Read the room Sadiq. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

September 25, 2023   6 mins

Britain’s cosy climate consensus has been broken. No longer is “net zero” some airy target that can waft freely in the intellectual blue sky of speeches and policy papers — it is an ambition that has finally drifted onto the frontline of politics. And, as it arrives there, its doctrines are beginning to manifest themselves in divisive policymaking.

The Conservatives have interpreted their win in Uxbridge as a response to Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), effectively a tax on those who drive cars judged to be over-polluting; Rishi Sunak instantly followed up this victory with the announcement of 100 new oil drilling licences in the North Sea. Last week, sensing the popular backlash building, he went further, pledging to reverse many of the UK’s net-zero policies.

Sunak’s exploitation of the net-zero backlash was typical of an emerging strategy on the Right. Climate-minded policymakers float or implement a policy that, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as harming the economy and working people. The policy then allows Right-wing forces to mobilise mass anger against what is construed as an elite conspiracy to make ordinary life more difficult and costly — and the Right reaps the electoral gains.

This conservative mobilisation of class inequality has held for even longer in America. In 1993, the newly elected Clinton Administration rallied around a policy that was all the rage in the environmental think-tank circuit — green taxes. Their language then still had an edge of neoliberal novelty: policymakers could solve the “market failure” by “internalising” the costs of pollution and “nudging” the market toward clean solutions.

Predictably, the policy failed to garner the necessary support in Congress and there was an outcry on the Right. One letter to the editor of the Houston Chronicle captured the rage in a way the van-drivers of Uxbridge might now understand: “You will pay this tax every time you turn on your stove, run your refrigerator, iron your clothes, drive your car, water your lawn or flush your toilet. There is nothing that you do or any part of your life that will not ‘pay’ this tax.” Unsurprisingly, the Republicans rode a historic “red wave” in the 1994 midterm elections and gained control of Congress for the first time in 42 years.

Fifteen years later, President Barack Obama rode into office with a Democratic supermajority, a massive economic crisis, and radical calls for a “Green New Deal”. Instead, drawing from the same free-market environmentalism, he unveiled a complicated emissions trading programme called “cap and trade” (immediately labelled “Cap and Tax” by the Right), and helped spark the 2009-2010 Tea Party rebellion and his own party’s defeat in the 2010 midterms. By 2016, Right-wing opponents of climate action were actively claiming to be on the side of the working class. Billionaire oil tycoon Charles Koch declared himself to be “very concerned [about climate policies] because the poorest Americans use three times the energy as the percentage of their income as the average American does. This is going to disproportionately hurt the poor.” Charles Koch, man of the people.

A similar backlash is taking place across the world today: in France, Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 fuel tax incited mass revolt with the Yellow Vest movement, who contrasted liberal concern with the “end of the world” with their own struggle to pay their bills at the “end of the month”. This year, the German Green Party has suggested forcing households to purchase expensive heat pumps, only to see their popularity plummet and the rise of the AfD. Heavily Democratic states such as New York and California have floated banning gas stoves or internal combustion engines, encouraging a tide of populist ridicule.

Why do these climate policy technocrats repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot? Because, at the heart of their thinking, there is a deeper moralism that won’t let political reality get in the way of their historic mission. Ultimately, such approaches might be dubbed “techno-behaviouralism” — insisting that the main challenge of climate change is to reform the immoral carbon practices of dispersed consumers throughout the upper, middle and working classes. Rather than tackling the problem of who owns and controls fossil-fuel based production (a relative minority of society), carbon behaviouralism aims its sights on the “irresponsible” choices of millions of consumers of all classes. It hopes to use policy tools to get them to drive less (or drive more efficient cars), insulate their homes, eat less meat, fly less. One notorious study in 2017 even went as far as to advise individuals to not have children.

The first phase of this policy outlook was to use the disciplining force of the market — particularly the price mechanism — to “nudge” consumers toward low-carbon choices. But now the severity of the climate crisis is forcing these technocrats to ratchet up their strategy to outright coercion: banning fossil-fuel boilers, gas stoves, internal combustion engines, or forcing farmers to rapidly implement costly practices. Rather than winning them over to an attractive political project, the masses must be reformed into more virtuous low-carbon practices. And even when the climate technocrats focus on society’s rampant class inequality, they only morally reprimand the lifestyles of the rich — their private jets, for example. They hardly ever consider how the rich make rather than spend their money: organising investment and for-profit production with likely far greater effects on the climate.

This has much less to do with the climate than with the ruling ideologies of a dying era — neoliberalism and technocracy. But environmentalism was not always morally fixated on the consumption of the masses. In the Sixties, the modern environmental movement emerged with a strong argument that our problems were rooted in forms of industrial production. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring railed against the chemical industry producing what she called “elixirs of death”. Tony Mazzocchi, a union leader and an organiser of the first Earth Day in 1970, saw that his fellow workers were the ones first exposed to harmful toxic pollution before it went into the community air and water. He also recognised that workers and unions had strategic leverage to force owners to reform these sites of production: “When you start to interfere with the forces of production, you’re going to the heart of the beast, right?”

At this stage, it was pretty straightforward that environmentalism meant a form of “industrial policy”: implementing regulations that would force capitalist industry to install or replace polluting equipment in favour of cleaner alternatives. As such, policies such as the Clean Air and Water Acts had great success. But two political developments nipped this burgeoning movement in the bud. First, free-market reformers targeted both the regulatory and welfare state with the twin processes of fiscal austerity and regulatory reform. An emergent form of free-market environmentalism argued that even if industrial pollution control was successful, it was unduly burdensome, hindered global competitiveness, and, above all, was not “cost-effective”. Cap and trade, green taxes and green consumption all emerged as cheaper alternatives to the top-down environmental regulatory state. Why dictate what industry must do, when you can allow markets and prices to do the work indirectly?

Second, a new and inhuman form of environmentalism supplanted the earlier one. Certain thinkers of the post-war era — most prominently William Vogt and Paul Ehrlich — were comfortable asserting straightforward Malthusian explanations of environmental crisis. Ehrlich famously argued that a “population bomb” in the largely poor, developing world imperilled humanity. It soon became clear, however, that this crude Malthusianism focused too much on the poor, and ignored the outsized contribution of specific populations in the rich counties. Early in the Seventies, “affluence” was discovered as the key driver of environmental breakdown (famously alongside population and technology in the IPAT equation). A follow up to his bestselling book The Population Bomb was Paul Ehrlich’s The End of Affluence, blaming unsustainability on consumer societies — and, at least partially, on the consumption of the ordinary working person.

By the Eighties and Nineties, ecological thinkers such as William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel devised a whole mode of analysis — ecological “footprints” — which traced all environmental impacts to the consumption of resources by consumers (this prompted British Petroleum to invent the concept of a “carbon footprint”, which they happily promoted as part of their ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum” campaign in 2004). While focusing on “consumers” makes sense for natural ecosystems, the capitalist economy disaggregates consumption from owners who control and profit from production. The latter not only enable consumption, but have much more power over societal resources and thus more environmental impact. Footprint analysis erased these capitalists profiteers from environmental responsibility.

The result of this footprint ideology was a shift to what John Bellamy Foster and coauthors have called “economic Malthusianism”. Like Malthus’s original arguments, it disregards the power of capital in favour of a moralistic focus on policing imprudent behaviour. But, whether focusing on consumption or demographics, it leads to similar calls for radical population reductions. In fact, William Rees published a paper just this year claiming humanity is heading toward a “population correction” and suggested that “informed estimates put the long-term carrying capacity [of the Earth] at as few as 100 million to as many as three billion people”. In other words, between 98.75% to 62.5% of the current human population needs to die off. This is how our modern climate discourse — top-down, moralising, apocalyptic — emerged.

But this also mirrored shifts throughout the larger political economy. Just as deindustrialisation attacked industrial workers and unions and celebrated the educated knowledge worker, a new form of environmentalism downplayed production and glorified the agency of the environmentally conscious middle-class consumer — the people who staff the state agencies and non-profits that deploy carrots and sticks to herd the masses toward environmental enlightenment. Anyone who looks seriously at the problem should realise solving it will require not lifestyle modification but political and social change. New infrastructures for energy, housing, transport built not by the middle class but blue-collar industrial workers. And abandoned industrial regions could find obvious self-interest in a public-jobs programme aimed at constructing this new economy.

It is telling that, rather than gathering around such a programme on the Left, “green” industrial workers — such as those in the Danish wind industry — are rejecting environmentalism and voting for the Right. After all, the environmental movement still remains populated by middle-class activists brimming with moral certitude that their political project must include corralling the consumptive behaviour of ordinary people. That we could both save the planet and make life significantly better for the majority simply does not cross their mind. And as long as the Left simply renews the climate politics of the last 30 years, workers will continue to reject a platform that has nothing to offer them.

Matt Huber is Professor of Geography at Syracuse University and the author of Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet.