Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Whichever Tory Wins, the Planet Burns

Britain just marked its hottest day on record, but the candidates to be our next prime minister are dodging the topic of climate change almost altogether – and the media is happy to let them get away with it.

The two remaining candidates for leader of the Conservative Party, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. (Getty Images)

In the middle of the harshest effects of both the cost of living and climate crises, the Conservative Party is choosing its new leader. Energy bills are increasingly unaffordable. The UK has experienced its hottest day on record. The next prime minister will govern in some of the most crucial years for determining the habitability of our planet over coming decades. Rather than resolve these crises, however, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak look set to take us deeper towards disaster.

Truss and Sunak are looking to succeed Boris Johnson who has spoken regularly about his commitment to the climate, often referring to his ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution. Despite the name, it is barely green, hardly industrial, and certainly not revolutionary. Johnson’s government has passed several pieces of environment-oriented legislation and brought forward piecemeal measures to decarbonise, but overall the substance is lacking.

The superficiality of Johnson’s green policies has not stopped them becoming a proxy for many leadership candidates’ relationship to the outgoing Prime Minister and their position in the party more generally. Kemi Badenoch, for example, initially distanced herself from the legally enshrined policy to achieve net-zero by 2050. That was introduced by Theresa May and used as the linchpin of Johnson’s pet environmentalism. Badenoch had sought to differentiate herself from the crowded field and win the approval of the Tory party’s hard right, but eventually fell in line with the other candidates on net-zero under questioning from the Tories’ President of COP26, Alok Sharma.

Both Sunak and Truss have claimed to support the net-zero 2050 target from the start of the contest. They have also both signed up to a series of pledges put forward by the Conservative Environment Network. However, the detail is still lacking and the substantive debate has been absent. Instead, political disagreement has focused on tax cuts, expensive clothes, and transphobic one-upmanship.

Where the candidates have given clues about their approach to climate action, they have left a lot to be desired. On taxes, while Sunak has promised he won’t bring forward any cuts until after inflation is under control, Truss demonstrates a disjointed approach by arguing for cuts to green levies in response to the cost of living crisis.

On fossil fuel extraction, neither candidate is serious about bringing down emissions by facilitating a just transition away from polluting energy and towards clean sources. Sunak’s record as Chancellor was to introduce a half-baked windfall tax which included a loophole incentivising firms to extract more oil and gas; for her part, Truss has proposed lifting the ban on fracking to generate greater energy security. Given the popular opposition and unfavourable geological conditions, such a move would be as self-defeating as it would be environmentally catastrophic.

By falling back on more fossil fuels, both fail to grasp the urgency of transition and risk locking the UK’s economy into more emissions in the decade they must rapidly fall. When Sunak claims to support decarbonisation while warning that we shouldn’t go ‘too hard and too fast’, he indicts the inadequacy of conservative climate politics.

Both also rely on a failing free-market fundamentalism to avoid putting meat on the bones of their climate platitudes. While Truss wants to rapidly erode the fiscal capacities of the state, Sunak’s plan to reduce emissions boils down to repeating the empty slogans of ‘growth, markets and innovation’. In case the Chancellor hasn’t noticed, private profiteers have abjectly failed to deliver a rapid energy transition—let alone a fair one.

The Media Doesn’t Care

When polled, just four percent of Tory party members prioritised achieving net-zero by 2050. This disinterest has been reflected by our craven mainstream media, which has failed to scrutinise either Sunak or Truss on their positions. In the televised debates, climate has been treated as a trivialised question rather than emphasised as one of our generation’s defining political challenges.

During the first head-to-head debate between Sunak and Truss, hosted by the BBC, the candidates were asked about ‘the three most important things […] that people could do for the environment’. Sunak reiterated his free-market fundamentalist belief in ‘British innovation’ while calling for more recycling and energy efficiency. Truss gave even less detail, invoking her teenage eco-warrior past. Rather than challenge two of the most powerful politicians in the country on their plan for addressing environmental crisis in government, the BBC abdicated all journalistic responsibility and let them off the hook with a soft-ball.

The media’s refusal to hold Tory leadership candidates to account is further underlined by their focus on support for net-zero by 2050. In some ways, refusing to support the target sets the most overtly dangerous Tories apart from the rest of the pack. But there is no Tory environmentalism prepared to face up to the genuine challenges of climate crisis. By focusing on the inadequate and arbitrary net-zero target, the climate crisis is reduced to being a subject of political theatre—not much more than a will-they-won’t-they in the drama of Westminster.

Net-Zero Is Not Enough

In practice Badenoch’s flanking to the right made the other candidates appear more moderate, but reaffirming the cosy political consensus on the Tories’ pre-existing net-zero target is not good enough. With every passing day, month, and year, the action governments must take becomes more greater in scale and urgency. Tories should be challenged on how much green public investment they plan to bring forward as well as their plan for fairly phasing out fossil fuels. In the year after the UK hosted COP26, they should be challenged on the finance they plan to provide to poorer countries to join us in the global transition.

This is a Tory government at its weakest since David Cameron’s coalition came to power in 2010. They are onto their fourth prime minister, with the calibre of politician somehow getting worse and worse. Boris Johnson has not just lost the trust of his party. The Conservatives are rapidly losing the public’s consent for them to govern. Now is the time to force concessions with substantive demands and scrutiny on the many crises we face.

Rather than conduct climate debate on the Tories’ terms, or avoid it all together, it’s the media’s responsibility to highlight divisions within the ruling party and expose their monumental failings. Instead, the media lets both Sunak and Truss off the hook as they ascend to power committed to little more than upholding our disastrous status quo.