Codrina Cretu investigates a movement that is seeking to halt the changes needed to address the climate crisis
In May 2021, the #CostOfNetZero hashtag started trending on Twitter. It got little traction at first, mainly shared by a handful of Conservative MPs. But, a few months later, the conversation reached the mainstream. In a report published in August by an all-party parliamentary group advocating for cheaper fuel, one author noted: “I’m increasingly concerned about the astronomical costs of the current net zero plans. If they were to be carried through to their logical conclusion, it would mean the end of the comfortable lifestyles we have enjoyed for generations.”
As many people now see climate change as the most important issue we currently face, anti-environmentalism has had a facelift. Outright climate denial has been sidelined in favour of what prominent climate scientist Michael E Mann terms ‘climate inactivism’, a movement seeking to put a brake on the important changes we need to ensure the future health of our planet. Climate inactivists claim that government plans to tackle carbon emissions are overly ambitious, expensive and undemocratic. They form part of a growing movement that poses a serious risk to the UK achieving its climate goals.
As Covid-19 spread across the globe, we also witnessed an explosion in conspiracy theories, and the same conditions that fuelled the spread of misinformation on vaccines has set the scene for conspiracy groups opposing efforts to tackle the climate crisis to flourish. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, such groups have been taken over by claims that the pandemic was merely a precursor to future ‘green tyranny’, and that global elites are infringing on civil liberties under the pretext of climate action.
The rhetoric has continued to grow. In October, the government published its long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy, detailing the path the UK will take to make heating buildings greener. Headlines across right-wing media criticised plans to gradually phase out the installation of new gas boilers with misleading titles such as “Boris's boiler bombshell: Government will BAN all gas boilers in 2035”. They were also sceptical of air source heat pumps, the proposed alternative, which were branded as expensive and unreliable.
Climate inactivists claim that government plans to tackle carbon emissions are overly ambitious, expensive and undemocratic.
The movement also makes arguments that rest on spurious culture war tropes, portraying politicians, scientists and climate activists as a powerful elite making undemocratic decisions that will negatively impact our current lifestyles. These arguments are often accompanied by pleas to water down what are framed as overambitious goals. But inactivists are thin on proposing alternatives, and instead of taking urgent action, they suggest we wait for future developments in green technology. In videos with titles such as Heat Pump Conspiracy, inactivists suggest that instead of decarbonising home heating now using heat pumps, we should wait for cheaper, more reliable technologies to come along.
We simply do not have time to wait for novel solutions if we are to succeed in decarbonising the vast majority of the UK’s 29 million homes by 2050. Heat pumps have been successfully used in Scandinavian countries since the 1970s and, with the price of electricity set to come down, running costs will be comparable with that of gas boilers. Meanwhile, great advances are being made on reducing their cost and improving their attractiveness to consumers.
In the next few years, the UK will be setting the direction for how it will meet its climate targets. As more decisions are made that could impact the way we heat our homes, the cars we drive, and the food we eat, the voices of inactivists will continue to grow stronger. With the 2050 deadline for achieving net zero approaching fast, we run the risk of getting distracted by red herring arguments that fail to acknowledge the enormous cost of inaction. That said, there is an important lesson to be learned: many feel political decisions are unaccountable, made without regular citizens in mind.
Initiatives consulting and involving citizens in decision-making are needed more now than ever. In 2019, the House of Commons called a Citizens Assembly, bringing together over 100 members of the public to create a list of recommendations for how the UK should meet its climate targets. A BBC documentary following the proceedings revealed that, when armed with clear evidence, members quickly realised the high risks of inaction and made surprisingly bold, radical recommendations regardless of their personal circumstances or politics.
To counter the divisive tactics of conspiracy theorists in the year ahead, we will need to foster constructive, ambitious and inclusive conversations about the changes needed to bring everyone along on this journey. Doing so is the only way to ensure the benefits of the green transition are distributed fairly.