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Meet the ‘inactivists’, tangling up the climate crisis in culture wars | Climate crisis
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Meet the ‘inactivists’, tangling up the climate crisis in culture wars | Climate crisis

Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay, right, winning the seat of South Thanet in 2015, beating his former Ukip colleague Nigel Farage (left) and comedian Al Murray (centre).


IAs the world was in turmoil by the coronavirus epidemic and global infections topped 4,000,000, a strange video started appearing in some Facebook users’ news feeds. “Climate alarm is reaching untold levels of exaggeration and hysteria,” said an unseen narrator, over a montage of environmental protests and clips of a tearful Greta Thunberg. “There is no doubt about it, climate change has become a cult,” it continued, to the kind of pounding beat you might hear on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster. “Carbon dioxide emissions have become the wages of sin.”

The video’s reach was relatively small: according to Facebook dataIt was viewed approximately 15,000 to 20,000 time. Over the next weeks, however, it was viewed approximately 15,000 to 20,000 times. more videos cameEach one experimented with slightly different visuals and scripts. All focused on the supposed irrationality and hypocrisy of climate campaigners, and the hardship they wanted to inflict upon society’s most impoverished communities. “Those who demand action on climate change continue to fly around in private jets from one virtue-signalling climate conference to the next,” stated one, against a backdrop of Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry delivering speeches from lecterns. “Is this fair?” Another video took aim at the idea that countries should be transitioning towards “net zero” carbon dioxide emissions, calling it an “unnecessary and swingeing plan that hits the poor and costs the earth”. In total, between May and July, the advertiser spent less than £3,000 disseminating 10 videos. They were viewed over half a million times each.

At one stage, users hovering over the logo of that advertiser – a UK organisation called The Global Warming Policy Forum, or GWPF – were informed by Facebook that it was a “Science Site”. The GWPF website is not science-related. It is the campaigning arm. a well-funded foundation accused by opponents of being one of Britain’s biggest sources of climate science denial.

The videos being tested by the GWPF in the spring and summer of 2020 were part of a strategic pivot away from explicit climate crisis denialism, and towards something subtler – a move being pursued by similar campaigners across the world. Welcome to a new era for the atmospheric scientist/environmental author. Michael E Mann has labelled climate “inactivism”: an epic struggle to convince you not so much to doubt the reality of climate crisis, but rather to dampen your enthusiasm for any attempts at dealing with it.

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In mid-July, more than a year on from the GWPF’s video advertising campaign, the British government published its long-awaited plan to decarbonise the transport system, now the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions. As is increasingly common these days when it comes to big, set-piece environmental announcements, the proposals – phasing out sales of polluting vehicles and eliminating the aviation sector’s carbon footprint as part of the UK’s goal of becoming a net-zero nation by 2050 – were greeted with cautious approval from most quarters. Although the climate sector was generally positive, so was the transport sector, as well figures from the mainstream political spectrum. When critics did speak out, it was nearly always to argue that the plan’s targets did not go far enough.

There was, however, a dissenting voice: Craig Mackinlay MP, elected representative for South Thanet – a far-flung promontory on the eastern edge of Kent, which is now home to a bitter struggle over the future of a disused local airport. “Make no mistake, this requires a radical transformation of every part of the economy and our freedoms,” he warned in an article for Conservative Home. “As ever, it will be the poor who suffer most from these elite delusions.”

Mackinlay, who has described Britain’s net-zero aspirations as a “social calamity” and insisted that “sooner or later, the public will rebel against this madness”, was not alone in framing decarbonisation through the lens of cultural division and class privilege. “This policy was wrong-headed from the start, dreamed up in the kitchen diners of Notting Hill, with no understanding of real people’s daily lives,” claimed Julian Knight, a fellow Tory MP, in a reportMackinlay chairs an all-party parliamentary committee that supports motorists using cheaper fuel. Steve Baker, another Conservative parliamentarian and a close ally of Mackinlay, has dismissed the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government, as “unelected and unaccountable”. Earlier this year, Baker declared that “In net zero, as with Brexit, the political class has in a very, almost smug and self-satisfied way, built a consensus which is not going to survive contact with the public.” Instead, he predicted, “there’s going to be an enormous political explosion.”

PThe debate about the environment used to pit people who believed in anthropogenic climate change against those that doubted it. At least two members of the current cabinet are currently inactive. including Boris Johnson, used to count themselves among the sceptical camp. Today, with a solid majority of UK citizens agreeing with the fact that humans are warming our planet and that this is a serious risk, the battle lines have been redrawn.

“The great underreported story is how normalised all this has become. Those who want to see action on climate change, in many ways, have won the argument,” says James Murray, editor of the website BusinessGreenA leading environmental commentator. “That is now the consensus view: it has the nominal support of every government and science academy on the planet, and crucially it’s where the money is.”

Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay, right, winning the seat of South Thanet in 2015, beating his former Ukip colleague Nigel Farage (left) and comedian Al Murray (centre).
Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay (right), won the seat in South Thanet 2015 against his former Ukip colleague Nigel Farage, left, and comedian Al Murray, right. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Opponents of urgent climate emergency action have been forced into submission, despite climate science denial being relegated only to the fringes. switch tack. Alongside pro forma acknowledgments that climate breakdown is happening and vague commitments to a greener future (“Of course I want to leave this planet in a better place than I found it, we all want that,” Mackinlay told the BBC recently), the inactivists – a loose coalition of fossil-fuel interests, conservative ideologues and supportive politicians and journalists – seek to redirect responsibility for the problem away from the fossil fuel industry and towards individual consumersAs well as developing nationsThe global south. When solutions to the climate crisis are proposed by inactivists, they tend to be timid and unambitious, with faith in future (as yet unrealised) “green” technologies held up as a reason to shy away from serious structural changes now.

There is an even stronger weapon in the inactivist arsenal. It is in the form a plea for social justice. This appeal casts environmentalists and inactivists as aloof, out of touch establishments and the inactivists are insurgents defending the values, livelihoods, and lives of ordinary people. “The biggest single threat to the net zero transition is a culture war-style backlash that heavily politicises this agenda and spooks governments into moving more slowly,” says Murray. “At present, it’s on the periphery. But as the past few years have taught us, ideas that were on the periphery can become very influential, very quickly.”

It is not unusual to try to mobilize anti-elite sentiments towards climate activists. Inauthenticity has always been a charge against wealthy celebrities who speak on environmental sustainability. Al Gore, a former US vice president whose personal fortune is over $300m, was the target of Republican attacks in the 00s. main drivers of polarisationThe American public is very interested in green issues. What has altered in the decade and a half since the release of Gore’s seminal 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, is our political landscape. The financial crash and the years of turmoil that followed have destroyed the support of many political parties and politicians in many parts of the globe. This has propelled new forces to power, from Trump in the US and Brexiters in the UK.

Popular anger at the economic insecurities that are synonymous with 21st-century capitalism – which in the UK have included soaring housing costsThe casualisation of employment sustained falls in wages – has provided an opening for any political forces presenting themselves as radical outsiders, fighting on behalf of the voiceless masses. These grievances have been mingled with a cultural hostility towards liberal elites and highfalutin virtue-signalling.

Inactivists saw an opportunity to harness some the antagonism toward prevailing power system and use it to undermine support of what they consider unaffordable. This task has become easier as decarbonisation efforts reach into every day life, including how we heat our homes and what cars we can drive on our roads. Social media platforms have made it easier for them to spread disinformation and fuel social division. The defining – and mutually reinforcing – phenomena of our age are political turbulence and technological disruption. It’s into this crucible that debates over climate breakdown are now being poured.

FThis evolution of the climate warfares has been a disorienting experience. Not only are progressive campaigners being forced to defend themselves against charges of elitism, but they’re having to do so within the confines of privately run “walled gardens” such as Facebook, where profit-seeking algorithms determine whose voices speak loudest, and those seeking to push culture-war narratives find fertile ground.

Climate activists are a good example of the new battleground. gilet jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France – which began as a protest against fuel tax rises but expanded into a broader critique of economic injustice imposed by haughty technocrats – and power outages in Texas last winter that were erroneously blamedMany American right-wing pundits have spoken out against wind power.

Millions of internet users were exposed to this information in just a few days during February. disinformationAbout the blackouts, including a viral photo of a helicopter supposedly being used to de-ice a Texas wind turbine. The image was actually taken many years ago in Sweden. The whole episode prompted MSNBC host Chris Hayes to rail against this “painful culture war idiocy”.

“The implications of all this on our ability to campaign are huge,” says Michael Khoo, a communications specialist who works with Friends of the Earth. “We needed to master this new environment, and be able to understand and respond to what’s happening in real time.”

This is exactly the goal of Khoo and his colleagues. In the lead-up to Cop26More than 30 top organisations came together and developed a new set to monitor inactivist messaging online and anticipate the next Texas blackout campaign. The ongoing project will be led by the Institute for Strategic DialogueISD, or the Institute for Social Development, is a thinktank best known for its work in fighting hate and extremism. So far it has yielded valuable insights into the shape of climate debates across Europe, such as the “national sovereignty” arguments being used to defend coal mining in Poland, and the entwining anti-EU sentiments together with inactivist climate messaging in Hungary. It also led to a major study on the global spread of “climate lockdown” alarmismThis is where Covid denialists and hard-right activists have found common ground in driving fear of pandemic lockdowns that they claim will soon come at the behest environmentalists.

The runway at Manston airport in Kent.
The runway at Manston airport, Kent. Photograph: John Miller/Alamy

It was in May of this year. DeSmog – a journalism platform that aims to expose and eliminate the “PR pollution” around climate breakdown, and one of the project’s partners – first noticed a newly trending Twitter hashtag: #CostOfNetZero. Steve Baker, Tory MP from Wycombe, was pushing the idea. He is also the former chair and trustee of the Brexit-supporting European Research Group. Using ISD’s tools, researchers were able to map the sources of tweets containing the hashtag, and the relationships between them. “What we found at that stage was that it was basically just Baker and his allies continually retweeting it to create the impression of there being a lot of concern around this issue,” said Mat Hope, a former DeSmog editor. “We were able to show that it was a manufactured controversy, not some authentic insight from somebody with their finger on the country’s pulse.” (Steve Baker did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the months that followed, however, disquiet over the net zero transition began ramping up in sections of the UK press – initially in outlets such as Spiked Online and GB News, but eventually creeping into the pages of major newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Sun, They also have other options. In August, the Spectator magazine published a photo of banknotes falling into a void. on its cover, with the headline “The cost of net zero”; by September, right-leaning media commentators were homing in on the government’s aim of gradually phasing out gas boilers as part of the decarbonisation plan, and replacing them with air- or ground-source heat pumps instead. The far greaterThese reports did not mention the economic consequences of climate crisis inaction. However, it was repeated that efforts to reduce carbon emissions were seen as an elite power-grab. “People want a cleaner, greener planet,” wrote Andrew Neil for the Daily Mail in October. “But they will not tolerate a green strategy that involves posh folk telling plain folk what they must do. Especially when the posh folk are doing very nicely out of greenery and the plain folk are picking up the tab.”

By the autumn – as a growing cost-of-living crisis began to dominate the news agenda – the GWPF had rebranded itself as Net Zero Watch, a new parliamentary groupingA group called the Net Zero Scrutiny Group was led by Craig Mackinlay. Westminster insiders were reporting on this. widening splitsThe entire net zero transition was embraced by the Conservative party. “The fact is you don’t need a majority of the population behind you to create a myth-making frenzy like this; you can do it with a very small minority and a set of media outriders,” said James Murray. The Net Zero Scrutiny members deny that they believe in a new type of climate science denial. “What I want this group to be is a clearing house, a balanced academic facility where we get all sides of the argument,” Mackinlay has claimed previously.

The idea that decarbonisation is inherently elitist is a myth, peddled largely by political figures who have shown little concern for deprived communities in any other context, and who ignore the fact that without a net zero transition it is the very poorest – globally and domestically – who will suffer most severely. It is based on a kernel truth, which, like all effective myths. It is based on the fact that, under successive governments, political decisions have felt distant and unaccountable, and the rich have gotten richer, while life for many of us has become harder. “Of course we are jumping on this, but we are jumping on it because we think it’s a real issue,” said Benny Peiser, director of the GWPF, when I questioned him about the organisation’s shift in focus. He went on: “A year ago, if someone asked their MP, ‘Why are you not raising questions about the cost of net zero?’, they would say, ‘Well I don’t get any letters from constituents about this issue, so why should I stick my head above the parapet?’ And this has changed for the first time in recent months. Now MPs do get letters about that very issue.”

Although the GWPF may have been working behind-the scenes to encourage this change, Peiser suggests that they are able do so because people are experiencing real anxieties. “When people like Mackinlay and Baker start talking about whether the costs and benefits of net zero are going to be distributed equitably, and you consider austerity and the impact of the pandemic, there’s something there that a lot of people might find plausible,” observed Adam Corner, an independent researcher who has helped lead studies of public attitudes on climate change. “They’re inviting people to ask themselves: can the same government that made the poorest pay for the banking crisis really be trusted to design a fair climate policy?”

TThe Isle of Thanet lies at the north-eastern end of KentIt is located where a narrow channel once separated it from the mainland. It has been home to many adventurers, crusaders, saints, and others over the centuries. It has been a stronghold for the nationalist right and a place of deprivation in recent years. In 2015, Thanet district council fell under the control Ukip. In the same year, Nigel Farage was close to winning the South Thanet seat in parliament (he was narrowly defeated by Mackinlay who is a former Ukip leader who later defected and joined the Conservatives).

Today, it is also a microcosm of the climate culture wars, thanks to a fierce tussle over the fate of Manston airport – a former RAF base that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain. Manston went on to cater for commercial passengers, but by the early 2010s it was losing up to £10,000 a day, and the airport finally shut its doors in 2014.

Since then, the mammoth site has been variously earmarked for housing, a manufacturing site, and even a film studio (it was “not beyond the realms of possibility” that the next James Bond production could be shot in Thanet, insisted the airport’s then owners in 2015). However, the airport was what Thanet wanted most. “Manston is part of every local person’s DNA,” said Martin Sutton, an aviation engineer who was based at the airport for many years. “It was a community, and a massive asset to the area.”

Riveroak Strategic Partners (RSP) bought the site in 2019. This group of international investors was ultimately controlled by an offshore company based in the British Virgin Islands. RSP announced plans to spend £300m transforming Manston into a global air freight hub, “one which delivers economic prosperity and employment across Kent and protects a strategic aviation resource for the nation”. Craig Mackinlay, along with Thanet’s other Conservative MP, Roger Gale, welcomed the development wholeheartedly.

An England flag bearing the words ‘Fight for Manston Airport, never surrender’, on display in 2015, the year after it closed.
An England flag bearing the words ‘Fight for Manston Airport, never surrender’, on display in 2015, the year after it closed.Photograph by Carl Court/Getty Images

Others in the area were not so sure. With a runway approach route that lies directly over Ramsgate’s historical town centre, many residents opposed any resumption of flights – and argued that, in light of the country’s net-zero commitments, Britain should be urgently reducing its aviation emissions rather than expanding them. When RSP’s proposal was given the go-ahead by the national government last year, despite its own Planning Inspectorate recommending a rejection, the Green party described it as “a senseless act, which places the economic benefit of a small number of people ahead of the wellbeing of everybody else”. Jenny Dawes (a soft-spoken 74 year-old who moved to Thanet nine decades ago), began to speak at that moment. crowdfundingTo pay for the legal costs of a review that would challenge the government’s decision. With the support of a network of local anti-airport campaign groups, she raised more than £100,000 and – in an outcome that shocked almost everybody – succeeded. The Department for Transport was established in February 2021. formally withdrewIt issued a development consent order for the cargo hub, and began its review process. Now, once again, Manston’s fate is uncertain.

Campaigners from both sides of Manston debate have been overwhelmed by the level of animosity. “I’ve been called a toxic wart, a KGB agent, and – my personal favourite – a contentious socialite,” Dawes told me. I was able to speak with many people in Thanet who were in favor and against the airport. There were claims of cars being scratched, spat at, anonymous accounts hurling abuse online and boycotts of local shops. Meetings had to be held in private rooms and not in pubs or cafes, in fear of provoking open confrontation. Part of the reason is that, far from being a straightforward planning dispute, conflict over Manston has become inflected by many other dynamics such as housing, poverty, regional inequality and political disillusionment – the same dynamics that Craig Mackinlay was tapping into when he described the government’s transport decarbonisation strategy as an elite delusion.

“They are doing ok, thank you very much,” one member of the ‘Save Manston Airport Association’ Facebook page wrote recently, when describing the “vocal anti-Manston agitators” – many of whom, he suggested, had only recently arrived in the area from the capital, and still commuted there for work. “The London salary serves them well in poverty-stricken Thanet … Obviously they are also predominantly of the metropolitan, pseudo-intellectual, leftwing, liberal type who take themselves extremely seriously … I suppose their position as a self-appointed elite would be under threat if Thanet started to elevate itself in the world.”

This charge – that Manston’s opponents are indifferent to the economic opportunities provided by a reopened airport because they themselves are financially comfortable – is a common one, though largely unjustified: in reality, locals from all walks of life are to be found on sides of the airport divide, and the amount of work that would be created by the cargo hub is hotly contested (RSP claim it would generate 23,000 jobs within two decades, while others point out that there were only 150 people employed at the airport when it closed). Drive around Thanet, though, and it’s easy to see why the quarrel lends itself to this kind of framing. For one thing, Thanet’s stunning coastal scenery, relatively cheap property prices and quick travel links to London have attracted a wave of arrivals from other parts of the country in recent years, which has helped drive a growing arts scene in seaside towns such as Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate, but also provoked resentment.

The local unemployment rate is high, especially among young people. Many of the jobs that are available are in the seasonal or gig economy. Major local employers that provided school-leavers with a steady career path have closed down. These include the Pfizer plant at Sandwich, the cross-channel hoverport in Pegwell Bay, and the Ramsgate old gasworks, which now houses an Aldi branch. East Kent’s coalfields, once famed for attracting miners who had been blacklisted for their trade union activities elsewhere, were abandoned under Thatcher; today, Thanet has the highest level of child poverty in the county, and is ranked among the most deprived 10% of all English regions.

“When people talk about ‘levelling up’, they assume that when it comes to the south-east, everybody is doing fine,” said David Stevens, a retired teacher who is now vice-chair of the Save Manston Airport Association. “But believe me, Thanet is not doing fine.”

After years of austerity – overseen by the governing party to which Mackinlay belongs – it looks to many here as if RSP are throwing Thanet a desperately needed lifeline. Last month Ramsgate football club, sponsored by the airport, held a half-term holiday camp for local children on free school meals – providing them with food, career advice and the chance to ride in a flight simulator. A reopened Manston would provide future generations with economic optimism and pride in a region that is often overlooked by Whitehall and ridiculed in the national media. described Thanet as “bilious, forlorn, and desolate”, and dismissed it as a “little bit of throbbing gristle”.

“Thanet is seen as a bit of a basket-case, a laughing stock on the news,” Deb Shotton, vice-chair of the Thanet Green party, told me. “The coastal towns have always attracted some wealth, and there’s always been a great deal of impoverishment, and because of that demographic divide it’s easy to stoke division. The rubbish that Mackinlay spouts is going to get an audience.” The Guardian requested interviews with Craig Mackinlay and RSP for this story; Mackinlay declined to answer any questions, and RSP did not respond at all.

It would be easy to frame the Manston dispute as one that pits indulgent environmentalists – blissfully unaware of Thanet’s economic plight – against ecological vandals, divorced from the reality of our climate emergency. But the vast majority of airport supporters I spoke to insisted that tackling climate breakdown was a major priority for them, and that they were convinced that technological advances such as the advent of electric planes would enable Manston to reopen without threatening the country’s net zero transition. The airport’s owners have made repeated claims about the new hub being “environmentally friendly”. At the same time, opponents of Manston are painfully aware of Thanet’s urgent need for new jobs; they just don’t believe that these should come in the form of a carbon-belching project that, according to RSP’s own projections, will be responsible for nearly 2% of Britain’s aviation emissions by 2050.

Somewhere in all this, there is a glimmer of shared ground visible, which offers hope not only to Thanet, but to the very many communities around the world that are also navigating today’s interlocking crises of climate breakdown and economic insecurity. To reach it, net zero has to be part of a political project that addresses losses that have built up over a generation – such as the dwindling of secure jobs, affordable housing and a reliable welfare safety net – and provides a convincing vision of the future. Manston is located near a major offshore windfarmSome suggest that this could take place as a state-of the-art green industrial center built on the site of the airport. Thanet may feel like a forgotten outcrop at one’s edge to those in power. But in reality, it is a window onTo a set of arguments that are becoming part of the fabric of many places – from coalmines in Cumbria to cities in Germany which have banned older diesel cars – and which, as decarbonisation gathers pace, will increasingly concern us all.

Abandoned buildings at Snowdown colliery near Canterbury, Kent.
Snowdown colliery, Kent, abandoned buildings Photograph: Stephen French/Alamy

Adam Corner claims that the fact the mainstream climate debate now revolves around the fairness and costs associated with climate breakdown mitigation rather than the science is a sign of progress. “This is the biggest show on earth,” he told me. “It’s changing everything. As a result, you will have different and sometimes contradictory impulses at different places and in different communities. At least we are now seeing these questions for what they are, and what they have always been really, which is political: a conversation about social choices and collective priorities, which is a conversation that on all kinds of levels we desperately need to have.”

Ten miles south of Manston’s runway stands a collection of empty redbrick buildings pockmarked by shattered windows and missing roof tiles, which are gradually being enveloped by the surrounding woodland. This was Snowdown CollieryThe Kent’s deepest coalmine, it was once home to up to 2,000 people. Remnants of the community that once revolved around this place are still scattered on the floor – old newspapers, scraps of uniform, broken tools – but they are now disappearing under a carpet of moss, or floating in pools of muddy rainwater.

The industry Snowdown supported was destructive to the environment. However, the way that that industry was demolished ruined many communities, leaving scars that still hurt today. The colliery was connected by railway to Faversham and the port at Dover, both of which – if global temperature increases are not arrested – could be underwaterBy 2050, sea levels will rise and overwhelm coastal defenses around Kent’s edge. Many of the Thanet’s most famous landmarks could be flooded, too, including Margate’s Dreamland theme park and Turner Contemporary gallery, the village of Reculver’s ancient towers on the region’s western border, and Ramsgate’s harbour to the east. Without swift action on climate collapse, Thanet’s entire population will be extinct in a few decades. projected to become an islandOnce again.

This outcome is becoming more likely due to the new climate wars. While the inactivists cheering on them may seem cynical at times, their root causes can’t be ignored, insulted, nor reduced to a problem with online disinformation. Thanet’s story so far – of long-term decline and uneven restoration – is familiar to great swathes of Britain, and beyond. If the next chapter is to be more hopeful, it will need to be written together and carried by an entire community.

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