UK’s climate science deniers rebrand

After a dozen years spent casting doubt on the work of the world’s top scientists, one of the mainstays of U.K. climate skepticism has a new brand — and, its director thinks, a new audience.

The Twitter handle of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) — notorious to green groups for being a megaphone for climate change denialism — disappeared from the internet on Monday to be replaced by Net Zero Watch (NZW).

Championed primarily by Conservative backbench MP Steve Baker, the campaign describes itself as setting out to “highlight the serious economic and societal implications of expensive and poorly considered climate and energy policies.”

Its choice to align itself to genuine public anxiety about who will bear the costs of the government’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is a major shift — one that green groups say privately is evidence that climate scientists succeeded in the battle to convince the public that climate change is real.

GWPF’s old anti-science shtick had become “untenable,” said Richard Black, author of “Denied — the Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism.”

But the group’s rebranding also signals that the next fight — over how fast to cut emissions, and who will pay for it — will be just as polarizing.

In a blog on Monday, Baker said: “The ‘experts’ in Westminster have been basing your future and mine on a plan that relies, to a very great extent, on a collective crossing of the fingers.”

GWPF sees in that fight a chance to return from the fringes of public debate, said GWPF director Benny Peiser, who acknowledged that the public had made up its mind that climate change is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Peiser insisted his group had not cast doubt on the science of climate change but rather questioned “exaggeration” by scientists. “We have a credibility problem, because … we’ve been painted as kind of bad guys,” he said.

The current energy price crisis — which experts say is driven primarily by the global economic recovery, low supplies of gas and a shortage of gas in storage — will be seen by the public as evidence that climate policy results in higher costs for households, said Peiser.

If consumer bills stay high, he predicted, voter appetite for climate policy could sour rapidly: “You won’t take the public with you and eventually these policies will crash and burn.”

Political headache

The group remains on the outer edges of public debate for now. “Generally speaking, Net Zero Watch is swimming against the tide of public opinion,” said Chris Curtis, senior research manager at pollster Opinium. “Climate change has been creeping up the top issues tracker since 2018, and voters now regularly say it’s one of the top three issues facing the country.”

According to a recent poll surveying sentiment toward net zero, more than 70 percent of respondents in Baker’s Woking seat said the government could not afford not to implement policies to tackle climate change.

But the group “does have a point” in highlighting that there is “little clarity about where the money is going to come from,” Curtis said, noting that voters are still divided on whether they would be willing to take a personal financial hit to aid the transition.

Black said the pivot was a concern and climate advocates should take NZW “seriously.”

The group’s “tactics and rhetoric are clearly designed to have populist appeal, and already a couple of MPs have been prepared to suspend their credibility and lend support,” said Black.

According to Peiser, “dozens” of MPs have inquired about the Net Zero Watch campaign. The organization had been “in the wilderness for a long, long time,” he added. “But it could change quite swiftly.”

A separate caucus of Conservatives, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, has attracted around 40 members from different wings of the party. Although they are by no means a dominant force, it’s enough to cause the party a headache.

The campaign’s launch comes as Chancellor Rishi Sunak is in the final stages of drawing up funds for the decarbonization of homes and the move to electric vehicles. While NZW may be at the extreme end of the Conservative Party’s attitudes, Tory MPs who are concerned about climate policies’ impact on low-income voters seem to have the chancellor’s ear.

NZW is cherry-picking evidence to pursue political goals, according to Black.

“Questioning the cost of the net-zero transition is just about all they have left,” he said. “But of course framing the issue this way is very obviously one-eyed, given that the benefits of a zero-carbon switch may well exceed the costs — and that the costs of not reaching net-zero are huge.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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