Why Are Climate Deniers Campaigning for Britain to Leave the EU?


Climate change deniers are quickly becoming some of Britain’s most vocal Eurosceptics.

Prominent climate deniers including Matt Ridley, Owen Paterson, Lord Lawson, and James Delingpole join the roughly 50 per cent of the British public who are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Last spring, Prime Minister David Cameron promised in his Conservative Party election manifesto to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. It is expected that an in-out referendum will be held before the end of 2017.

But what does this group of anti-greens stand to gain from a ‘Brexit’? Does the UK leaving the EU simply fall in line with their general politics, or is there a more specific ‘brown’ agenda at play?

It’s really ideological,” said Nick Mabey, chief executive of E3G, a non-profit organisation focused on driving climate policy: “The package of what they see as internationalist, left-wing state intervention – which is a caricature of what climate policy is and why they don’t like it.”

Winter Flooding

The group kicked off the New Year with a deluge of articles blaming the EU for the unprecedented winter flooding across the country. According to the Met Office it was the UK‘s wettest December on record.

But according to James Delingpole, a former Telegraph blogger, climate change did not cause the flooding. Writing in The Sun on New Year’s Eve, he blamed the “Brussels bureaucrats who, driven by lunatic green ideology, have made illegal the measures that might have prevented flooding.” Namely, dredging.

Coal baron and Times columnist Matt Ridley chimed in on 4 January, with an article titled “Don’t Blame Climate Change For These Floods”. Like Delingpole, he pointed to the EU Water Framework Directive which prohibits governments from dredging rivers.

This was followed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson who presented the same argument on BBC Radio Four, saying that leaving the EU will help protect the country from flood damage. During the 2014 flooding Paterson was criticised by the then environment shadow secretary Maria Eagle for letting his climate denial ‘blind him’ to the dangers of future flooding.

These articles come at the same time as Ridley and Paterson announced they had joined the group Business for Britain which launched a campaign on 6 January in north east England for the UK’s exit from the EU.

These aren’t the first climate deniers to launch a Brexit campaign however. They join Lord Lawson, ex-chancellor and head of the climate denying Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), who announced in October that he would lead the Conservative campaign to leave the EU.

It’s not just climate deniers though but also their funders who support a British exit from the EU. Last November the Financial Times reported Michael Hintze, a known funder of the GWPF, was “close to donating a large sum to the EU Out camp”.

And don’t forget UKIP’s Nigel Farage – famous for saying he has “no idea” about climate change – who has also given his support to the Grassroots Out campaign group, which plans to target “ordinary” voters in the lead up to the referendum. But this isn’t surprising given UKIP’s raison d’être: fighting for UK independence. UKIP is also the only party to wholesale reject the idea that humans are impacting the climate.

It’s very counterproductive for the Out Campaign to have so many prominent climate deniers signing up to them because actually the majority of people in the UK are not climate deniers and it damages the [campaign] to have such prominent climate deniers in the anti-Europe camp,” argues Mabey.

Most people in the UK believe that climate change is happening and it needs to be solved, and they think it’s more important than Europe if you look at the polling,” he continued. “So, in a sense, if I was running the Out Campaign I would be trying to persuade these people not to speak out because they poison the swing groups they need to capture to win the debate.”

It’s not exactly an endorsement of whether you can trust the facts that they come [up] with on Europe.”

Sceptic Psychology

So how does this connection between climate deniers and Euroscepticism work on a psychological level?

As Kris De Meyer from the Department of Informatics at King’s College London explained: “The majority of policy solutions under discussion to tackle climate change – international treaties or top-down government interventions – and the types of policies that appear to come from the EU – top-down regulations – have this in common: they can be perceived as threatening values of individual freedom, economic (market) freedom, or the sovereignty of national governments.”

This can be seen for example in Delingpole’s article when he “plays the card of national sovereignty under threat to reject both climate change and the European Union,” says De Meyer. It is “Far easier to blame ‘climate change’ than our unelected masters in Brussels,” writes Delingpole.

This view is also expressed in a Newcastle Chronicle article by Ridley in which he writes: “Unelected EU judges have far too much power over our daily lives. If we vote to leave we can end the supremacy of EU law.”

People’s prior opinions and values colour how we make decisions and evaluate new information,” De Meyer said. “When new information jars with our opinions and values, it’s as if we ask ourselves ‘Must I believe this?’.”

This means that we are often too unquestioning in accepting arguments that support our worldview, and that we try hard to find fault with arguments when they don’t support our worldview. Over a longer time, this process of evaluating information differently can strongly polarise public and political debates.”

He continued: “Ridley, Paterson, Delingpole, and Lawson will be, to different degrees, driven by a perception of threats to these values of individual/market/national liberty, and hence make different but sometimes overlapping arguments for rejecting both [climate change and the EU].”

Climate Policy

There is, however, another lingering question: is this just ideological, or would the climate-Eurosceptics see the bonus of a weakening in UK environmental policy if we left the EU?

Many argue that the impact of Brexit on UK climate policy would be a negative one. “The first thing is it would massively reduce UK influence on the world to determine climate change,” said Mabey.

For example, Mabey anticipates that Brexit would lead to a battle over the Climate Change Act. The Act doesn’t require the UK to be part of Europe to exist however many would argue that on the grounds of competitive-ness, the targets within the Climate Change Act should be weakened.

This is something the Institute of Economic Affairs has long been arguing. (The free market think tank has been instrumental in building up British climate denial.) And, shortly after the Paris climate conference Benny Peiser, director of the GWPF, wrote an op-ed arguing this same point.

Politically it would generate huge pressure to water down the UK’s role,” said Mabey, “and basically move [the UK] more to a completely free-riding position.”

Of course, it’s likely that Europe would insist the UK adopt EU environmental laws anyway in order to ensure future trade access agreements into the European markets he added. But, being outside the EU would mean the UK wouldn’t have the ability to influence these regulations anymore.

And, while leaving the EU would in theory give the UK freedom to set its own standards and regulations, and in doing so could choose strong targets – say for fisheries or setting a carbon tax – the question remains whether this would work in practice.

Remember, the UK used to be known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ – those in power at the time were not strong on environmental issues and it was the EU that pushed the UK to step up. “We look at it now and I don’t think the elite is particularly green, not as green as the public, so in the end it’s unlikely there’ll be – outside Scotland and Wales probably – huge pressures,” said Mabey. “They won’t be pushing for higher regulation even if potentially they could.”

Photo: Dave Kellam via Flickr

Kyla is a freelance writer and editor with work appearing in the New York Times, National Geographic, HuffPost, Mother Jones, and Outside. She is also a member of the Society for Environmental Journalists.

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