Strange sights on the news-stands this week as the Daily Express turned its masthead green and invited its readers to ‘join our green Britain revolution’.
For those unfamiliar with it, the Daily Express has been an outspoken voice of climate denial in the past. Previous front page headlines have included ‘The great climate change fraud’ and ‘100 reasons why global warming is natural’, alongside the usual Brexit tub-thumping and anti-immigrant scare-mongering.
However, there’s been a change of leadership at the paper, and it shows. Its editorial line is more moderate, more balanced, and with this week’s reset on the climate issue, back on the side of actual scientific reality. And I think there are a couple of interesting things to note about this.
First of all, this is more evidence of how untenable climate contrarianism has become. As David Wallace Wells wrote last month, “the age of climate denial is over”. This is, primarily, the inevitable result of worsening climate change. It is impossible to ignore. There really is no point in flogging that dead horse, and the Express joins the Sun, which launched its own green campaign last year.
More significantly perhaps, this new campaign is an example of climate nationalism, something that Anatol Lieven suggests could be very powerful in his book Climate Change and the Nation State. Many people baulk at the idea that nationalism could ever be positive, but Lieven argues that no force has been as successful at convincing people to do hard things. “It is necessary to reframe the struggle against climate change in nationalist terms: the defense of nation states, their interests, and their future survival.”
The Express doesn’t need any convincing of this. “Since its foundation in 1900” says yesterday’s editorial, “the Daily Express has built a formidable reputation as a campaigner for British interests, and today there is no interest more vital than the prevention of environmental catastrophe.”
Their whole campaign embraces this. There’s the green union jack in the background, linking environmentalism and patriotism. The ‘Green Britain needs you’ banner explicitly references wartime call-up posters, calling citizens to take up the cause of their nation. Then there’s the framing of the struggle as a crusade. If you’re being generous, that makes it about morality and the struggle to do what’s right. (If you’re not, crusades are about racism, hatred of Muslims, and misguided views of Christendom.)
Whether or not this sort of framing resonates for us personally, it does for many. This is powerful language and it deserves scrutiny. It’s a big part of Boris Johnson’s appeal, and he deploys jingoistic overstatement with almost every utterance. It reached an ironic nadir last year when he was asked when hairdressers would be able to reopen from lockdown, and he said he couldn’t wait to “unleash the great British haircut”.
The benefit of bringing this kind of tone to environmentalism is that it can bring climate change to a new audience. This is certainly Ecotricity’s plan. They’ve partnered with the Express to create the campaign, and in their latest customer email they say it’s about “reaching an audience of millions who might not yet be on the same journey you are on.” Dale Vince features prominently in yesterday’s green issue, and Ecotricity are quite right when they say that “the Daily Express is recognised as a campaigning newspaper – and to save the planet we must reach out of the green bubble to get others involved.”
All of this is true, and the involvement of Ecotricity is encouraging. Adopting nationalist language around climate change may well be powerful, as Lieven says, but it has to be done with caution. After all, many other parts of the world are suffering more from climate change than Britain is. Britain is a climate privileged nation, in that the damage we will suffer from climate change won’t be proportionate to our rather large historical contribution to global emissions. Making it all about us, and rallying to the green flag, risks hiding the injustice of climate change.
There is a fine line between using nationalist language to motivate action on climate change, and tipping over into ‘Britain first’ policies that entrench climate injustice: turning away climate refugees for example, or cutting aid budgets that are used for climate adaptation.
As a campaigning newspaper, The Express has previously launched ‘crusades’ against immigration and against overseas aid. So while I welcome their new project on climate change, there needs to be deeper change at the paper too. It could become rather ugly if their green revolution focuses too much on Britain, and forgets that climate change is a global justice issue.