Boris Johnson’s recruitment to the global crusade against carbon emissions is, by his own admission, recent. On a visit to New York last month, the prime minister confessed to a back catalogue of newspaper columns that “weren’t entirely supportive of the current struggle”. He was making excuses for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, his trade secretary whose record of climate scepticism tilts into outright denial. (In 2012 she derided “global warming fanatics” for believing that the ice caps were melting.)
Around the same time, Johnson was querying the scientific consensus, dabbling in crackpot theories about sunspots and disparaging windfarms. In his defence, the prime minister has since declared that “the facts change and people change their minds”. At most, half of that statement is true. It was a fact that human activity was heating the planet when Johnson cavilled, and it is still a fact now.
A newly acquired belief is not necessarily insincere. Or rather, sincerity is the wrong test to apply to a man who believes things while he is saying them but adapts what he is saying to suit the audience. When Johnson was a backbench MP, plotting to be Tory leader, it was expedient to have one set of convictions. As host of the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow next week, he needs a different set of opinions.
In terms of Britain’s contribution to carbon reduction, the recentness of the prime minister’s conversion matters less than the forces that might hold him to the cause or prise him away from it. He did not pick a side in the Brexit referendum until February 2016, yet the shallow roots of that conviction were no impediment to radicalism. When forecasting Johnson’s behaviour, the salient factor, probably the only one, is the calculation of his political self-interest.
The omens are not great. In the short term, there is pressure to be green. At Cop26, the world will be watching. Downing Street’s pride is at stake. The government’s net zero strategy, launched today, reflects that scrutiny with ambitious pledges to boost green investment and infrastructure.
And after the summit? The familiar flow of Westminster politics resumes, with the prime minister’s eyes drawn to events much closer than the 2050 horizon, where Britain is due to be carbon neutral; closer than 2035, by which point fossil fuels are supposed to have been eliminated from UK electricity generation; closer than 22030, when all new cars sold should be electric. The furthest point in the distance on which Johnson can hold a gaze is the next election, due in May 2024 but feasibly sooner. Meanwhile, he is vulnerable to distraction by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle.
This problem is not unique to Britain. The rewards of good climate policies are enjoyed by future generations; the costs are paid by people who vote now. That is not an attractive bet for most politicians, least of all the myopic kind obsessed with headlines and poll ratings.
There are good arguments for present sacrifices in exchange for future rewards. Johnson himself used them recently when raising national insurance to fund health and social care. But the self-interest calculus there was simpler. He doesn’t want to fight an election in which Labour can accuse the Tories of underfunding the NHS through a pandemic. Run the same equation with subsidies for replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, or road-pricing to compensate for a drop in vehicle excise duty, and it doesn’t balance so neatly.
Even tax-allergic Tories submit to the political logic of bailing out the health service. They have limited patience for what they see as a pattern of leftward lurches by a leader who neglects his party’s core values. There is already a caucus of MPs – the “net zero scrutiny group” – poised to cause trouble as the bills for a green transition start to land. Conveyed by serial Brexit rebel Steve Baker, the NZSG does not explicitly reject climate science (although it is fair to say its members have some ground yet to cover on the journey away from scepticism). The argument is couched in terms of value for money and fairness: carbon neutrality is a luxury service, and government should not extract the subscription from ordinary families, who are likely to be squeezed in coming months as inflation bites.
That view gets a sympathetic hearing from the chancellor, although the penny-pinching gloom was excised at the 11th hour from a Treasury review published alongside the net zero strategy. No 10 clearly did not want any rain on Johnson’s parade route up to Glasgow.
Still, the prime minister cannot resist indulging the caricature of ecology as a metropolitan lifestyle fetish for vegans and remainers. That was the implication of an article he wrote in the Sun this week, reassuring readers that “the Greenshirts of the Boiler Police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and seize, at carrot-point, your trusty old combi”.
There are Conservative-friendly ways to rebut the net zero sceptics, and ministers do make them from time to time. They point at potential jobs growth and a UK competitive advantage in new industries. They might also note that Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer of political leadership on environmental issues, championing the ban on CFC gases to plug the hole in the ozone layer. There is an appeal to the principle of conserving a precious heirloom – the natural world – as a legacy for our grandchildren. The clue is the party’s name.
For the most part, Britain’s Conservatives are mercifully uninfected by the more deranged strain of climate denial that has captured the US Republicans. But climate politics still gets trapped in a polarising vortex where a cause can be sacred only to one side. The right decides that cutting carbon emissions is a socialist ruse to suffocate markets, and adopts a belligerent anti-regulation stance, more Thatcherite than Thatcher. The left denounces that position as proof that the real obstacle to progress is capitalism, which appears to vindicate resistance on the right.
There is a compromise zone in the unfashionable centre ground, where the problem of getting from a dirty economy to a clean one is solved by a combination of state intervention and private sector innovation. That is indeed the approach Johnson’s net zero strategy adopts. What the government is saying on the subject is not wrong, but what the prime minister says has not always been a reliable guide to what he will do. Today he is a climate evangelist. Not long ago he was a sceptic. Today he is on the right side of the argument because the political facts changed to make it worth his while standing there. But the mood in the Conservative party changes more often and more violently than scientific consensus. Boris Johnson knows which is his true master.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist