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Revealed: Boris Johnson accused of promoting ‘net zero sceptics’ in reshuffle

Several top UK government posts have been handed to MPs ‘who haven’t clocked seriousness of climate crisis’

Anita Mureithi
16 February 2022, 4.11pm
Despite making ambitious pledges, Boris Johnson has been accused of appointing climate deniers to his cabinet
REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Ministers promoted in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle have voted against key green laws, backed dirty energy and been accused of spreading climate disinformation, analysis by openDemocracy today reveals.

The news comes despite Johnson’s insistence last year at the UN that “it is time for us to listen to the warnings of the scientists”.

Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack told openDemocracy that Johnson had “stuffed” the government “full of those who simply haven’t clocked the seriousness of the climate crisis”.

“This is now a cabinet of ‘net zero’ sceptics,” she said. “Small wonder that far-Right Tories feel they have the upper hand and are heading up a new culture war, blaming the cost of living crisis on climate action.”

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These are the names you need to know – and what they’ve said and done when it comes to the climate emergency.

Heather Wheeler

The government’s new assistant whip and parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office is Heather Wheeler.

Wheeler has been accused of ignoring science and spreading disinformation. In 2020, as wildfires raged in Australia, she told the House of Commons that “75% of the fires were started by arsonists”. Tory MP Richard Drax went on to repeat this figure in the House of Commons. In fact, fire officers had said less than 1% of the fires was arson, with the majority started by dry lightning storms.

Scientists responded to her claims with alarm, saying Wheeler had ignored scientific evidence and instead relied on “grossly misleading social media sources”. Wheeler has not commented on these accusations.

A 2019 Guardian analysis found Tory MPs were almost five times more likely to vote against climate action than MPs from other parties. Sure enough, data from the UK Youth Climate Coalition shows that Wheeler voted against a moratorium on fracking in 2015 and a plan to eliminate a substantial majority of emissions by 2030.

Mark Spencer

The new Commons leader, Mark Spencer, is among a majority of Tory MPs who backed plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Boris Johnson himself didn’t turn up for the key June 2018 vote, which passed by a majority of 296, despite Heathrow being near his constituency and having previously vowed to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” to stop the construction.

The runway plans have been heavily criticised by activists and environmental groups and were at one stage even deemed illegal due to a lack of consideration of the UK’s climate commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

That ruling was overturned in December 2020.

Spencer worked on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015. The Register of Members’ Financial Interests shows that, in 2021, he received a donation of two days’ shooting from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, having been on similar expenses-paid trips in 2015 and 2017.

Michael Ellis

Michael Ellis, the new minister for the Cabinet Office, has voted against several key policies on climate change.

In 2020, he voted not to call on the government to develop and implement a plan to eliminate the substantial majority of transport emissions by 2030.

Later that year, he voted against an amendment to the UK Internal Market Act that sought to make funding applicants provide a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” before receiving any public cash for economic development.

He also voted against forcing ministers to consider the 2050 net-zero target when setting up agricultural subsidy schemes.

However, Ellis claims he is “proud that this government is a world leader in addressing [climate change]”.

Stuart Andrew

TheyWorkForYou shows that the new housing minister, Stuart Andrew, has generally voted against targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing the proportion of electricity generated via renewable means.

He has also voted against the establishment of a UK Green Investment Bank to invest in projects that, for example, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In June 2019, Andrew met constituents at a ‘The Time Is Now’ climate change lobby in Westminster, where he said: “I have heard and listened to their views and I do agree with them – we do need to act in order to address our climate change emergency. It is clear that the climate and environmental crisis is a mainstream issue held dear by many of my constituents, and from people all across the country.”

Yet in 2020, when the transport emissions target for 2030 was brought forward, he voted against it.

Lia Nici

Lia Nici is one of Johnson’s new parliamentary private secretaries (PPS).

In 2021, Nici voted against a law that would force water companies to reduce the amount of raw sewage dumped into rivers and seas.

After a lengthy debate, the Environment Bill – minus the amendment about sewage – was approved by Parliament in November.

Nici’s voting record also shows that, in 2020, she voted against a target to eliminate the majority of transport emissions by 2030.

Chris Pincher

TheyWorkForYou reveals that the government’s new deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, has generally voted against measures to deal with climate change.

In 2020, he voted against forcing ministers to consider the 2050 net-zero target when setting up agricultural subsidy schemes.

He also voted against an amendment to the UK Internal Market Act that sought to make funding applicants provide a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” before receiving any public cash for economic development.

Additionally, in 2019, he voted against a motion calling on the government to bring forward “a green industrial revolution to decarbonise the economy and boost economic growth”.

Wendy Morton

Wendy Morton is a new transport minister, having last year worked at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

A leaked memo, prepared for Morton in her previous role, revealed plans to cut funding for overseas water and sanitation projects by more than 80%.

Experts have said that water and sanitation are key in dealing with the impacts of climate change, and described the cuts as “savage” and a “national shame”. For communities worst hit by the effects of climate catastrophe, heavy rainfall and flooding can damage water sources and sanitation facilities, carrying waste into streams and lakes, and contaminating the water supply.

Yet a few months later, as COP26 was underway, Morton tweeted about how “good” it was to “join global leaders… to elevate the voices of those most impacted by climate change”.

Sarah Dines

Despite saying that “people need to vote blue to be green” during the 2019 general election campaign, assistant government whip Sarah Dines has voted against multiple climate action measures including the 2030 transport emissions target.

TheyWorkForYou shows Dines voted against forcing ministers to consider the 2050 net-zero target when taking actions including setting up agricultural subsidy schemes.

She also voted against an amendment to the UK Internal Market Act that sought to make funding applicants provide a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” before receiving any public cash for economic development.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Jacob Rees-Mogg – the new minister for Brexit opportunities – requires little introduction, having been leader of the House of Commons since 2019.

He has paid lip service to fighting climate change in the past. But just last week, he called on the prime minister to bring back fracking to address concerns about spiralling gas prices pushing up energy bills. A moratorium on fracking in England was introduced in November 2019.

According to Greenpeace, fracking causes “air, water and sound pollution”. It also “uses toxic chemicals where regulation may not be adequate. An accident could mean that these chemicals leak into water supplies or cause pollution above ground.”

The group says that “fracking won’t bring down our energy bills because… any gas from fracking will be sold to the highest bidder, which won’t help reduce bills.”

In a 2017 interview, asked whether an environmental approach to politics was important, Rees-Mogg said he would “like my constituents to have cheap energy rather more than I would like them to have windmills”.

The website DeSmog has accused Rees-Mogg of misrepresenting an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report with his claims that actions to stop global warming would have no effect for hundreds of years. The IPCC has, in fact, said that it will take that long to reverse existing man-made climate change.

Somerset Capital LLP, which Rees-Mogg co-founded and in which he remains a major shareholder, has millions invested in oil and coal mining. The investment fund has also traded shares in a firm that was fined over £1bn for its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Related story

The new minister for Brexit opportunities is thought to have a 12% stake in an $8bn investment fund that specialises in ‘emerging markets’

Chris Heaton-Harris

The newly appointed chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, has argued that the UK should choose economic growth over reducing the use of fossil fuels.

In a piece penned in 2012, he wrote: “Across the world more and more countries are understanding that there [is] a simple choice between subsidising expensive renewable energy sources, like onshore wind or economic growth. They are all choosing growth. So should we.”

In the same year, a video emerged showing Heaton-Harris arguing that wind turbines are harmful – using evidence he admitted he hadn’t actually read.

James Duddridge

James Duddridge has been given a post as PPS to Johnson. The former UK minister for Africa, who once confused Zambia and Zimbabwe in a speech, pledged in 2020 to “build stronger alliances and partnerships with African nations” and said the UK was “committed to supporting African nations to leapfrog to clean energy systems [and] to reduce emissions”. But his voting record tells a different story.

He has also previously voted in favour of Heathrow’s third runway. According to Friends of the Earth, Heathrow is one of the biggest single sources of greenhouse gases in the UK.

James Cleverly

James Cleverly, who became an MP in 2015, was first promoted to the cabinet by Boris Johnson in 2019, and is now the minister of state for Europe. In his time serving the Conservative Party, Cleverly has consistently voted against policies to tackle the climate catastrophe. In 2018, he voted in favour of Heathrow’s third runway.

In February 2019, as the emerging youth strike movement grew stronger in the UK, Cleverly tweeted that he had been “critical about students going ‘on strike’ on Friday”. Later that month, MPs held a debate on UK climate policies. Cleverly didn’t turn up, despite the fact that climate change had not been debated in the main chamber of the House of Commons for two years.

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