#NoToHeathrow Rally in front of the Royal Courts of Justice #NoToHeathrow Rally in front of the Royal Courts of Justice. Source: No 3rd Runway Coalition - Stay Grounded - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The insistence that the climate crisis must be solved by individual choices and the market has fed far-right denialism, to which the mainstream is pandering, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

You could be excused for thinking that, among politicians at least, action on the climate crisis is out of fashion. As Labour slash their £28-billion spending commitment on the environment and Rishi Sunak is pictured with the climate-sceptic group No Farmers No Food at a protest at the Welsh Government, it would certainly seem that in British politics, the climate crisis is at best a low-priority for limited spending and at worst, a liberal attempt to oppress ordinary people.

In the narrow context of UK politics, this might appear to be simply the extended fallout from the 2023’s Uxbridge by-election, where the narrow Tory win was attributed to opposition to the extension of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone by London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Sunak’s appearance at the farmers’ protest can be seen as a continuation of the position he tried to take in autumn 2023, as the heroic defender of the people against threats like the meat tax and the ‘diktat’ for seven bins per household, both of which were in fact imaginary. It comes at a time though when climate action seems to be more widely on pause. The German government put green transition plans ‘on hold’ in December 2023. In response to widespread farmers’ protests, the European Commission has also made a remarkable retreat on environmental regulation, pulling the plug on a planned bill limiting the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture and removing a target to reduce methane and nitrogen emissions from farming by 30% from their 2040 roadmap. 

As John Mullen points out, the farmers and others involved in the protests are far from being a monolith, and there are many different strands with different politics involved. It is, however, undeniable that the protests have support from various right-wing and far-right groups, from the Countryside Alliance to the German AfD. It is therefore possible to see the protests as drawing at least in part on the general milieu of long-standing far-right climate scepticism, which, since Covid-19, has developed into a general conspiracy position encompassing Covid-19 lockdowns, vaccinations, fifteen-minute cities, compulsory dietary changes and more. 

Angelika Barbe, from the German AfD-affiliated Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, for example, told a farmers’ conference in September 2023 that Europe is on ‘the road to enslavement’ as a result of secret WEF plans to ‘ban dairy products, meat and private cars before 2030’, as well as making us all take Covid-19 vaccines which will rot our brains. James Melville, the founder of No Farmers No Food, has similarly been reported as supporting the view that ‘between Bill Gates, the CCP & the WEF, we’re going to have no private farmland left. They want you eating bugs.’

In some ways then, government reaction to the farmers’ protests would seem to represent the familiar liberal tactic of dealing with the far right by capitulating to far-right pressure while hand-wringing about the need to ‘strengthen the centre’, as Ursula von der Leyen put it. It has certainly been interesting to note which protestors are told that governments ‘have their back’ and which that they are signs that ‘mob rule is replacing democratic rule’ and deserve a clampdown on the right to protest. This does, however, leave the question of why measures to deal with the climate crisis are attracting such opposition.

Who pays for the climate?

It does not appear to be that people simply don’t think that the climate is important. A YouGov poll in February 2024 saw 22% of respondents put the climate crisis in the top three issues facing the UK. This may not sound like resounding backing for climate action, but it put the climate crisis ahead of education, crime and taxation and on a level with housing and defence. To politicians, the gap between concern about the climate crisis and demonstrations about actions to deal with it can be attributed to voters’ hypocrisy. As a former senior Tory figure told the BBC: ‘the public wants action generically, but might not like the effect … you can be horrified by what’s happening to the planet round the world, but not be too eager to pay thousands for a new boiler at home.’

It is, however, not so much hypocrisy but the result of the view of the climate crisis which has it as solely a matter for individual action. Successive governments have embraced the position that environmental goals can only be achieved by consumers buying new, green gear, whether that’s an electric car, a heat pump or LED lightbulbs. At the same time, much green discourse is also about individual action, like dietary changes or simply embracing the ‘politics of less’ and accepting that the climate crisis will worsen living standards and involve considerable expense for all.

There is a similar expectation on individual businesses, so farmers argue that while they are being squeezed by multi-national food businesses, they are also being made to bear the brunt of the cost of dealing with climate change. As French cattle farmer Yohann Barbe said in January 2024, ‘we can’t expect farmers to shoulder the ecological transition by themselves’. It is this position which has enabled the right and the far right to portray themselves as the defenders of the people when it comes to the climate, whether that is in stopping people from having to sell their houses as a result of Germany’s planned heating mandate or in sticking up for their right to eat bacon for breakfast.

Public investment

It is clear that an approach to the climate crisis which relies on persuading or compelling individuals to pay large sums of money for green kit is going to be neither effective nor fair. This is obvious, and the reason that approach nevertheless became the default position of governments across the West is that for a neoliberal government, there is no alternative. A green capitalist approach, which looks for ways to grow the market in green technologies in the hope that private investment will sort everything out, is not going to work. As far as renewable energy is concerned, it is just insufficiently profitable to attract the levels of private investment required.

What is needed, therefore, is significant public spending. Starmer himself appeared to recognise this, telling the BBC in January 2024 that although the Tories were trying to weaponize the issue of the cost of the Green Prosperity Plan, he was ‘absolutely up for’ a fight on it. That he did so shortly before slashing the spending commitment was depressingly predictable, but this was not only the result of Tory jibes that Labour couldn’t tell us how they were planning to pay for it. The issue was more Labour’s determination to keep spending within the fiscal rules set by Tories, even if that rendered their green policies absurd.

All this emphasises that an insistence on climate change as a matter for individual spending and the anti-net-zero climate denial are two aspects of the same problem, that the market cannot solve the climate crisis. Neoliberal politicians oscillate between the two poles because any other option would require the sort of sustained public spending that they refuse to undertake. This turns the issue into a gift to the far right, fuelling climate denial even as the seriousness of the climate crisis becomes clearer by the day. In response, we have to fight for a workers’ response to climate change which puts at its centre public infrastructure rather than private consumer spending and which rejects the idea that we have to suffer in order to save the planet.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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