Fed up of wind turbines? On Cameron, climate change and the culture war

As Cameron panders to UKIP on climate change, environmentalists are being caught in a culture war.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
18 December 2014
Screen shot 2014-12-18 at 01.04.42.png

Klondike wind farm, Wikimedia

A Survation poll late last year showed that 70% of people backed wind farms being built near them. There was a clear majority in favour across people voting for all parties, with 81.1% of Liberal Democrat voters, 74.6% of Labour voters, 60.8% of Conservative voters, and 57.8% of those intending to vote for UKIP saying they would be happy to see wind farms near them. The figure for Greens wasn't recorded, but it seems safe to assume it's a majority.

Another poll, reported in the FT in April this year, said that most people, by a humphing great margin of 3:1, would rather have a wind farm near them than a fracking rig. Another survey in May this year found wind power to be, by a long way, the most popular form of energy in the UK. Again, supporters of all parties tended to be in favour. I could go on. Polling evidence and academic surveys have consistently told the same story. Wind power is the most popular form of energy in the UK.

I say this because, yesterday, David Cameron declared “people are fed up with wind turbines”. Which people? He doesn't say. Evidence for their anger? Who knows. Despite this, he re-announced a moratorium on subsidies for onshore wind-farms if the Tories get a majority in May, and said instead he would offer significant tax cuts for fracking.

In normal circumstances, this policy would amount to nothing less than a direct assault on the future. Announcing it two days after the end of the Lima climate conference makes him look like a clown on the global stage. Fortunately, his international stature is so pathetic I doubt anyone noticed. Doing all this not because he believes that there is some technical problem with wind energy, but because he believes “people” to be fed up, despite those same people reporting that they aren't at all, is remarkable.

There are two potential explanations for his declaration. The first is that he's been leant on by the hydrocarbon industry. The second is that Cameron is throwing some red meat to his activists. Because, whilst there is very little support for them among the population in general, there exists a network of NIMBY campaign groups across the country, protesting against wind energy in their areas.

Among them are those who claim they will catch the non-existent 'wind turbine syndrome', people who have moved somewhere for the view and are sad to see it changed, home-owners concerned about house prices falling, and, most importantly, culture-war right-wingers who see wind-farms as the mast-head of history, sailing towards a pinko-and-green-politically-correct future and sinking the Britannia they love beneath the waves. Like all activists, they tend to be happy to pick up any argument which supports their cause – some of which are powerful, others of which are nonsense. Perhaps the most prominent of the nonsense arguments is the climate change denial almost invariably found woven into the stories these groups tell.

For politicians, sometimes it makes sense to support a minority position if it is one that is held strongly by the people who might campaign for them – and if those who strongly disagree with it will never vote for them anyway. The “people” to whom Cameron refers when he says “people are fed up” are not “the British people as a whole”. They are clusters of conservative activists in a few rural constituencies, who are currently at risk of defecting to Britain's version of the Tea Party as the climate becomes a key battle line in the emerging culture-war. UKIP, of course, are passionately anti-wind and vocal climate change deniers.

These people have long posed a challenge for Cameron. When he first became leader, it seemed clear what his strategy was: he would give his radical neoliberal ideology both a pink-wash and a green-wash. Back then, everyone was at it. BP rebranded themselves as “Beyond Petrolium”. BAE Systems advertised how the lethal weapons they produced were respectful to the environment, and, the 2006 local elections, David Cameron declared that people should “vote blue to go green”. (Similarly, just as LGBT rights have been used to justify the Iraq War and the actions of the Israeli government, Cameron used his support for things like equal marriage to add a compassionate face to his violent economic policies).

His problem, though, as with so many things, is UKIP. The global economic crisis unleashed a new wave of culture-war, and in a dying empire like Britain, it's no surprise that people are keen to cling to what they see as signifiers of past glory. The social-conservative part of the Conservative coalition has started to break away, given a party to vote for which more accurately reflects their views. Feminist, anti-racist and LGBT activists are more than familiar with this culture-war, and are accustomed to standing and fighting, and, often, to winning. But, interestingly, the environmental movement has often seemed slower to understand what's happening to it and who it's up against.

On this subject, George Marshall is fascinating. As he points out, polling in the States shows that attitudes to climate change are already a more consistent signifier of generally conservative values than opinions about abortion or gun control. To his mind this is a dangerous situation that indicates that believing or not believing in climate change is not just a product of holding left of right wing values, but has become a key marker of their identity. Climate scepticism is now not something conservatives do, it is something they are.

As the same culture-war raises its head in Britain, the Conservatives in the UK face the same challenge as their Republican friends in the US: they can keep the anti-science zealots who make up their base on board, and risk alienating the rest of the population, or they can wave goodbye to the right, and risk battling it out with Labour and the Lib Dems on a crowded centre ground.

For those who would rather the planet didn't fry, there are two (not mutually exclusive) solutions.

The first is to turn weak supporters of renewable energy into strong supporters. In practice, attitudes to what are seen as social issues are often shaped by material and economic circumstances. Where communities have control over wind-farms, they are much more popular. In Denmark, where community ownership of wind-farms is much more common (hundreds of thousands of people in the country are members of wind energy co-ops), there is much less community resistance to the turbines. Afterall, it's the community themselves who are building and profiting from them.

The second is to dig trenches and fight out the culture war. The Roger Scruton fans in the green movement, who argue that small “c” conservatives are natural bedfellows of environmentalists because they want to conserve things, are plain and simple wrong about where their key allies lie.

As Naomi Klein has pointed out in her new book, when conservatives come to the conclusion that action on climate change will require not preservation, but radical change, they are right. The comfortably off, older, right wing middle classes of the Western world are the people who have most vested interest in maintaining the status quo for the short term and least interest in the reforms needed to avert climate disaster.

And this applies as much to broader environmental questions as it does to the climate. The landscapes which anti-wind activists and their ilk seek to conserve are not biodiverse wildlife havens so much as barren-wastelands, cleared of troublesome creatures and peasant-farmers centuries ago. It's the job of environmentalists to re-wild, not conserve Britain's manmade wet-deserts; to bring back commons where now there is enclosure, to let the wild-lands grow where now they are mown.

The conservative vision of countryside is one with neither howling wolf nor peasant-farmer; no undergrowth, no wetlands, no wildlife, no riff-raff. What they want to conserve is a manicured golf-course-island where life is slowly dying off but they are in charge, able to look out and feel proud. Environmentalism is about the opposite - about reviving the land, restoring it to a magnificent chaos capable of supporting life, not controlling and preserving it as, slowly, the life is washed out of it.

The young, the left and liberals are, on the other hand, largely up for the changes that are needed, or at least capable of being persuaded. That bracket includes a significant majority of people in the country – people willing to listen to the case for radical action. The small minority may have the current Prime Minister pandering to it, but that is more a sign of his weakness than their strength.

None of this, of course, is to say that we shouldn't try to win-over conservatives. But let's not pretend that we already agree with them: we don't. And they know that better than we do. Wind power, the climate and the broader environment will become a more and more important part of the culture war in Britain over the next few years. It's a war environmentalists can win. We must.

additional note:

After a couple of comments, I feel I didn't make sufficiently clear an important distinction between the people I call "NIMBYs" above, and the cultural conservatives. Whilst sometimes they are the same people, they aren't necessarily. The rest of the argument about winning over cultural conservatives, or not, only really applies to them. It doesn't necessarily apply to "NIMBYs", who are another phenomenon entirely, for discussion another day...

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