UK general election: Watch out for climate obstructionism  

Comment: Climate sceptic groups and their right-wing media allies have shifted from disputing science to exaggerating the economic costs of climate action and downplaying the benefits

UK general election: Watch out for climate obstructionism  

A polling station direction sign is attached to a street sign near to Westminster Abbey, ahead of local elections, in London, Britain, May 1, 2024. (Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)


Freddie Daley and Peter Newell are researchers with the University of Sussex SUS-POL Research Programme on policies to phase out fossil fuel production. 

Citizens up and down the UK are heading to the polls on July 4 – and though it has yet to feature as a campaign priority for the major parties, climate policy is a clear dividing line between the two main parties: the Conservatives and Labour.  

While the Conservatives have diluted existing climate policies and pushed ahead with more oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, Labour have said they will halt new licensing in the North Sea and set up a new entity, GB Energy, to scale up clean generation and drive down bills.  

Given this dividing line, the upcoming election is set to see a clash between the forces of climate obstructionism – those organisations, individuals and media outlets that seek to delay, derail or discredit climate policy – and those that advocate for it.  

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But climate obstructionism is not a new phenomenon within the UK. Ever since climate change was put on the agenda of UK politics by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a UN speech in 1989, there has been an orchestrated attempt to weaken and dilute measures to address global heating.  

The approach and strategies adopted by climate sceptic groups such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs and key allies in the right-wing media, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, have shifted from disputing the science of climate change to exaggerating the economic costs of climate action and downplaying the benefits. 

Influencing public perceptions 

Our research shows that climate obstructionism in the UK is highly dynamic and constantly adapting to a rapidly changing policy environment by seeking to shape public perceptions of the feasibility and desirability of climate policies.   

Those working to increase policy ambition on climate change must confront climate obstructionism in the run-up to the UK general election and beyond it. Ahead of July 4, this is what to watch out for.  

With our colleagues Dr Ruth McKie of De Montfort University and Dr James Painter of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, we identified the main channels through which climate obstructionism operates in the UK and the organisations that maintain it for a recent publication for the Climate Change Social Science Network (CSSN) 

Climate obstructionism is ever-present across the UK media. Traditional media outlets, like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, have persistently opposed climate policy, providing platforms for individuals with direct links to fossil fuel firms or organised sceptic groups like the Global Warming Policy Foundation (now rebranded as Net Zero Watch) and giving voice to politicians who are part of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.  

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More recently these outlets have peddled misinformation around key green technologies, such as wind and solar farms, heat pumps and electric vehicles, while demonising the campaigns of climate activists and seeking to discredit their supporters. Newer media outlets, such as GB News, often give a platform to climate deniers or airtime to misinformation and then share clips across social media.  

As July 4 draws closer, these outlets will scrutinise the main parties’ climate policies. We can anticipate that Labour’s policies will be painted as a threat to national security, jobs and to households already facing a cost-of-living crisis.  

Some Conservatives and the Reform Party will be given an opportunity to dispute the urgency and necessity of climate policy, in particular net zero emissions, given the latter has called for a national referendum about whether to abandon the goal altogether. More often than not, these lines of attack of prospective policies will reflect obstructionist talking points, which overstate the costs of climate action, while ignoring the costs of inaction, and downplay the UK’s role in the climate crisis relative to other countries such as China.  

Fossil fuel lobbying 

Climate obstructionism in the UK is also maintained through the political power of the fossil fuel industry which makes recurring threats of job losses or to move its investments elsewhere to avoid stronger policy. These often land with politicians due to the perceived centrality of these companies to growth and prosperity.  

Party donations – from fossil fuel firms or those who benefit from their expansion – to individual politicians or political parties are pivotal for providing access and a say in determining the shape and scope of policy. In 2022, the Conservatives received £3.5 million in donations from those with direct links to fossil fuel production while Labour has also accepted donations from large polluters. Tightening the regulations around party donations, and making them more transparent, could help curtail climate obstructionism.  

Climate obstructionism is also advanced through institutional channels. There are a myriad of opportunities for fossil fuel interests to gain access or shape policy outcomes in the UK. All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are effective fora for obstructionist actors to lobby politicians and shape policy – often without breaking any rules.  

Access is also secured through an ever-revolving door between industry and government and the use of secondments. Since 2011, an estimated 127 former oil and gas employees have gone into top government roles. The next government could introduce ‘cool off’ periods for those leaving government and seeking to enter it from industry to address this issue. 

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As the urgency of addressing the climate crisis becomes starker with each passing week, and the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels becomes ever clearer, those that benefit from maintaining the status quo will step up their obstructionism.  

Delivering a just transition to a net zero economy not only requires citizens to be able to engage in an informed manner with proposals to address the climate crisis, it also requires that the democratic process is not compromised by those interests that want to prolong dependence on the fossil fuels driving the climate crisis.  

Whichever party wins on July 4, they will have a critical role to play in ensuring the UK does its fair share in addressing the climate crisis within a closing window to deliver effective action. We cannot afford to allow climate obstructionists to jeopardise this vital opportunity to change path and raise ambition. 


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