Nigel Farage's state of the union response suggests UKIP will make climate change denial a centrepiece of their European election campaign.
I was a bit taken aback on Wednesday when, during his response to President Barroso's State of the European Union speech in Strasbourg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage devoted almost the entirety of his speech not to warnings about the creeping European super-state, but to an impassioned denial of climate change.
The subject is nothing new for UKIP. The official party line is that there is no proof that climate change is man-made, and this is often brought up by UKIP MEPs. The party has been particularly vocal about renewable energy, blasting “ugly” wind turbines blotting the English countryside and biofuel subsidies it says are responsible for fuel poverty in the UK. This was made clear by UKIP MEPs during Monday's debate on biofuel legislation, which strangely put UKIP on the same side as the Greens.
But it was surprising to see Farage devote so much time to the issue during a big-picture debate on the EU that had nothing to do with climate change. The EU had fallen victim to a “green obsession”, he said. The resulting legislation had driven manufacturing away from the UK and forced people into fuel poverty.
It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment idea, it was carefully planned out. Farage brought with him props – recent NASA satellite photographs showing the arctic ice caps grew this year. “Leading American scientists are now saying we are going into a period of between 15 and 30 years of global cooling,” he told the chamber. “We may have made one of the biggest, stupidest collective mistakes in history by being so worried about global warming.”
As you may have guessed, these scientists are not “leading” by any stretch of the imagination and the new satellite images, published widely in global right-wing media, show an uptick in ice caps that is completely consistent with the historical trend of an overall decrease in the ice cap measured over decades. But let's put that aside for a moment.
At a moment when UKIP is on the upswing, when some pundits are predicting that they could be the largest party in the next British delegation to the European Parlaiment after next year's European Parliament election, why would Farage devote so much of his headline speech to what seems like a side issue?
Perhaps it is because he risked sounding a note indistinguishable from British Conservative (ECR) leader Martin Callanan, who gave his SOTEU response before him. At a time when there is growing Euroscepticism across party lines, Farage may have to become more and more extreme in his rhetoric to stand out.
himself noted during the debate that the British Conservatives had become indistinguishable from UKIP. “Increasingly, your party and your group is looking like UKIP and the Eurosceptic and anti-European group," Barroso told Callanan. “And I start to have some doubts whether you are going to be elected in Britain or if it is not UKIP that will be the first force in British elections.”
But the climate change denial is something that draws a stark dividing line between the Tories and UKIP. UK prime minister David Cameron has made the fight against climate change a headline political objective for his government, calling it the “greenest government ever”. Whether he's followed through on that is another matter. The government has recently re-affirmed its commitment to climate action in the face of criticism from green groups.
Cameron and Conservative British MEPs have been at pains to point out that, though they don't think the EU should be involved in most issues, there are key issues where the EU adds value. Climate change is always on that list. The UK is one of the most outspoken advocates for the EU to increase its 2020 emissions reduction target to 30%. When denouncing UKIP, critics in the UK often point to their denial of climate change as evidence that the party is made up of “swivel-eyed loons”.
So why, at a time when UKIP is trying to distance itself from its extremist associations and expelling its more ‘colourful' members, would the party choose to highlight its climate change denial?
There is, after all, no natural connection between euroscepticism and climate scepticism. It therefore seems an odd risk for UKIP. Imagine the British voter who thinks the UK would be better off without the EU and is tempted to vote for UKIP, but suddenly changes his mind when he hears that the party denies the existence of climate change. That vote instead goes to the Conservatives, also eurosceptic but not denying climate change.
Is there a voter who is on the fence between UKIP and the Tories but would be swayed over to the UKIP side because of their climate change denial? That I'm not so sure of. Surely the more motivating issue out of the two is EU membership. Doesn't the climate change denial only work as a discouragement to potential voters rather than an enticement to undecided ones?
only 45% of Britons now believe that climate change is an incontrovertible fact, even less than Americans (47%).
As Barroso noted, it is the Tories who will have to work to distinguish themselves from UKIP, not the other way around. ““When it comes to being against Europe, the people prefer, between the original and the copy, they prefer the original,” Barroso told MEPs. “That's probably why they are going to vote more for Mr Farage than Mr Callanan.”
But if UKIP were worried about distinguishing themselves from the Tories, the climate change issue may be something that demonstrates to potential voters that UKIP has teeth and is not afraid to go all the way. In an election where Eurosceptic voters will have to choose from UKIP and UKIP-light, an increasing public scepticism toward climate change may be the thing that pushes them into the UKIP camp.