mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Party of a Different Color

“Vote Blue, Go Green” is the new slogan of Great Britain‘s Conservative
Party, unveiled in April before local elections that saw the Tories gain
ground on Prime Minister Tony Blair‘s beleaguered Labour Party. Linking the
Conservatives‘ traditional color, blue, with the green of environmentalism
reinforced a message that David Cameron, the 39-year-old Conservative Party
leader, has been stressing since he was chosen this past fall as the
Tories‘ new standard bearer: This is not the Conservative Party of old.

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In one of his first official acts as party leader—facing off against Blair
during Question Time in the House of Commons—Cameron chose to echo
complaints by Britain‘s environmental groups that Blair talks much but does
little about climate change. (Blair, who once called the Kyoto Protocol “not
radical enough,” has pledged to reduce Britain‘s greenhouse gas emissions 20
per-cent by 2010, but his government now admits it will fall short of that
goal.) Ben Bradshaw, the Labour Party‘s environment minister, fired back at
Cameron, charging that the Tories have made “no clear commitments on climate
change” and “need to set out new policies, not platitudes.”

“David Cameron is trying to out-Blair Blair,” says Sir David King, chief
scientific adviser to the British government. King, whose warning in 2004
that climate change poses a threat more serious than terrorism helped fuel
public concern in Britain and beyond, adds, “Cameron is repositioning the
Conservatives to capture the middle ground, and there is no question he sees
the middle ground as dealing with climate change.”

Whether Cameron‘s rhetorical repositioning will be matched by real policy
shifts remains to be seen. But a greening of the Conservatives would mirror
a broader trend in Northern Europe, where the right-of-center parties
governing Germany, France, Denmark and the Netherlands all support firm
action against climate change. Germany and Denmark boast two of the world‘s
most extensive programs of alternative-energy development, especially from
wind power. The Netherlands is already preparing a national plan to adapt to
the rising sea levels and increased flooding that climate change is
projected to cause in years to come. France played an essential
behind-the-scenes role at the 2005 G-8 summit, blocking the Bush
Administration from watering down the final agreement‘s declaration that the
science is no longer disputable.

The climate change debate in Europe is much less politicized than in the
United States, and there is wide consensus that impacts are already being
felt—for example, in the disastrous flooding of the Elbe and Danube rivers
in 2002 and the heat wave that killed an estimated 31,000 people in France,
Spain and Italy in 2003. Public concern has grown so strong among elites and
ordinary citizens that political parties have little choice but to respond.
Britain‘s Conservatives saw they had to develop their own position because
they recognized that Britons “are going to hear about climate change every
week for the foreseeable future,” explains James Cameron (no relation to
David), vice chair of Climate Change Capital, a London-based financial
company that invests in emission reductions worldwide. Just as Republicans
in California cannot get elected if they are seen as weak on the
environment, so conservatives in Northern Europe must at least look green if
they hope to govern.

The British Conservative Party has “a massive image problem,” says James
Morris, a pollster who ran focus groups for the Labour Party before the last
general election, in 2005. “They are seen as uncaring, old, nasty and out of
touch. So they need to rebrand themselves⬦[by] picking a symbolic issue, the
environment, to shift how people think about the Tory Party in the long
term.”

Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative Party‘s shadow secretary of state for the
environment, denies that “Vote Blue, Go Green” is merely a ploy. “The
emphasis on environmental issues comes as a result of the growing awareness
that we may be living on borrowed time, and we‘re addressing that as any
responsible party should. If it is electorally advantageous, that is
good,” says Ainsworth. He adds that it is “difficult to say” how this green
messaging affected the May elections: “The Labour Party had a series of
difficulties leading up to the elections [including a sex scandal and the
unpopularity of the Iraq War], and no doubt we were helped by the
government‘s own misdemeanors.” But the Tories‘ advance was not simply a
function of voters‘ distaste for Labour, Ainsworth argues, for the Tories
gained more than four times as many seats as Liberal Democrats. By mid-May a
poll by the Guardian and the research firm ICM found that support for the
Tories had risen to 38 percent, the party‘s highest rating in thirteen
years, as female voters in particular voiced increased support. Labour,
meanwhile, polled 34 percent and the Liberal Democrats 20 percent.

There have been some glitches in the Conservatives‘ new embrace of green
consciousness. Cameron was photographed bicycling to the House of Commons
one morning like a good green commuter, but trailing him was his government
car—an unfortunate necessity, he later explained, because of the heavy boxes
of paperwork he has to carry. And Ainsworth concedes that “the substance
isn‘t there yet” on green issues. Still, he pledges that the Tories will
announce a comprehensive program by year‘s end, following a policy review
overseen by John Gummer, former environment minister and Kyoto Protocol
negotiator, and Zac Goldsmith, editor of Ecologist, a British environmental
magazine. “We are looking for all the ways we can find—using tax,
regulation, incentives and above all the market—to encourage green behavior
and discourage nongreen behavior,” says Ainsworth.

Saleemul Huq, head of the Climate Change Group of the International
Institute for Environment and Development in London, says that Cameron‘s
motives for greening the Tories are unimportant. “I don‘t care,” says Huq, a
leading activist on climate and poverty issues. “Cameron is reading the
writing on the wall. He sees this is where the votes are. He‘s not leading;
he‘s following. I want all politicians to do that.”

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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