Rishi Sunak has a thorn in his side that won’t go away, unfortunately for all of us: the climate crisis. This week, his government faced legal action over its revised climate strategy from campaign groups including Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project.
The campaign groups went to the High Court challenging the climate strategy published in May. They say the strategy is unlawful because it doesn’t provide much clarity about what the government would do if various policies contained in the document are not carried through.
Even if these High Court claims were to go anywhere, Sunak is still losing face over climate policy. Last week Zac Goldsmith resigned as a minister for the international environment with a heated letter in which he accused Sunak of being “simply uninterested” in fixing the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, Sunak sent an email titled “Eco-Extremist Update” to the Conservative membership explaining what he’s doing to fight Just Stop Oil. “The environment is important to all of us. But policy should be decided by your elected MPs and councillors, not by a paint-wielding or road-blocking, noisy minority”, the email read.
The reason why Sunak leans into this culture war language is because he knows it keeps parts of the electorate engaged. But one thing is bringing in measures to stop climate campaigners, another is producing concrete action plans to transition to net zero. It will be a difficult transition requiring capital and smart policies for it to work and not leave anyone behind. At the moment, the government machine doesn’t seem to be able to come up with this kind of strategic thinking on climate.
Sunak hasn’t made climate a priority of his government, focusing instead on tech regulations, migration and other policy areas. He made a fuss about going to Cop27 in Egypt last year, only to have to u-turn and show up after some of his own MPs complained it wasn’t a good look. Just weeks ago, he similarly didn’t turn up to an international environment summit in Paris organised by Emmanuel Macron.
We’re a long way from the times when David Cameron decided to attempt to turn the Conservative Party from a “nasty” party into a “green” one, one that was aware of the challenges of climate change and proactive in climate policy. The cross-party consensus on the urgent need for action that Cameron managed to shape back then is amiss now. MPs like Steve Baker routinely question the rationale behind net zero arguing it will prove too expensive.
But young voters are on average extremely worried about climate change; making climate awareness a prerogative of the Labour Party alone could be a strategy Sunak regrets at the next general election.