A referendum on Britain’s net zero policy? It’s Brexit all over again

Those who want net zero to happen have to learn the lessons of the lost battles of Brexit – and start to take on the arguments against the net zero plan that are resonating with people

Sean O'Grady
Monday 01 November 2021 12:42 GMT
Cop26: Boris Johnson arrives in Glasgow for climate summit

According to Boris Johnson, it’s not what the politicians or the corporations think about the climate crisis that matters, but what the “punters” think. That’s right enough. He also says that the punters – the people – are demanding change, and that therefore it must happen. That, I fear, we can’t be so sure about.

One of the more disturbing bits of climate news flying around in recent days was an opinion poll that suggested a sizeable chunk of the population – arguably a majority – wants a referendum on whether or not we should pursue the government’s net zero policy. The poll showed that 42 per cent do want such a vote, with 30 per cent opposed, and a large number of “don’t knows”. Leaving the undecideds out, that makes 58 per cent who’d like a referendum on the net zero policy. There are a few voices being raised in support of the idea, such as Steve Baker and Iain Duncan Smith; a small social media campaign – Car26 on Twitter – up and running; and, predictably, Nigel Farage has declared that it might be his next campaign. So, yes, it’s Brexit all over again, folks.

Of course, after all that we’ve been through, and are still going through, Britain needs another referendum like a hole in the ozone layer, but whenever people are offered a vote on anything – and certainly something that’s going to cost them money – they tend to seize on it. The better news is that a global opinion poll conducted by the UN found overwhelming belief – two thirds – that there really is a climate emergency, with an impressive 81 per cent of respondents in the UK agreeing.

It looks, then, rather like support for net zero is enthusiastic in principle, but fragile and shallow when it comes to the practical measures (ie paying for it). The danger is that if any opportunity arises for that uncertainty to bubble up into political influence it will weaken the resolve of political leaders to hold the line against it – just like Brexit. To put it crudely, the movement for a referendum on net zero is being used as a kind of Trojan horse or entry drug for full-on climate crisis denial and the abandonment of the target by the UK, just as the campaign for an “in/out” EU referendum ended up with the pretty hard and antagonistic Brexit we have today.

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All that is needed, as with Brexit before it, is for the anti net zero lobby to capture the Conservative Party through a combination of external pressure and internal activism. This is what forced David Cameron to promise a referendum, when he was threatened with being ousted in around 2013-14, and the Brexit process was set in train. The external pressure on Brexit in those days and after was exerted by Ukip and then the Brexit Party. Now they have been succeeded by Reform UK, whose leader Richard Tice is standing in the Bexley by-election. Reform UK say Tice is “standing against Boris Johnson’s highly taxed nanny state and net-stupid energy policies”. He won’t win, but Johnson’s advocacy for net zero (and his economic policy) has opened up some space on the right.

The point is that those who want net zero to happen have to learn the lessons of the lost battles of Brexit – and start to take on the arguments against the net zero plan that are resonating with people. Just as it was no good relying on expert economists and their forecasts last time round, it will be no use thinking that consensus views of climate scientists and their own modelling decades hence will win public opinion this time around. As with Brexit, and Covid for that matter, you can always find some maverick or conspiracy theorist with a spurious qualification to challenge the status quo, and anyone can produce a chart pointing in the opposite direction for anything, in a post-truth world.

Project Climate Change Fear won’t make people support prohibitively expensive change, even in rich nations. A few months ago, prosperous Switzerland had a referendum, as is their habit, and rejected their government’s climate crisis plan. President Macron, for other reasons, has talked about a referendum that will put the climate into the French constitution.

My climate change fear, as it happens, is that the climate deniers will win the arguments. When they say that whatever the UK does is irrelevant because China and India are going to carry on burning coal, what is the answer to that? It ain’t “global leadership” or “setting an example”, because no one believes the Chinese or Indians will take much notice. It’s the analogous argument to the old one about nuclear disarmament: if Britain gives up its nukes, so will Russia. It sounds hopelessly naive.

And, yes, who is going to pay for the electric cars and the air and ground pumps that will replace our gas boilers? There is actually still no honest answer to that, and if there was one –“it’s you, mate” – it wouldn’t exactly be a vote winner. The cheapest new electric vehicles are about £20,000 and few with any practical range are available for less than that, while air and ground heat source pumps are also new and unfamiliar, as well as expensive. Even those who want to make sacrifices for the planet will be reluctant to vote for having no car, or being cold at home in winter – which is what the deniers will be claiming.

And as for the billions rightly going to developing countries to help them deal with the devastation the rich industrialised West has inflicted on them, well, we know what a disturbingly large proportion of the public thinks about international development aid, don’t we?

There is lots of complacency around the climate crisis, but the most dangerous of all is that the arguments have been won, and the case has been made, and all we need to do is to get on with it. We are far from that, evidently, because if the peoples of the world were as angry as they should be then there’d be no problem at the Cop26 conference. But the arguments have not been won, and the punters are not yet pushing their leaders to implement the necessary changes. Quite the opposite, in fact. That’s the scary thing.

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