ready if need be.  In an effort to retrieve the lawmakers, state troopers were dispatched — a development to which one of the absentees, Republican senator Brian Boquist, responded that opponents should “send bachelors and come heavily armed… I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”  

Going back further, to 2014, the US Senate floor watched as senator James Inhofe attempted to disprove the validity of “global warming” by producing a snowball from a plastic bag and proudly flaunting it to his legislative colleagues. 

Here in Britain, the political right — via less surreal but equally determined means — have also done their bit to frustrate the consensus for necessary climate policy.  Sir David King, the government’s leading climate expert, was repeatedly blocked from talking to the media by prime ministers Cameron and May and described how Boris Johnson oversaw “severely damaging” cuts in Britain’s fight against the climate crisis.

King told the Guardian that Mr Johnson’s term as foreign secretary coincided with a 60 per cent cut in his team of climate attaches across the world. “The cuts were devastating,” said King, “because it was just at the point that we had to deliver the Paris agreement.”

And it doesn’t end there; over the last decade the Conservative Party has presided over a halt to onshore wind farm production, the thwarting of an innovatory tidal power plant in Swansea bay, an end to subsidies for new household solar panels and the green light for Heathrow’s third runway as well as various fracking operations.

With all this evasion of the climate issue on the part of the British and US right, it begs the question — how did we get here? Shouldn’t the neo-conservative agenda, with all its love for family and tradition, be opposed to a radically and unalterably changing world? When did conservatives abandon conservation, and for what?

It wasn’t always this way. Many powerful climate sceptics have not simply opposed themselves to the alleviation of climate catastrophe, but rather knowingly abandoned the cause. The Western right, and its equally culpable friends in the fossil fuel industries, might pretend to have only wised-up to the issue in the last few years, but don’t be fooled; they’ve had the information for quite some time. 

One of the key players in this story, surprisingly, is Margaret Thatcher, a former chemist, who, after a brief tutorage from environmentalist diplomat, Sir Crispin Tickell, a meeting with Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and encouragement from the British Antarctic Survey scientists (who provided support during the Falklands war), became an unlikely green activist.

In 1990, Thatcher opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research. Then, that same year, she gave a speech championing the IPCC (the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change) for the benefit of the “future as well as present generations everywhere.” Thatcher also helped push through the Montreal Protocol, which banned ozone-damaging CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) and ensured rich nations helped developing countries afford greener alternatives.

Then came the U-turn.

Thatcher became the climate deniers’ chief victory in the early 2000s, albeit after her fall from power.  Some say Thatcher never truly cared about the preservation of the biosphere, and simply adopted green rhetoric as a ploy to bolster a nuclear power agenda (to sideline the coal industry).

But the true reason for her heel-turn is all too simple, and it’s at the heart of why the right are so keen to stall and oppose climate legislation: there is no free market solution to global warming. 

And therein lies the internal contradiction of the conservative climate agenda; a fork in the road, a choice between socio-economic stability for future generations or the unquestioned pursuit of free market economics.

It seems, when it comes to climate crisis, you can’t have both.  Thatcher knew this and expressed the predicament in her autobiography: “clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale… it provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.”

In the US, with its powerful lobbying groups and multi-trillion dollar annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, the story is plainly as bleak. ExxonMobil is reported to have conducted private climate research as early as the 1970s, withholding the findings and initiating a campaign of lobbying, advertising and grant making throughout the 1980s to pressure the Reagan administration into ignoring the threat. And it worked.

In 1989, Exxon helped to found the Global Climate Coalition, an umbrella group for businesses opposed to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The GCC spearheaded an international effort, on behalf of the private sector, to champion free-market principles over the preservation of life on Earth.  

The GCC may have successfully muddied the waters on climate science, suggesting there was genuine scientific debate. But it held little influence on the US military-industrial-complex which has taken account of the risks of climate change for decades, up to and including the present era, in which its commander in chief publicity cites “global warming” as a Chinese-inspired hoax.

A 2019 report issued to Congress by the Pentagon lists climate vulnerabilities at over 79 key military facilities — and more are under review. One section even describes technology developed to utilise buried foam insulation to protect the US Army’s runways in Greenland from the thawing permafrost.

Remarkably, in recent years, as climate change has become an observable crisis, GOP resistance to climate legislation has become more entrenched, not less. 

Back in 2008, the late John McCain conducted his presidential race against Obama with an unusually pro-climate agenda, blaming special interest groups and petroleum companies for blocking progress on the issue — a sentiment only undercut by his running-mate, Sarah Palin, who took a break from sniping Alaskan wolves from the back of a helicopter to declare climate change “the eugenics movement of the 21st century.”

After McCain’s electoral defeat, Republicans regressed, and adopted a platform of nativist climate negligence, neatly summarised in a speech by Mitt Romney during his 2012 campaign: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans, and to heal the planet… my promise is to help you and your family.”

And here we are, with snowballs in the US senate, Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the British government’s leading climate scientist admitting “fear” of Boris Johnson as the future prime minister. 

If the findings of David Wallace-Wells’ new bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth are to be taken seriously then we will all soon have to attune ourselves to profoundly dark horizons. A future in which perennial famines are rife, long lost viruses free themselves from the Siberian ice, vast swathes of Africa, India and the Middle East become unliveable and a new kind of geopolitics is established — from climate wars to carbon sanctions.

It is, of course, welcome to see Theresa May, in the twilight of her leadership, setting out zero carbon climate targets (prompted by her twee walks in the Swiss Alps). But it would take a leap of faith to see the party pursuing and implementing those targets, which, as even the parliamentary committee on climate change points out, will require radical action.

The necessary re-conceptualisation of society is not a shift that the conservative mentality is likely to abide. They are far more likely to ignore May’s so-called legacy legislation and side instead with Thatcher’s former chancellor Nigel Lawson, a stalwart of British climate change denial, who has recently written to all seats in the Commons and the Lords urging them to “delay the measures.”

With the existential threat of climate collapse looming ever larger, conservatives will soon be faced with a decision: adopt “supra-national socialism” in the fight against climate change, or be eternally remembered as the impotent men and women who deserted the future. It’s their move.

Miles Ellingham is based in London and works as a writer and poet.

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