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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
III/ Taking (in)action

The politicisation of the climate emergency: the case of the 2019 United Kingdom general election

Alma-Pierre BONNET


Pour beaucoup, la question du Brexit allait être au centre des élections législatives de 2019 au Royaume-Uni. La réalité est toutefois plus complexe et d’autres préoccupations ont émergé durant la campagne, notamment la question de l’urgence climatique. Plusieurs éléments peuvent expliquer le fait que l’environnement fut l’une des principales préoccupations des électeurs, légèrement derrière le Brexit et la santé, mais à égalité avec l’économie et la sécurité : le pays a été frappé par une série de catastrophes naturelles qui a renforcé la conscience climatique, notamment chez les jeunes. Le directeur général du Committee on Climate Change, Chris Stark, a même affirmé que « cette élection est réellement celle du climat » (Shukman).
Lorsque le contexte politique général est pris en considération, il semble légitime de remettre en question cette affirmation et d’évaluer le véritable impact de l’urgence climatique sur la campagne. Cet article va tenter de répondre à cette interrogation. L’analyse à la fois de la couverture médiatique ainsi que des documents officiels des différents partis politiques nous permettra de comprendre l’impact de la question de l’urgence climatique durant les élections législatives de 2019.

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1At the very beginning of what was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime electoral opportunity to change the British political landscape, the science editor of BBC News David Shukman wondered whether this could be “the UK’s first general election where climate change plays a defining role”. He even quoted the chief executive of the government’s climate advisers (Committee on Climate Change), Chris Stark, who asserted that “this election really is the climate election” (Shukman).

2Even though Boris Johnson’s main objective when he had called an election a few weeks before had been to break the Brexit deadlock, it was fair to assume that the climate issue, and the notion of “climate emergency”, would be an important topic. Throughout 2019 Britain had been hit by several natural disasters and voters had ranked climate change as one of their top priorities, according to official polls (Prescott-Smith). The climate emergency had also been in the political agenda of most political parties. In the end, the election was mainly about Brexit and the Conservatives, who had the second-worst environmental record after the Brexit Party (Friends of the Earth), won by a landslide.

3However, it is exactly because it was a Brexit election that the environment mattered. Brexit has brought to the fore the notion of climate emergency in British politics. It has raised concerns about the stability and durability of the UK’s environment policy once it leaves the European Union (EU). In an article entitled “Brexit and the UK Environmental Policy and Politics”, Charlotte Burns and Neil Carter explain that: “because UK environmental policy has been profoundly shaped by its EU membership, the environment has emerged as a major issue as the Brexit process has unfolded” (Burns and Carter 1). Many green groups, however, feared that leaving the EU would deal a blow to UK environmental standards as Brexit could push the environmental emergency further down the political priorities of the country (Goodey). This is what this paper examines. A close analysis of the context (1) will enable us to understand why it was vital for most parties to tackle the climate issue and to focus on the notion of “emergency”, which is quite recent in the UK (2). However, the clear Conservative victory shows that this emergency is still a long way off from topping political priorities in the UK (3).

1. Contextual approach: a climate of emergency

4The 2019 general election was fought in a general context of emergency. Three years after the 2016 referendum on continued EU membership, the political future of the UK was still uncertain as no party could command a clear majority in Parliament. Worse, internal divisions meant that the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, were incapable of showing unity and consistency. On top of that, 2019 was a particularly difficult year when it comes to natural disasters. This bleak situation reinforced a feeling of crisis in some parts of the British population. Several demonstrations, more or less violent, took place in big cities and climate emergency awareness was on the rise, particularly among young people.

1.1 A series of natural disasters

5The two-month election campaign was fought against a backdrop of disastrous news from all around the world. The reality of the climate emergency seemed to finally kick in as the Amazon rainforest was burning in Brazil while ferocious wildfires were wreaking havoc in both California and Australia. Closer to home, Venice saw its worst flooding in fifty years just minutes after the local council rejected climate change measures (McQueen 49). Britain also experienced its fair share of natural disasters. In the words of the Met Office, which is the national meteorological service for the UK: “2019 has been a year of extremes: record-breaking heat and rain, along with notable spells of cold and windy weather have all been prominent” (Met Office).

6The year had started with a series of violent storms, such as Storm Erik, which brought “weather bomb conditions” (Daly) and Storm Freya which carried particularly strong winds and intense rainfall. There was a “danger to life” according to the Met Office. Storms were soon replaced by wildfires, as February proved to be very hot. For example, West Yorkshire was severely hit by fire. In this particular case, the blaze was caused by a barbecue, but high temperatures proved to be a key factor in the uncontrolled development of the fire. It was not to be the only one. By April, the UK had already experienced more wildfires than any other year on record (Vaughan). Wildfires would soon be succeeded by heatwaves. During the summer, the UK recorded its highest-ever temperature in Cambridge (Walker). Worse, a 2020 analysis by Public Health England showed that the summer heatwaves of 2019 resulted in almost 900 extra deaths in England alone (Carrington). This report was released among criticism by MPs who said that the UK was not prepared for deadly heatwaves. Later in the year, floods caused much damage and anger as the government seemed unconcerned, at first. When Johnson finally agreed to visit flood-hit Worcestershire in March 2020, he was even called a “traitor” by local residents (Mason).

1.2 Growing public awareness

7In the words of natural historian Stephen Moss, 2019 was “the year Britain began to take extreme heat seriously” (Moss). This was not limited to Britain. The election actually took place in the midst of global concerns about the climate emergency. On 25 November, a UN report stated that “the concentration of climate-heating greenhouse gases has hit a record high” (Carrington 2019) which prompted some think tanks to call on the UK to take its fair share of the climate burden, as the country is the cradle of the industrial revolution and has historically been a major contributor to carbon emissions (Ambrose 2019a).

  • 1 This bill requested that the next Government “declared an emergency, commit to zero emissions by 20 (...)

8Many young people also took up the idea that Britain had to act swiftly. Following in the footsteps of climate activist Greta Thunberg, thousands of people around the UK joined global climate change protests in September. Earlier in the year, mass demonstrations had also been held by Extinction Rebellion (XR), a global environmental movement which started in the UK and whose epicentre is London. During the election, XR organised what they called the “12 Days of Crisis” (30th November until 11th December). Among other non-violent direct actions, they glued themselves to the battle buses of most political parties to raise awareness about their “Three-Demand Bill” (Rhodes 51).1

9Even though Brexit had dominated British politics for over three years when the election was held, the general context made the environmental issue quite relevant and it was no surprise that some political analysts wondered whether this could be the climate election (Shukman). Political parties thus had to take the environment into consideration.

2. Politicisation of the climate emergency

  • 2 This act “established ambitious long-term emission reduction targets on a statutory basis, five-yea (...)
  • 3 The EU contributed to these developments by acting as an external policy driver sustaining the poli (...)

10Party politicisation of the environmental question is no novelty in the UK, yet, for a very long time, it was sidelined by economic and materialist issues (Carter 2001 11). In the 1980s, the Conservatives and Labour started to take the environment into consideration, in what Burns and Carter describes as “a reactive approach to public opinion”. The approach was limited, pragmatic and election-oriented, “reflecting the intermittent growth in public concern” (Carter 2006 752). Things changed in the early 2000s, as the Labour government took concrete measures to tackle climate change, in particular with the introduction of the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA).2 There was then a “competitive consensus” between the parties that was reinforced by EU membership3: each party wanted to strengthen their environmental credentials. However, growing Euroscepticism somewhat hindered green progress on the right because it was easily assimilated to EU regulations (Burns and Carter 4).

11Brexit might have a devastating effect on the environment in the UK. It is feared nowadays that Brexit will lead to a race to the bottom as far as environmental standards are concerned as the country will no longer have to abide by strict EU rules on the environment. Besides, environmental policy is part of devolved powers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and here again, there are important discrepancies. Scotland and Wales have more ambitious climate policies than England and Northern Ireland (Royles and McEwen). This political evolution was noticeable in the green policies promoted by each party.

  • 4 We will use Sketch Engine, which is a corpus manager and text analysis software, to analyse the 201 (...)
  • 5 The term “climate emergency” was not used during the 2017 election. In 2019, it was used 56 times i (...)

12The notion of “emergency”, on the other hand, is fairly recent in the UK and 2019 was a pivotal year. The Guardian, for example, now prefers the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” over “climate change” and “global warming” (Carrington 2019). The Oxford dictionary even declared “climate emergency” the word of 2019 (Zhou). Politically, the UK parliament was the first in the world to declare an “environment and climate emergency” (Cowburn). However, it was during the 2019 election that the term “climate emergency”4 really took off.5

  • 6 As Sinn Féin members have an absentionist policy, they will not be included in our analysis.

13It seems that the key leitmotif during the campaign was to strike a balance between the Brexit priority and the climate emergency. This part will provide an overview of the position of each party on the climate emergency and how they tried to reconcile this question with Brexit6.

14Table 1. Occurrences of the words “Brexit”, “climate” and of “climate” as modifier

2.1 Left-wing parties: making the most of a green Brexit

15According to green group Friends of the Earth, Labour and the Green Party were the two most committed parties as far as the environment was concerned (Friends of the Earth). The climate emergency was at the heart of the Green Party manifesto, which was entitled “If not now, when?”. In the Brexit context, this emergency was seen as a matter of life and death and echoed the darkest hours of 1940:

We know these are dark days. The threat of Brexit hangs over us and our democracy is under attack. Above all, the climate and environmental emergency rages from the Amazon to the Arctic. The science is clear – the next ten years are probably the most important in our history. At this time of crisis, we cannot go on as we are (Green Manifesto Foreword).

In this age of Brexit, our politics resounds with references to the Second World War (81).

  • 7 It should be noted that if they refer to Churchill and Beveridge, they do not refer to US President (...)

16Even though their defiant and grandiloquent rhetoric was reminiscent of Winston Churchill (Cannadine Introduction), they actually identified with William Beveridge and his famous report (Green Manifesto 81) as their manifesto was meant to set a new green path for the country. The Greens proposed a “green new deal”7 whereby the whole economy would be turned green. They committed to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 and promised to spend £100bn a year on the climate crisis. As they wanted to stop Brexit thanks to a new referendum in order to focus on the environment, this election really was the “climate election” for them.

17Labour also had high environmental ambitions, which sometimes set them on a collision course with the Greens. This might have blurred the green message during the election. They too proposed to introduce a “green new deal” in which the economy would be handled through a green perspective. Labour wanted to launch a “National Transformation Fund” of £400 billion but they fell short of promising zero net emissions by 2030. They also planned to plant two billion trees by 2040 (BBC News). They devoted the first section of their manifesto to what they called “a green industrial revolution”. The reference to the industrial revolution is quite significant. Originally, Labour was committed to addressing the unequal distribution of wealth reinforced by the industrial revolution. They adopt a similar approach concerning the environment as tackling the climate issue is meant to address some inequalities in society. Even though Labour’s green ambition was significant, the leading principle for Labour in 2019 was the notion of change. Labour’s strategy was to show that this election should not be limited to Brexit (Watson). The environment was just one issue among many others:

Some people say this is the Brexit election. But it’s also the climate election, the investment election, the NHS election, the living standards election, the education election, the poverty election, the fair taxes election. Above all, it’s the change election. (Labour Manifesto Foreword)

18The notion of emergency was nonetheless very present and impacted their overall approach to social reforms, employment and even diplomacy, as they promoted the idea of “climate justice” whereby “wealthy countries like the UK [should] bear the greatest responsibility for the climate emergency” (104). It seems however that the lack of a clear Brexit plan confused their message which somewhat overshadowed their green ambitions.

2.2 Striking a balance in the centre

19The Liberal Democrats’ central pledge during the election was to cancel Brexit altogether. They nonetheless scored high on the green scale developed by Friends of the Earth. The notion of emergency was at the heart of their green ambitions, and 2019 was a decisive year:

The UK should be leading the world in tackling the climate emergency. We are the first generation to know we are destroying the environment, and the last generation with a chance to do something about it before it is too late. There is no Planet B. (Liberal Democrat Manifesto 25)

20They tried to combine a green economy with a green society. Through a bottom-up approach, the Liberal Democrats would create “Citizens’ Climate Assemblies” to engage the public in tackling the climate emergency. The government would also set ambitious targets to tackle climate change, such as putting an end to the sale of petrol and diesel cars and produce 80% of electricity from renewable sources, both by 2030. They would also plant 60 million trees a year and set a net-zero climate target by 2045. Most green groups considered the Liberal Democrat manifesto as the most “credible plan” for the climate and Professor Neil Carter described it as “really ambitious” (Hook).

  • 8 Concerning the economy, some academics claim that “the two parties have adopted a left-wing populis (...)
  • 9 This bill, which set important emissions reduction targets, became law in June 2009.

21To narrow down our analysis to the regional level, both the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru, which are centre-left and regionalist parties8, could claim high environmental credentials. The SNP has been in power in Scotland (whether in a minority or majority government) since 2007. As part of a deal for the support of the Scottish Green Party in 2007, the SNP introduced the Climate Change bill in the Scottish Parliament in 20089. In 2019, a new climate change act was unanimously passed in the Scottish Parliament. This new act sets a legally-binding “net-zero” target of all greenhouse gases by 2045. The SNP wants Scotland to be carbon neutral by 2040. During the 2019 election, the SNP aimed at holding the UK government accountable for the climate emergency by making sure “the threat of Brexit [would not] be used by the UK to reduce commitments to tackle climate change” (SNP Manifesto 30). As Scotland could claim high green credentials, the climate emergency was used to put pressure on the UK government: “SNP MPs will demand the UK matches Scotland’s ambition” (5), “we will press for an increase in new woodland creation” (31) or even “SNP MPs will demand the UK accelerates its action to meet Scotland’s climate change targets” (29). The SNP message seemed to be along the following lines: should the UK government fail to address the climate emergency, Scotland would have no choice but to leave the UK. The climate emergency was therefore highly political.

22Wales also wants to be a world leader in tackling the climate issue. The Government of Wales Act 1998, which set up an assembly for Wales, is the only founding document in Europe that includes sustainable development (Bory 1). Even if their political weight is quite limited, the separatist party Plaid Cymru wanted to carry out a “green job revolution” (Plaid Cymru Manifesto 4) and promoted a new referendum on EU membership in which they would campaign in favour of staying in. The climate issue was important but mainly through an economic perspective and the notion of “climate emergency” was not really significant in the Plaid Cymru manifesto (only two occurrences).

2.3 Brexit as the (only) priority on the right

23The climate emergency was not a priority on the right. The term “climate emergency” was used only once, by the Conservatives, in a bid to bolster Britain’s global outreach: “the climate emergency means that the challenges we face stretch far beyond our borders” (Conservative Manifesto 55).

24It was fair to assume that the Brexit Party would focus mainly on Brexit. The Brexit Party Contract hardly mentioned climate change and only pledged to plant “millions of trees to capture CO2” (Brexit Party Contract 10). The position of the Conservatives was more ambiguous. The key idea was to get Brexit done but also to invest massively in renewable energies, such as offshore windfarms and electric cars. They committed to reaching net zero carbon target by 2050. However, their green ambition seemed more rhetorical than real: the environment was meant to be “at the heart of conservatism” (Conservative Manifesto 55) and the Conservatives wanted to be the “stewards of our environment” (43) yet the subject is hardly touched upon in their manifesto, as only two pages are devoted to it. Besides, in the climate league tables of both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, the Conservatives scored very low as they ranked second to last, as will be discussed in the third part of the present contribution.

25At the regional level, the DUP, from Northern Ireland, mainly focused on Brexit. It nonetheless promised to meet the net zero carbon neutral target for Northern Ireland by 2050. The environmental issue was tackled through an economic perspective in that Brexit would enhance the rural economy of the country.

26No party could afford to ignore the climate issue, yet not all considered it as an emergency. In the end, it was one of the parties which was least concerned with the environment that won quite comfortably (Mason and Stewart). We will now try to understand why.

3. The Brexit emergency and the Conservative indifference

27The Conservatives fought the 2019 election on a Brexit platform. The environmental issue, let alone the climate emergency, clearly was of minor importance to them. The only emergency seemed to be to finally get Brexit done. This section relies on recent history to understand that, however important, the climate emergency has never topped the priorities of the Tories. It seems rather that the climate emergency was “used” during the campaign as a means rather than an end, which might account for the overall indifference displayed by the Conservatives.

3.1 Historical approach

3.1.1 Conflicting ideologies

28The Conservatives have always found it difficult to deal with the environment. The idea of preservation is at the heart of Conservative belief (Alexandre-Collier and Avril 35). The Tories want to preserve “what is good and fine and traditional around us” (Flynn and Lowe 10): traditions, political institutions and the British countryside. However, this runs counter to another key element in Conservative ideology: a strong desire to be non-interventionist. According to Rachel Godfrey:

The Conservative Party’s desire to be non-interventionist, its belief in the free market and aversion to state planning, create a natural barrier to concerted action toward the damaging consequences of economic development upon the environment. (Godfrey 4)

29This inconsistency influences the way the Tories deal with the environment. It was to damage the green legacy of both David Cameron and Theresa May.

3.1.2 Green confusion since 2010

  • 10 When Theresa May used this term to describe her party in 2002, it had an image problem, in particul (...)

30To fully understand the underlying reasons for the overall indifference the Conservatives displayed during the 2019 election, we need to look back at the way the climate issue was dealt with by the previous two Tory Prime Ministers. Over the 2010-2019 decade, the Conservatives sent mixed signals about the environment. Prior to the 2010 general election, Party leader David Cameron used it to modernize his party. The party logo was even replaced with a green tree. This so-called “Vote Blue, Go Green” strategy enabled Cameron to detoxify what many saw as the “Nasty Party”.10 Upon entering 10 Downing Street, he promised to lead the “greenest government ever” (Connelly 118). He somewhat managed to make a difference, as Carter and Clements (11) note:

Crucially, the Government accepted the 4th carbon budget, which reaffirmed the commitment to the ambitious carbon emission targets set out in the Climate Change Act. Other notable policies included the establishment of a Green Investment Bank, the Green Deal to encourage household energy efficiency, a minimum floor price for carbon, the roll-out of 53 million smart meters by 2019 and turning down the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

31However, due to internal pressure, Cameron failed to provide strong leadership on the issue and the environmental agenda quickly became a source of tension in the coalition with the Liberal Democrats and within the Conservative Party, as Conservative backbenchers preferred to “prioritize economic growth” (Carter and Clements 3). In 2013, he reportedly ordered his aides to “get rid of all the green crap” (Mason) in an attempt to lower environmental levies that push up energy bills. Cameron’s legacy on the environment is therefore quite confusing. He used the climate issue to make his party electable but he failed to follow through his green ambitions. In the words of the editor-in-chief of Business Green, James Murray: “Cameron did become the greenest prime minister in British history, but will be remembered by many as one of the worst for the environment” (Murray).

32As far as Theresa May is concerned, her green credentials were rapidly called into question. In the 2017 manifesto, the party scrapped the 2015 pledge to press for a total ban on ivory sales and Theresa May expressed her personal support for fox-hunting. Both stories went viral on the internet and damaged the Tory image, in particular among young people. To remedy this problem and to avoid the “retoxification” of the party, May resorted to an “eco-makeover” strategy and called for “a cleaner, greener Britain” while unveiling her 25-year Environment Plan to get rid of “all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042” (Stefanini and Cooper). Her Environment Secretary Michael Gove even advocated a “Green Brexit” in order “to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it” (Gov.UK). However, the difficulties of the Brexit negotiations threw May’s green ambitions into chaos. Both Cameron and May proved to be quite ambivalent when it comes to the environment, as they both seem to have failed to live up to their green expectations, while at the same time they can be credited with green improvement, in particular for Cameron. The new government was to adopt a more pragmatic approach.

3.2 Political approach

3.2.1 The 2019 green spin

  • 11 Investigative media outlet Desmog UK even claimed that during the election, Boris Johnson was the t (...)

33It seems that in 2019 the climate emergency was used with an eye to gaining support among younger and more environment-friendly voters, who are now more likely to vote Labour. The Conservatives adopted a series of non-binding decisions in what opposition parties described as political stunts and “greenwash” moves. Just a few days after calling an election, Boris Johnson announced that the government would impose a moratorium on fracking. This was a clear U-turn as many Tories had supported fracking and Johnson himself had claimed a few months before that fracking was “glorious news for humanity”, that the UK should “leave no stone unturned, or unfracked in pursuit of shale gas” (Ambrose 2019b). Ironically, the Conservative manifesto was written by Rachel Wolf who works as a lobbyist for the fracking company Cuadrilla.11

34Another important move ahead of the election was to delay the final decision on the controversial high-speed railway project HS2. The soaring cost and the ecological impact of the project might have deterred some voters. However, right after the election, the project was given the go-ahead as it aims to open up the north of the country, which became a Conservative stronghold in the election. Those two decisions seem to indicate that the climate emergency was only used as a political tool to secure support among young people. The Conservatives were soon to drop any green ambitions.

3.2.2 From explicit indifference to defiance

35During the election the climate issue was clearly sidelined by Brexit and the Conservatives made it quite clear. When Labour devoted 16 pages of its manifesto to the environment, the Conservatives devoted only two pages to it. Brexit on the other hand, was the guiding principle of their project and influenced every part of their manifesto.

36In addition to this limited number of pages on the environment in the manifesto, the Conservatives’ attitude to the climate emergency was one of defiance. Boris Johnson refused to participate in the “Channel 4 News Climate Debate” which was the first ever leaders’ debate on the climate crisis. The channel decided to replace the Prime Minister with a melting ice sculpture. The Conservatives then threatened to review Channel 4’s broadcasting remit should they win the election. As the Conservative strategy was to focus only on Brexit, this empty chair policy was a clear signal that the climate emergency was not a priority for the Tories. We will now try to understand why.

3.3 Analytical approach: inherent incompatibility?

37The Conservatives won what some called the “climate election” with one of the worst environmental records. We will posit three explanations to make sense of this apparent paradox.

3.3.1 The Conservative strategy

38It seems that prior to the election, the top priority for Boris Johnson’s campaign team was to reinforce his Brexit credentials. Having been a prominent member of the official campaign to leave the EU, Vote Leave, Johnson now had to unite the Brexit vote and show his supporters that he would go to any lengths to finally to make Brexit a reality. This is why his powerful adviser, Dominic Cummings, was credited with masterminding a series of controversial decisions to bring the following message home: Boris Johnson will deliver on his promise to “Get Brexit Done”, whatever the cost. This was analysed by pundits as one of the main reasons why Johnson prorogued Parliament and why he brutally expelled 21 Tory rebels, including Winston Churchill’s grandson. Annabelle Dickson explained after the election:

Johnson returns to No. 10 Downing Street having cleared the House of Commons of many of its anti-Brexit protagonists and supported by a fresh crop of obedient Tory MPs who have signed up to his Brexit vision. (Dickson et al 3)

39By showing that Johnson would do anything humanly possible to draw a line under Brexit (Payne 2019), the Conservatives turned the election into a Brexit election (Ridge-Newman 2019). After three years of political uncertainty and Brexit fatigue, it seems that the Conservative slogan “Get Brexit Done” was in tune with what a majority of Britons wanted, whatever their stance on Brexit (Kirkup). The other parties had therefore to find other topics to make a difference as the Conservatives took the Brexit leadership. This might explain why most of them chose the environment, which was, as we saw, an important issue to voters. But however relevant, it failed to compare with the Brexit emergency.

3.3.2 Green incompatibility

40At the ideological level, it seems that the environmental issue was incompatible with the current Conservative government. This might explain the defiant attitude displayed toward the climate emergency during the election. Most members of the Johnson team had also worked with him during the 2016 referendum campaign in favour of leaving the EU. It was his personal adviser, Dominic Cummings, who devised the “Get back control” slogan that worked so well among Eurosceptic voters. It was believed that leaving the EU would enable the UK to be in charge of its destiny. Brexit, which was the centrepiece of the 2019 campaign, would free the country of EU regulations.

  • 12 She uses Claudio M. Radaelli’s definition of Europeanisation: it consists of processes of construct (...)

41The problem, when it comes to the environment, is that the UK environmental policy has been profoundly shaped by the EU (Burns and Carter 3). Charlotte Burns wrote that UK “environmental policy has been Europeanised12” (Burns 2). In this context, it would therefore be difficult for arch Brexiters to uphold what most of them considered as EU “green tape”. Even if Michael Gove claimed that he wanted to implement a “Green Brexit”, the numerous negative statements by key cabinet members (including Gove) suggest that “the environment [was] in for a rocky ride” (Burns and Carter 9). Therefore, climate emergency was not, and could not, be a priority for this government.

3.3.3 Identity politics

42In relation to the first two reasons, we might think of another, more general, explanation to account for the fact that the Conservatives did not pay much attention to the climate emergency: identity politics. Heinrich Schäfer defines identity politics as: “the way in which social movements—ethnic, religious, gender-related or otherwise culturally based—weave transnational relations and become involved in politics to expand their identity claims” (Schäfer 376). In other words, people place what they consider as their own identity (age, race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) above any party allegiance. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that identity politics aims at:

Securing the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.

43The concept dates back to the early 1960s with the rise of the civil rights movements in the United States and has gained momentum in Britain during the Brexit debate. If identity politics is no panacea to explain the Brexit vote, it nonetheless sheds light on voters’ motivation. As a matter of fact, British people now tend to identify more in terms of their Brexit position, what researchers describe as “Brexit identities” (Duffy et al 56), rather than any party affiliation. A recent analysis by the Policy Institute at King’s College London shows that “in the 2019 general election campaign, the British public’s Brexit identities are dramatically stronger than their political party identities” (Duffy 4). This tendency has been on the rise ever since the Brexit vote result and it was fair to assume that it would weigh on the 2019 election.

44It seems that the questions of immigration, sovereignty and more generally of having a say in British politics, of this “desire ‘to be counted’ and not be pushed into the shadows of public life” (Hayhurst 1), trumped all other concerns for those identifying as Leavers and who are more likely to vote for the Tories. The climate emergency was much further down the line of their political priorities and the Conservatives understood it perfectly. The survey by King’s College researchers also shows that a significant number of Leavers (21%) think that “global warming is an expensive hoax” (Duffy 16). Therefore, focusing on the environment might even have been detrimental to the Tories.

45On the other side of the political spectrum, the EU, the economy or job opportunities might have ranked higher than the environment in the priorities of those who identify as Remainers (Taylor 2018). It seems then that the climate emergency was an important issue, but it failed to take priority over other concerns for a majority of the British population. Things might nonetheless change in the not-so-distant-future, as young people tend to identify with the climate emergency more easily than their elders (Lee 5).


46It was indeed fair to assume that the 2019 general election could have been the “climate election”. Britain had experienced a series of devastating natural disasters; public awareness of the climate emergency was on the rise and most parties wanted to tackle the environmental issue. Throughout the country, thousands of protesters made it clear that the environment, and more precisely the climate emergency, should be taken into consideration in the election. However, the stunning Conservative victory, one of the parties with the worst environmental record, shows that political emergency still prevails over climate emergency. Besides, it appears that some parties, like Labour, focused on the environment because they failed to find any coherent approach to Brexit. The growing concern among young voters, for whom the environment emergency is becoming part of their political identity (Verlie), along with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, might nonetheless be seen as a sign of hope that sooner rather than later, the environment will really be one political issue to be reckoned with during national elections.

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1 This bill requested that the next Government “declared an emergency, commit to zero emissions by 2025 and create a Citizens’ Assembly to set out how we achieve this.”

2 This act “established ambitious long-term emission reduction targets on a statutory basis, five-yearly carbon budgets and an independent Climate Change Committee with a remit to advise the government on the policies needed to achieve these targets.” (Burns and Carter 3)

3 The EU contributed to these developments by acting as an external policy driver sustaining the political momentum behind the CCA (Burns and Carter 3).

4 We will use Sketch Engine, which is a corpus manager and text analysis software, to analyse the 2019 manifestoes.

5 The term “climate emergency” was not used during the 2017 election. In 2019, it was used 56 times in the eight manifestoes studied in this paper (Green, Labour, LibDem, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Conservatives, Brexit Party, DUP).

6 As Sinn Féin members have an absentionist policy, they will not be included in our analysis.

7 It should be noted that if they refer to Churchill and Beveridge, they do not refer to US President F. D. Roosevelt.

8 Concerning the economy, some academics claim that “the two parties have adopted a left-wing populist discourse, based on a critique of austerity policies” (Massetti 2018 abstract).

9 This bill, which set important emissions reduction targets, became law in June 2009.

10 When Theresa May used this term to describe her party in 2002, it had an image problem, in particular after the Thatcher years and the growing Euroscepticism displayed by her successors.

11 Investigative media outlet Desmog UK even claimed that during the election, Boris Johnson was the top beneficiary of donations from supporters of climate science denial (Hope 2019). The influence of the business world on the green position of the Tories is nonetheless hard to assess and beyond the scope of this contribution.

12 She uses Claudio M. Radaelli’s definition of Europeanisation: it consists of processes of construction, diffusion and institutionalisation of ‘formal and informal rules, procedures, policy paradigms, styles, “ways of doing things” and shared beliefs and norms which are first defined and consolidated in the EU policy process and then incorporated in the logic of domestic (national and subnational) discourse, political structures and public policies’.

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Alma-Pierre BONNET, « The politicisation of the climate emergency: the case of the 2019 United Kingdom general election »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 06 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Alma-Pierre BONNET

Sciences Po Lyon
Alma-Pierre Bonnet is a full-time lecturer in British studies at Sciences Po Lyon.

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