Action on global warming looks like communism to a right wing fringe, resulting in denial, paranoia and delay
When the foundation of your world view is crumbling under the weight of inconvenient truths, you can do one of two things: revise your world view or descend into paranoia.
The extraordinary outburst by the recently sacked environment secretary Owen Paterson is the latter choice. His unburdening is peppered with the language of conspiracy, decrying a “powerful self-serving caucus” of environmentalists and warning of “a mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups… who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape.”
The ground zero of Paterson’s meltdown is his denial of climate change. By definition, action on global warming requires communal action and that, to Paterson and a few other politicians from the right, sounds disturbingly like communism. He, like the others, tellingly tends to cite North Korea as the obvious end result of green policies. Like the long-gone Soviet bloc and its remnants, the “nationalised industries and obstructive trade unions of the 1970s” are another ancient stick Paterson uses to beat environmental campaigners.
The problem is that every government and science academy on the planet agree that climate change is a dangerous problem caused by fossil fuel burning and that emissions must be slashed quickly. Given the choice between accepting this reality and the socialist masterplan that Paterson and his ilk believe is inextricably tied to it, they opt for the less torturous mental path of denial.
In this parallel universe, Paterson can praise prime ministers Tony Abbott in Australia and Stephen Harper in Canada for their courage in tackling the green conspiracy. The more plausible idea that Abbott and Harper’s denial of climate change dangers is rooted in the titanic fossil fuel industries their nations’ host and the accompanying industrial-scale political lobbying is plainly daft if climate change is a nothing but a left-wing plot.
This is where Paterson gets really unhinged. In his mind, the “highly paid globe-trotters of the ‘Green Blob’ who besieged me with their self-serving demands” exist only to “enhance their own income streams and influence by myth making and lobbying.” With horror, he reveals the “staggering” €150m paid by the EU to green NGOs.
But look more closely and you’ll see these vast riches actually amount to €2.8m a year per group, often to deliver specific projects in the poorest parts of the world. Even if the money did support lobbying, the sums fade into insignificance compared to the colossal war-chests deployed by the fossil fuel industry, the biggest businesses the world has ever seen and already awash with $550bn of subsidies a year, five times more than renewable energy.
Paterson sidesteps this awkward reality by depicting green campaigners as rich, hand-wringing liberals: “a dress designer for whom energy bills are trivial concerns” and “a luxury organic chocolate tycoon”. Yet all this green lobbying is done in public unlike, for example, the secret funding of Lord Lawson’s climate sceptic campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, with which Paterson has now associated himself.
Paterson enjoys baiting the greens – “judge me by my opponents” – as much as the greens enjoy lampooning him. But the cognitive dissonance that divides them is far more important than the Punch and Judy show it spawns.
The denial of the dangers of climate change from the right-wing fringe provides a powerful conduit for the tobacco-style delaying tactics of the fossil fuel companies and those old generals like Lord Lawson still in their minds fighting communism. The smoke screens deployed obscure the incredible success story of the green economy, which is growing faster than almost any other sector and already employing more people in the UK than teaching.
This ideologically-motivated denial also chokes the tradition of right-wing environmentalism that stretches right back to Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, who saw society as “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet unborn”.
I believe that Paterson, a true blue countryman, shares that love of the land and instinctive desire for conservation. But the environmental crises on today’s crowded planet are global as well as local and demand a global response. That global action needs to be seen right across the political spectrum as the opportunity it is – a safe, secure, clean and profitable world – and not as a secret red plot got up in Paterson’s mind by “anti-capitalist agitprop groups”.
Paterson believes he was defeated by the green blob, just as fellow ideologue Michael Gove was defeated by the education blob. But the Oxford dictionary defines blob as an “indeterminate roundish mass”, which one could simply take as description of society at large.
Husky-hugging David Cameron understood the desire of the public for environmental responsibility, but ended up appointing Paterson as environment secretary to appease the Tory Tea Party fringe. The reds-under-the-bed paranoia remains, for a dangerous few, as powerful as ever.