When Boris Johnson presented his 10-point plan for green recovery in November, the British newspapers surprisingly agreed.
The British press has a reputation for being more politically partisan than in many other western countries. Tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Express tend to stand firmly to the right of the political divide. They were also vehemently skeptical about climate change. But now public concern about global warming is growing, even among its readers.
That moment in November was a turning point. Some right-wing newspapers criticized the prime minister’s plan to ban sales of new fossil-fuel cars, but none questioned the science behind it. “This is a volte of enormous proportions,” said James Painter, who studies media coverage of climate change at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Five years ago the right-wing press would have slammed the prime minister’s announcement.”
After all, these are papers that, after sustained and aggressive campaigns for leaving the European Union, claimed recognition for Brexit. They were averse to progressive measures such as stronger climate action, preferring to advocate free markets and fuel nostalgia for Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. The Daily Express was one of the most explicitly skeptical in climate science and published a story called “100 Reasons Global Warming Is Natural”. The Sun included columns by Breitbart news writer James Delingpole accusing the European Union of causing climate change.
Now The Daily Express is campaigning for tax breaks on solar panels, while The Sun offers tips to help readers reduce their carbon footprint. Delingpole was dropped.
The newspapers say the change was triggered by the realization that their readers are increasingly concerned about global warming. The latest polls by market research firm YouGov show that people in the UK are now more concerned about the environment than about crime or immigration. A poll in October found that 56% of those who voted for Brexit wanted the UK to be the world leader in tackling climate change. Awareness of the issue has grown as the government prepares to hold global climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland.
The publications’ support for Johnson’s green campaign has the potential to increase support for stronger politics, as has happened in the past with Brexit and elections. It’s difficult for the media to change people’s minds on a subject, but it can strengthen existing views through repetition, Painter said. In the case of climate change, the tabloids are a good barometer of how public opinion has shifted in the UK and a sign that it is likely to continue moving in that direction.
It helps that Johnson is the leader of the right-wing Conservative party that tabloids like The Daily Express and The Sun have traditionally supported. They hailed him as one of the driving forces behind Brexit, and their support for his climate policy is in some ways a natural extension of that.
It’s also part of a changing business strategy, Painter said. The decline in print readership for The Daily Express means editors need to target more online readers, who tend to be younger and more involved with green issues. (The Sun is no longer publishing its circulation figures.) Increased competition from new digital media such as Vice and Huffington Post, which offer readers an extensive choice of environmental stories, has also put pressure on older newspapers to keep up.
The Daily Express – one of the most ardent supporters of Britain’s exit from the EU – is now campaigning for a “green Brexit”. In October, The Sun used one of its most famous and controversial spreads to get readers to pay attention. It featured a photo of reality TV star Danielle Sellers covered only in green body paint as a “model” next to text arguing that fighting climate change “doesn’t require the overthrow of capitalism, whatever the rabble of Extinction Rebellion may say. ”
While their messages about climate change may have shifted, other core values have remained. Both papers focus on how individuals can make a difference and take a somewhat nationalist approach to reducing pollution. This differs from how left-wing broadsheets like The Guardian or Independent treat the issue, with an emphasis on international cooperation and the role of global markets.
The change in tone has angered some environmentalists, who accused the papers of hypocrisy after years of ranting climate policies. Dale Vince, who founded the clean energy company Ecotricity and helped The Daily Express develop its green campaign, argues it’s better late than never.
“I don’t think it matters which party, which newspapers, which companies come on board with this agenda,” he said. “We should greet each and every one of them. The longer they are deniers, the bigger the result if they come by and join the green club. “