Climate policy and net zero are becoming a culture war in the U.K. What can we do about it?  

In 1991, James Davison Hudson popularised the term ‘culture war’ as part of his decisive text, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The term culture war was used to describe the deep-seated tension between the “orthodox” and “progressive” worldviews of America in the early 1990s. But, more importantly, the term was not just used to describe the difference between strong opinions, but also the meaning and purpose of America’s future.

From here, the term became widely known in the United States and began to encapsulate disagreements between wider issues and the fundamental principles that dictate our perception of the world we live in. Culture wars refer to the deepest and most divisive fault-lines that create far more than just disagreement. The term describes a particularly polarising world-view where issues are deliberately presented in politics and media as being more divisive than in reality. As a matter of fact, there is far more complexity in public opinion, and the culture war, while still remaining divisive, becomes emblematic of fundamental clashes over moral codes, value systems, gender orders and rights. This is often centred around the most contentious issues, for example, abortion laws, same-sex marriage and gun control in the U.S.

It was only in the early part of the 21st century that U.K. readers slowly began to come across this phrase in the media as it summarised the societal divisions over values, beliefs, class and identity.

By 2016, the picture had rapidly changed again and the language of a ‘culture war’ was being drawn into a wider range of issues. In comparison to the U.S., there is a much weaker sense of political identity in the U.K. However, emotional rifts swiftly emerged between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum. It was this newfound divide that consumed the nation and began to represent cultural views rather than our broad party identities. 

Language such as “wokeness” and “cancel culture” were quickly becoming the norm and following Brexit, new fault-lines emerged, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Partygate, the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement. Furthermore, campaigners often created division out of narrower current affairs such as wearing a poppy, singing Rule Britannia, going vegan or even featuring an image of a trans man on the side of a coffee van.

In this age dominated by social media and the relentless pursuit of clicks and attention, questioning how much authentic animosity truly underlies people’s grievances is crucial. Piers Morgan’s reaction to eating a vegan sausage roll springs to mind, illustrating how these incidents can be amplified for the sake of viral content, social media promotion and ultimately, gaining a digital following.

Are we facing a culture war over net-zero policy?

Climate change has long been a subject of intense debate and discussion. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that human emissions are almost exclusively responsible for global warming, fossil fuel companies lured the public into a state of dissolution, debate and disarray surrounding climate science. Their marketing strategy, modelled on the success of the tobacco industry’s, has successfully brought climate change into the battlefield of public opinion. Their tactics include economic scaremongering and blame shifting by telling us regularly that we are the problem and their green energy plans are the solution. 

Now, as climate change takes centre stage as a pressing global issue, it has become a cultural battleground, with proponents and sceptics clashing not just over data and facts, but over deeply held beliefs, values and identities. In the U.K., the urgency of addressing climate change and enacting net-zero policies should be a unifying force. However, the narrative surrounding these policies is increasingly becoming ensnared in the culture war, where differing ideologies compete for dominance in shaping public opinion. 

Recently, Wales became the first country in the U.K. to reduce speed limits from 30mph to 20mph in built-up areas. A policy that could reduce road traffic deaths, reduce noise pollution and critically reduce exhaust emissions. However, this policy received backlash and compliance with the changes is expected to be poor. Sides have been taken in public discourse and the Tory party has been accused of waging a culture war against it. 

Although political disagreement is healthy for a strong democracy, weaponising it into a culture war by resorting to discrimination and misinformation is inherently wrong. Such tactics not only undermine the integrity of political discourse but also impede genuine progress on critical issues, including climate change.

Mis-truths also play their part in highlighting the dangers of culture wars, particularly when they intersect with matters as consequential as climate change. Just recently, Rishi Sunak claimed to have ‘scrapped’ plans to have seven different recycling bins, new meat taxes and aviation levies, despite the fact that none of these plans ever actually existed. This both underscores the real dangers of perpetuating misinformation and highlights just how desperate Sunak is to earn some political capital. 

Net-zero policy is being hauled into the public court of opinion, where those concerned about climate change and sustainability are pitted against others who prioritise their own freedom over how they live their lives.As we try to build a planet more resilient to climate change, these culture wars are increasingly becoming significant obstacles to political progression. 

The ramifications of creating culture wars out of net-zero policies are concerning. Mainly because a culture war will slow progress by stalling policy development as the ideological battles overshadow decision-making. It’s also evident that a culture war creates a divide in public opinion, making it difficult to rally collective action if policy decisions are taking too long. Culture wars dilute the scientific consensus into a pool of opinion which erode the public trust in proven research, denigrating evidence-based politics and pushing policy into paralysis.

To close, in the turbulent world of climate change discourse, culture wars that focus on net-zero measures and climate policy are unhelpful. By avoiding the sensationalism and electioneering tactics that fuel division, we can rise above the noise and focus on climate facts and evidence. Rediscovering common ground and redirecting the discourse towards urgency and shared responsibility is essential. Valuing objective truth may help to shift the focus away from climate culture wars in media headlines and therefore create room to develop a sensible plan to tackle climate change. This strategy should acknowledge the shared values and collective responsibility within society as we embrace a compromise that works for all.