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Climate Change Skepticism in the UK Independence Party

UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage speaks in the European Parliament in July 2014. Source: European Parliament (https://flic.kr/p/nTSpNg).

UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage speaks in the European Parliament in July 2014.
Source: European Parliament (https://flic.kr/p/nTSpNg). 

On 6 May 2005, the day after the UK general election, the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) had much to be concerned about. Despite fielding 558 national candidates, UKIP had no seats in the UK Parliament and had won only nine seats on local councils. Ten years later, things have changed. UKIP currently holds 370 local council seats, are the largest UK party in the European Parliament, and have two seats in the UK Parliament after the defection of two Conservative MPs. As of 1 March 2015, they are polling around 15% for the upcoming 2015 general election, and Ofcom, the British broadcasting authority, may label them a “major political party” in England and Wales. And UKIP’s recent success may not be a short-term phenomenon. In their book Revolt on the Right, political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin argue that UKIP draws on deep-seated alienation among a group of voters they call “ the left behind”, and that “Britain’s radical right revolt has been a long time coming, and it has a long way yet to run.”[1]

As it has enjoyed increasing electoral success, UKIP has gained prominent media attention for its position on environmental issues, including the party’s official skepticism that greenhouse gases cause global warming and its strong opposition to on-shore wind energy. These positions are well illustrated by UKIP party leader Nigel Farage’s public comments. In a September 2013 debate in the European Parliament, Farage argued that “we may have made one of the biggest stupidest collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming.” And in a 2012 interview, he criticized  “…this loopy idea that we can cover Britain in ugly disgusting ghastly windmills.”

Despite these uncompromising statements, UKIP’s positions on climate change and wind energy are actually relatively recent. Compare the statements above with the party’s 2001 general election manifesto:

“Finally, turning to carbon dioxide emissions, whilst their effects on global warming remain unclear, the continuing use of fossil fuels undoubtedly impairs the long-term quality of life on our planet. We will therefore encourage and support private initiatives in developing energy production from renewable sources – biofuels, wave, wind, solar and hydrogen technologies, with the objective being that these sources should eventually provide for a substantial percentage of our energy consumption.”

Drawing on UKIP’s election manifestos, the table below traces the party’s positions since 2001 on the causes of climate change and the appropriateness of wind energy.[2]

Table 1 UKIP Manifesto Positions on Climate Change and Wind Energy (Sources: see Note 2 below)

Table 1 UKIP Manifesto Positions on Climate Change and Wind Energy (Sources: see Note 2 below)

As Table 1 shows, between 2001 and 2014, UKIP became strongly skeptical of a link between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, what Rahmstorf calls “attribution” skepticism.[3] This public shift came about as the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans became even stronger than in 2001.

Why did UKIP shift its position on climate change and wind energy? It seems that the turning point came after the 2005 general election, when Nigel Farage was elected as party leader. One of Farage’s main goals was to make UKIP into a “full-fledged political party”, and not simply a “single-issue pressure group” opposed to the European Union.[4] From a political perspective, UKIP’s strong opposition to immigration was probably the most important of its post-2005 policy proposals. But climate skepticism was also a striking addition, especially after UKIP failed to mention the issue in its 2004 and 2005 manifestos.

I believe the shift can partly be explained by UKIP’s competition with two parties: the far-right, neo-fascist British National Party (BNP) and the center-right Conservative Party. After the 2005 elections, the BNP was outperforming UKIP (for example, winning 33 seats in the 2006 local elections compared to only one for UKIP).[5] In addition to anti-immigration policies, the BNP’s leader, Nick Griffin, was a strong climate skeptic. This may have played into UKIP’s increasingly skeptical position.

However, UKIP’s competition with the Conservatives arguably played a more important role. In 2005, David Cameron was elected the Conservatives’ party leader and “…advocated a more socially liberal agenda, emphasizing a more compassionate and inclusive form of Conservatism that would address issues such as climate change.”[6] Political scientist Neil Carter argues that by making environmental issues a salient part of the Conservative’s agenda, Cameron was aiming at “brand decontamination” on the ‘green’ issues that the British public had historically considered the Conservatives to be weak on.[7] The Conservatives’ strategic shift on the environment was one reason that the Labour government passed the 2008 Climate Change Act,[8] making climate change and renewable energy policy a more politicized and salient issue ahead of the 2010 elections.[9]

The Conservatives’ shift on climate change arguably created a political opening for UKIP, which, as mentioned, was already “…making a series of new policy proposals designed to appeal to the Conservatives’ right flank.”[10] In its 2009 European Parliament manifesto, UKIP took a much stronger line on climate change skepticism, which has continued in the years since. In addition, UKIP now calls for the repeal of the UK’s climate change and renewable energy legislation.[11]

And UKIP’s climate and energy position can potentially benefit from widespread dissent in Conservative ranks. In 2014, polling found that only 30% of the Conservative Members of Parliament polled agreed that “it is now an established scientific fact that climate change is largely man-made”. 53% of Conservative MPs said it was a “widespread theory” that had “not yet been conclusively proved”, while 18% called it “environmentalist propaganda”. There was also doubt among Labour MPs polled, with 25% agreeing with the “widespread theory” statement. Another poll found only 12% of Conservative MPs supported on-shore wind energy.

Conclusions

Why did UKIP go from ambivalent on climate change in 2001 to strongly skeptical in 2015? I have argued that UKIP’s post-2005 bid to become a credible, multi-issue political party interacted with David Cameron’s support of climate change policy to give Nigel Farage and UKIP’s leadership an incentive to emphasize their climate skepticism and opposition to wind energy. But does their new position matter? UKIP faces possibly insurmountable obstacles to gaining real political power in the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system.[12] However, there is some anxiety that they are putting pressure on the Conservative’s on climate policy, pressure that would increase if they have a strong showing in the May 2015 general election. In an additional, ironic twist, UKIP’s main political opportunity to influence climate and energy policy may lie in the European Parliament (EP), where representatives are elected by proportional representation to a body Nigel Farage once called “a system I despise”.[13] Indeed, as the UK’s largest party in the EP, UKIP caused some chaos on a vote on reforms to the EU Emissions Trading System in January. It still remains to be seen what larger effect, if any, they will have on UK and EU climate and energy policy moving forward.


[1] Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin. 2014. Revolt on the right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain. Abingdon: Routledge, pg. 138

[3] Rahmstorf, Stefan. 2005. “The climate sceptics.” In: Weather Catastrophes and Climate Change: Is There Still Hope For Us? Munich, Germany: Munich Re Editor, pp. 76–83. Howarth and Sharman (2015) put forward a thoughtful critique of using terms such as “climate skeptic” and “climate alarmist”, arguing that these labels increase polarization on the issue and fail to capture the complexity of differing perspectives. However, I found “climate skepticism” to be the most useful, widely-used term to capture the position that UKIP presents in their public manifestos.

[4] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, pp. 71-72

[5] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, pg. 73.

[6] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, pp. 70-71.

[7] Carter, Neil. 2009. “Vote blue, go green? Cameron’s conservatives and the environment.” Political Quarterly, 80 (2), pp. 233–242.

[8] Carter, Neil, and Michael Jacobs. 2014. “Explaining radical policy change: The case of climate change and energy policy under the British Labour Government 2006–10.” Public Administration 92 (1): 125–41.

[9] Carter, 2009.

[10] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, Revolt on the Right, pg. 72

[12] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, pp. 220-267

[13] Ford and Goodwin, 2014, pg. 34

 



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