Last week, in a much trumpeted announcement, the Daily Express broke with decades of climate denial and called for a “green revolution” to tackle the climate crisis. Many commentators rushed to marvel at the apparent transformation. The rightwing newspaper, which previously claimed global warming was perfectly “natural”, seems to now be embracing the idea of a “green Britain”. “Few would dispute the urgent need for action”, the editors write – despite having been at the forefront of efforts to do so.
In the last two years, the Express has published articles calling climate activists a “sinister”, “hateful”, “selfish”, “thick”, “fascist”, “holier-than-thou”, “doomsday cult” who “hate Britain”, “hate our democracy” and “want to destroy Britain today”. The idea that this paper would now embrace a radical green agenda seems a little unbelievable. Unbelievable, in the sense you’d be a fool to believe them.
A clearer outline of this new agenda is helpfully illustrated by Leo McKinstry, a columnist for the Express who once described climate action as a “gigantic con-trick” but now calls it “our patriotic duty”. “Conservation and compassion are central to the British character”, he explained last week. “Our vision is of a truly green and pleasant land, where nature is cherished and pollution reduced”.
Just last year, McKinstry was openly ridiculing the idea of a “green revolution”. So what, then, is the reason for this sudden change? Is his newfound fervour for revolution anything other than the same tired doctrine, repackaged in the language of rightwing nationalism?
The closer you look, the more the new agenda starts to reveal itself. The right knows public attitudes are beginning to shift; in the UK, 81% of people now believe climate change is an “emergency”. They know the well-funded project of denial is gradually coming to an end. They know too that new strategies are needed and, gradually, a rightwing ecology is starting to take shape which emphasises patriotism, national identity, and personal choice. Last year, The Sun launched its own environmental campaign, which aimed to show “how every reader can make small lifestyle changes to help save the planet”.
These nascent campaigns are, at the moment, faintly ridiculous. Whilst supporting airport expansion, The Sun is now encouraging readers to “join our eco revolution” by checking “the greenest flight options” and swapping “French wine for beer brewed in the UK”. There is no discussion of capitalism or growth. There is nothing about human rights or global consumption. Not a single line about environmental racism or reparations. Just French wine, British beer, and a competition to win an electric car.
It is, however, important we take these interventions seriously, despite how confused and absurd they may appear. Tabloid newspapers are often a blunt indicator of a more sophisticated shift in British politics and, slowly, rightwing commentators are starting to talk about climate change. Usually, this results in a dangerous form of eco-nationalism. This is a politics that preys on fear. A fear that is designed to distract us from real, systemic change and turn our attention towards a more familiar target: the foreigner.
Six years ago, the UN human rights chief accused British tabloids – specifically The Sun and the Express – of “hate speech” after an article in the former described migrants as “cockroaches”. The new editor of the Express claims the paper has “come a long way” since then. “I was keen not to be perceived as anti-immigrant or Islamophobic and I went out of my way to try and prove you didn’t have to do that,” he says. Reality, however, shows the opposite. Last year, one article in the Express claimed “young, fit, muscled and occasionally aggressive” men are coming to Britain, “impelled by one single lust”. Another columnist suggested refugees might be “lying to us”. Now, these articles appear online next to little green advertisements, imploring readers to “see how Brexit Britain can lead the way for a greener world”.
Make no mistake: these newspapers are not your friends. They are not your allies. Their politics are not in any way ecological. They are deeply racist, reactionary, rightwing publications. Their sudden interest in climate change is not to be celebrated – it is a terrifying indication of things to come.
Over the last five years, Boris Johnson has gone on a very similar journey to the editors of the Express. Johnson once wrote a column for the Telegraph in which he promoted the work of climate deniers. Just six years ago, he wrote about “a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear – as far as I understand the science – is equally without foundation”. Today, Johnson loudly champions a green industrial revolution and promises to “make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind”.
His plan, he tells us repeatedly, is “world-leading” – but the UK isn’t on track to meet its latest emissions targets, and is currently rejecting the advice of its own advisers. The government isn’t interested in tackling the underlying drivers of the crisis – it is only interested in cheap, symbolic gestures. Increasingly, climate change is being used as a way to cynically assert dominance on the world stage; it is less about saving the world, and more about “beating” it.
To meaningfully tackle the climate crisis, we have to engage with complex issues of growth, consumption, land use and resource distribution. Any credible actor should ask difficult questions about our current economic system and the assumptions on which it is based. Rightwing politicians might now adopt the language of “revolution”, but they aren’t genuinely interested in real change. The politics they promote are still as reactionary, rightwing, and as racist as ever – if not more so.
We have to resist this callous, violent ideology with everything we have, and be clear about the future we’re fighting for. Not a world of limited self-interest, but of limitless solidarity – a world in which we work, across borders, to resist the dangerous trajectory we are currently on.
In the next few years, there is a very real possibility that eco-nationalist politics will become the dominant form of environmentalism in Britain, ushered in by a large group of well-meaning liberals. We saw this last week, when Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF backed the “green Britain revolution” of the Express. These organisations dutifully put their names to the “crusade” of a rightwing publication and, in doing so, have legitimised it.
In the future, we have to be smarter. We can’t reform the system that is killing us. We can’t compromise with climate change. Now is the time to provide a proper analysis of power, and articulate a positive vision of a better future. We have to ensure the “green revolution” we are working towards is a real revolution, rooted in the principles of justice and liberation. Not the false “revolution” of the Daily Express.
Sam Knights is a writer, actor and climate activist.