20 February 2019

The Tories should stop scolding teens and stick up for pro-market environmentalism


“It’s called truancy, not a strike.” A tweet by Andrea Leadsom typified the humourless response from senior Conservatives to the children who skipped school to attend climate change protests last Friday. The official line from Downing Street was similarly stern: “disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for”.

In some ways, the response is understandable. Chants of “F*** Theresa May” can hardly have endeared the protesters to the Government. And, even if the official response was rather graceless, it will always be difficult for a government spokesman, Conservative or otherwise, to enthuse about kids bunking off.

It’s also worth keeping the event in perspective. The number of participants was low, with around 15,000 schoolchildren reported to have taken part nationwide. The march will not last long in the country’s collective political memory. Not least thanks to this week’s rather more seismic news about the the newly-formed Independent Group.

But this minor political tremor – and the misguided response from many on the Right – contains warnings signs that Conservatives should heed.

The first lesson applies far beyond the politics of climate change, just one of many areas where the Tories seem strangely reluctant to stick up for their track record. Friday’s protesters framed their arguments as a declaration of an environmental emergency in the face of woeful inaction from those in a position to do something about rising global temperatures. And yet it just isn’t true that Britain has done nothing about climate change.

How many on the march would have realised that the UK is a global leader in CO2 emission reduction, that it has cut emissions by 50 per cent more than any other G20 country since 2010 and, per dollar of GDP, the UK has cut emissions by 35 per cent over that period of time? How many would know that, by that measure, David Cameron deserves about twice as much praise as Barack Obama on environmental questions? Not many, I suspect.

It is, of course, possible to argue that none of this constitutes anything like the level action that as urgent a question as climate change needs to be treated with. But I think it is safe to say that at least part of the anger aimed at the Government on climate change is based on a misunderstanding of the scale of Britain’s response to the problem.

What is true of the environment is true of healthcare, where bogus claims of privatisation are trotted out by Labour politicians; education, where the success of free schools is hardly at the front of voters’ minds; and universal credit, which the opposition has successfully recast as a mechanism for cost-saving rather than an attempt to tackle the grave problem of long-term unemployment.

The temptation is to complain that this is all tremendously unfair. Unlike policy failures, policy successes are rarely self-evident. And political credit for them cannot be taken for granted. It has to be fought for every day.

Part of the problem stems from Theresa May’s determination to make a clean break with her Conservative predecessor. But, whatever the cause, incumbent sheepishness about its achievements in office is not a recipe for success.

Alongside this reminder of the Tories’ problem of party-political salesmanship comes a starker warning about younger voters and the appeal not just of the Conservative Party, but the ideas it exists to advance.

In 2017, the centre-right think tank Bright Blue found that the top three issues that under-40s “feel senior politicians don not discuss enough and want to be discussed more are, in order, health, climate change and education”. According to the polling, the top three policies that would make under-40s “proud of voting for a party that adopted them” were all environmental: generating more electricity from renewables like wind and solar, banning the sale of all ivory products in the UK and providing incentives for people to install insulation in their homes.

And the top three adjectives that under-40s chose to describe Conservative climate change policies were all negative: weak, inadequate, damaging. Even among those under-40s that did vote Conservative at the 2017 General Election, the most commonly chosen adjective is weak.

The problem is about more than party politics. There is no good reason why concern for the environment in general, or climate change in particular, should divide people along left/right lines. And yet the left dominates the issue.

The book on climate change to have caused the biggest splash in recent years is Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate. As the title suggests, the Canadian author points the finger at free-market economics.

This month, left-wing Democrats Congresswoman Alexandra Occasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, published their Green New Deal to much fanfare. It is a classic example of watermelon politics: green on the outside, red in the middle. Thinly veiled behind concern for the environment is, as Eamonn Ives explained for CapX, an agenda for an expansion of the role of government in economic life without precedent in US history.

You don’t need to share young voters’ concern about climate change to see the importance of providing market-friendly answers to the problems they have identified.

Here, last week’s protest encapsulates the issue neatly. Schoolchildren do not, generally speaking, have dyed-in-the-wool political prejudices. Arriving at a climate change protest with a knowledge of the problem and an open mind about the solution, children were likely to be met by a Socialist Worker handing them a placard calling for “system change, not climate change”.

A demonstration of the way in which advocates of the market fail to offer answers to the questions young people care about could hardly be starker.

The surprising thing isn’t that the far left wants to use the climate to recruit young Britons to their class war. It’s that so many who want to defend capitalism stand by and watch it happen.

The irony in all of this is the strong ground which pro-market environmentalism happens to occupy. Practically without exception, socialist regimes have a woeful track record in this area. Capitalism, by contrast, offers the two best tools with which to fight rising temperatures.

The combination of property rights and market mechanisms make it possible for government intervention to align the incentives of the polluter with the environmental needs of society, while innovation in pursuit of profit is the best hope in the search for a game-changing technological solution to climate change.

As Joe Ware wrote for CapX late last year, Germany’s Greens have bucked the “watermelon” trend, instead embracing a distinctly pro-market environmentalism and reaping political rewards for doing so.

It might not be wise for Britain’s Conservatives to adopt a fully-fledged green agenda of this sort. But it would make sense to stick up for their environmental achievements, combat the myth that the market and Mother Nature are in direct opposition to one another, and – at the very least – not needlessly alienate teenagers who express their concern about the future of the planet.

The case for capitalism needs to be remade to every generation. And an argument that doesn’t offer answers on climate change is not one that will satisfy young people today.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.