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Could US-funded lobby force climate U-turn from weakened PM?

Boris Johnson has already caved to pressure on fracking ban from Tory “parliamentary wing” of climate denial group

Adam Bychawski
6 May 2022, 1.44pm

Johnson has faced calls to resign for the Net Zero Scrutiny Group's co-founder.

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

They are the little-known group of climate sceptics whose staunch rejection of net-zero policies could finally undo Boris Johnson.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation is notoriously secretive about its backers, saying only that it will not take cash from anyone with an interest in fossil fuels. (Tax documents filed in the US, revealed this week following an investigation by openDemocracy, appear to cast doubt on this claim.)

And as the Conservatives lick their wounds following a punishing local election, Johnson will be acutely aware of pressure from the GWPF – which includes a number of Tory backbench MPs as well as peers and lobbyists – to abandon his green pledges or risk a coup from the party’s Right.

The GWPF’s campaigning arm Net Zero Watch published a report in April claiming that there was “no evidence of a climate crisis” and threatened Johnson, saying he must change tack or face a “serious challenge to his leadership”.

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It is likely to prove a key weapon for the similarly named Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a cadre of Tory MPs who are closely connected to the lobbyist.

Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, the chair of the group, has said that its members get their research from the GWPF, and he has hired two GWPF staff members as advisers. Tory MP Steve Baker, the group’s most vocal spokesperson, joined the GWPF as a trustee in May 2021.

Six members of the House of Lords, some of whom have recently retired, have also worked with the GWPF – including its founder Nigel Lawson, a former Tory minister; and Tory peer and businessman Nigel Vinson, who donated £50,000 to the lobbyist.   

Climate researchers have accused the group of being a “parliamentary office” of the GWPF, and “spreading misinformation” produced by it.

“Mackinlay, Baker and their fellow campaigners against net zero have been parroting the media releases from the lobbying arm of the Global Warming Policy Foundation,” said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the LSE Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

The GWPF is backed by hugely wealthy US interests, and has already successfully exerted pressure on the government over onshore wind and fracking.

Both Baker and Mackinlay have criticised the prime minister for his stance on the environment. The latter told Johnson that net zero would lead to a dystopian future for his constituents where they “sit around a tepid radiator powered by an inefficient and expensive air source heating unit, worrying about the payments on the electric car that they did not want”.

Mackinlay added: “Will the prime minister please commit to solutions that are technologically possible to reduce Britain’s CO2, rather than uncosted commitments that – I am sorry – we will be hearing a lot of at COP26?”

Anatomy of a pro-fracking campaign

Last month, Johnson scrapped plans to expand onshore wind farms and ordered a review of the ban on fracking. The decision had the GWPF’s fingerprints on it, and came after a campaign by both groups that climate researchers said was taken straight from the Big Oil playbook.

The push began on 10 February, when Net Zero Watch released a statement calling on ministers to restart fracking and prevent the closure of two shale gas wells run by Cuadrilla. The government had imposed a moratorium on fracking in 2019 after a scientific review found it was impossible to predict the scale of earthquakes it could trigger.  

Two days later, Baker and Mackinlay organised an open letter to the prime minister from 30 MPs including the former Cabinet Office minister David Frost calling for the ban on fracking to be overturned.

The GWPF then stepped in to provide the supposedly scientific basis for the MPs’ argument: four days later, it published a 14-page report claiming to prove that opposition to fracking was “baseless scaremongering”.

“It’s hard to imagine a more benign extractive industry,” declared the author Tim Worstall, also a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, a libertarian think tank that has similarly downplayed the risks of climate change

The day after the report was published, Conservative MP Lee Anderson, a Net Zero Scrutiny Group member, asked the government to confirm its stance on fracking in an urgent parliamentary question.

He later asked the government to intervene to prevent the closure of the two shale gas wells. 

Meanwhile, several members of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group also spoke in favour of fracking including its chair, Mackinlay, who said the UK should follow the example of the US, which is the leading shale gas producer in the world.

Energy minister Greg Hands replied that he is “always happy to meet with his [Net Zero Scrutiny] group to discuss these issues”. 

On March 31, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the UK’s oil and gas regulator, overturned its own order to plug the wells. Labour said that the regulator had acted after pressure from the government, a claim denied by a Westminster official.

Baker then picked up the baton once again, welcoming the decision in a statement on Twitter and calling on the government to allow fracking to be resumed at the wells.

On April 4, a day before the government announced that it would review its moratorium on fracking, Mackinlay boasted that “the government appears to be listening, agreeing with me and my colleagues in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group that it makes no sense to cement up Britain’s only two viable shale gas wells”.

Following the announcement, the Sun published a story claiming that half the public was now in favour of the fracking ban being lifted, alongside an editorial that said: “Fracking was the answer in the US. It would be insane not to find out if it can be here.”

The Sun story did not mention that the poll had been commissioned and paid for by the GWPF. Both Baker and Mackinlay provided quotes for a press release accompanying the group’s survey results.

Sails away

GWPF has also campaigned alongside Net Zero Scrutiny Group MPs against the expansion of onshore wind power.

The government signalled in March that it was considering relaxing planning rules and a ban on subsidies for onshore wind farms introduced under David Cameron in 2015. The rules led to a slump in wind turbines being constructed, according to industry experts

The GWPF wasn’t happy. Days later, its Net Zero Watch campaign arm published a paper claiming that building more wind and solar power would make energy bills rise, and calling for existing renewables to be “eventually wound down” and replaced with gas and coal.

Mackinlay was quoted in the report’s press release, which was reported by the Telegraph without any reference to GWPF’s view on climate science. 

The plans for boosting onshore wind had been dropped by the time the government announced its energy security policy in April following opposition from Tory MPs, including members of Johnson’s own cabinet.

Shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband told openDemocracy that Boris Johnson had “bowed to the climate delayers on his backbenchers in his energy relaunch” by failing to change the planning rules on onshore wind.

Tory MP Chris Skidmore, who formed the opposing Net Zero Support Group earlier this year, last week lambasted “opportunistic anti-net zero voices” in his party that “claim that the global energy crisis would be solved by doubling down on fossil fuels”.

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