Politics will get truly ugly as Sunak pollutes the climate debate

By treating net zero as a ‘wedge issue’ the prime minister has shown he is not a real leader

August 04, 2023
The Brent oilfield in the North Sea. Image: Martin Langer / Alamy Stock Photo
The Brent oilfield in the North Sea. Image: Martin Langer / Alamy Stock Photo

It was one of the oddest—and most hopeful—meetings of my life. In one chair, a very big cheese in an international petrochemical company—let’s call him Oil Man. A few feet away sat two hardcore Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters. No one threw orange powder or glued themselves to the floor. Something much more interesting happened: they talked.

I’d run into Oil Man a few weeks earlier at his London HQ, which at the time was under raucously noisy siege by XR activists. Oil Man (we’d agreed the meeting was off the record, hence my coyness) surprised me. “Thing is, I agree with most of what they’re saying. But how on earth can we ever talk?”

I set up the meeting with a couple of XR people—young women who’d devoted their lives to the cause… and here we were. The first 20 or so minutes were uncomfortable for Oil Man as the women told him in blunt terms what they thought of his company.

He took a deep breath, pulled out a notebook and pen and asked: “So what do you want me to do?”

“Stop exploring, and stop extracting more oil.”

He wrote it down.

“I could do that,” he said. The XR duo looked sceptical.

“I suspect our share price would tumble. And probably a company like Exxon would take us over. I’d probably be out of a job, but that’s not important.”

And so a proper conversation began—one that explored many of the complexities of trying to speed towards a world of net zero in a capitalist jungle. Oil Man was right: they agreed about much more than they differed on.

I thought back to that meeting this week, when our prime minister announced a plan to max out on North Sea oil and gas—granting hundreds of new oil and gas licences while winking at the political editors that this was part of an aggressive new “divide and rule” strategy in the wake of the Uxbridge byelection.

Brace yourself to be drowned by a year of headlines about migrants, trans rights and crime. They are classic “wedge issues”, the unlovely Australian political tactic devised to bludgeon ugly election wins. But climate change? Isn’t Sunak bigger than to make this most critical of causes the latest front in the culture wars? Apparently not.

Let me give you another bit of consensus. About 11 years ago, the great writer and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben wrote a devastatingly clear article called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” for Rolling Stone magazine.

It contained three easily understood figures:

1) 2°C, then a universally agreed temperature target (since reduced to 1.5°C)

2) The amount of carbon we could burn to stay within that envelope (585 gigatons)

3) The total reserves of CO₂ the fossil fuel industry already had on its books (2,795 gigatons).

The arithmetic was simple: we already had five times the amount of oil and gas as we could safely use and still prevent a global human crisis of the sort most of us can barely imagine. McKibben updated those figures recently, and the third figure is now 10 times the second number. “If we are to meet the climate targets set by scientists,” he wrote in April—again in Rolling Stone—“we have to leave 90 per cent of the fossil fuels we have discovered underground. And at current prices that means stranding about $100 trillion worth of assets in the soil.”

Consensus? I had the chance to put McKibben’s original figures in person to Ben van Beurden, then CEO of one of the oil giants—Shell—in 2015. He broadly accepted them.

So did the then Bank of England boss, Mark Carney, who in the same year warned that vast reserves of coal, oil and gas assets were “literally un-burnable”. His message was clear: investors exposed to fossil fuels would increasingly run the risk of heavy losses. They became known as “stranded assets” (with the unanswered subsidiary question: who pays?).

Until relatively recently, British politics also operated on a kind of political consensus over arguably the greatest challenge we have faced since the Second World War. The 2008 Climate Change Act, with its legally binding commitments, was one such moment. The consensus held through 2019, with new commitments to achieve net zero by 2050. Even the fractured politics of the US did not prevent Joe Biden putting enormous state firepower behind a green transition.

But in Britain it’s apparently now all about divide and rule. Drive in those wedges, and forget the science.

At times like this—and Covid was, in a sense, a dress rehearsal—it’s vital that citizens (let’s not just think of ourselves as voters) are fed reliable information; because, without knowledge, we surrender power. During Covid many journalists, adjusting to their work becoming a life-or-death issue, rose to the challenge. Climate change? Not so much.

For years one of the most prolific UK writers on climate change, with numerous bylines across numerous titles, was a man called James Delingpole, an English literature graduate whose views can be summarised briefly as follows: “Manmade global warming is evidently and demonstrably not a problem. The people who pretend otherwise are crooks, liars, idiots or shills. Renewables are a waste of everyone’s time—and always will be.” Why British editors, facing an existential crisis of trust, should have wished to trash the craft of journalism by employing Delingpole to write about climate is a riddle wrapped in the enigma of culture wars.

But now they have a new go-to guy, Ross Clark, one of a new breed of “climate inactivists” who stop short of denying climate change, but think we’re all getting our knickers in a twist about it. You can’t miss him. A reviewer of Clark’s most recent book, Not Zero, said its author has “little regard for accepted facts”. But that doesn’t stop commissioning editors forming an orderly queue for his (admirably) recycled arguments urging us all to calm down. Contrarians can, in moderation, be a good thing. But when they drown out—or are even used to exclude—the most expert voices, something has gone badly wrong.

Sunak had the chance to show genuine leadership on this issue. He could have tried for consensus, and sought to take people with him. But he fluffed it—and now we just have to hope a real leader comes along soon. Time’s not on our side.