After ‘Red Ken’, the blonde scaremonger

Having banned boozing on buses, now Boris is cynically exploiting fear of climate change. He is every bit Ken Livingstone’s heir.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

After banning booze on all forms of public transport, London mayor Boris Johnson certainly proved that anything his predecessor Ken Livingstone could do, he could do pettier. But the similarities don’t end with his blustering rendition of Red Ken’s authoritarianism. With a recently released report on the effect of climate change on the capital, Boris has now shown himself equally adept at the twin of illiberalism: the cultivation of fear.

As its rulers argue in the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, the capital is not prepared to cope with the climate changes brought about by global warming (1). ‘Warmer, wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers’ will, if nothing is done, cause Londoners’ lives to ‘deteriorate’. As narratives go, it’s pretty scary. Londoners can look forward to a future of ‘flooding’ and ‘drought’, of ‘heatwaves, windstorms [and] tidal surges’. All that’s missing is the plague of locusts.

What makes this all the more surprising is that Johnson himself was once something of a conscientious objector when it came to the environmentalist tales of humanity’s comeuppance. Back in February 2006, in an article for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote: ‘Humanity has largely lost its fear of hellfire, and yet we still hunger for a structure, a point, an eschatology, a moral counterbalance to our growing prosperity. All that is brilliantly supplied by climate change.’ (2) While acknowledging that it’s difficult to disagree with the ‘overwhelming body of scientists’ who attest to the reality of climate change, he still felt its appeal was less its alleged scientific basis than the sense it made of the contemporary predicament.

However, when questioned last week about this apparent volte-face, Boris responded: ‘When the facts change, you change your mind.’ (3) Delivered with his characteristic smirk, it was an answer that failed to ring true. What ‘facts’ have changed since 2006, exactly? Considering Johnson was aware of the ‘overwhelming’ body of scientists attesting to the reality of climate change two years ago, why has he now changed his mind? It seems far more likely that it’s less his mind that has changed than his public office.

Little wonder that the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy is not so much an embrace of the facts as a politically motivated exploitation of fear. In its own words, it’s ‘a risk-based approach to identifying and implementing any solutions’. In other words, for every possible threat, be it fluvial flooding due to a tidal surge or a deadly, drought-inducing heatwave, there is a corresponding ‘pre-emptive action’.

Sadly, if the prophecies of London’s future are imaginative, the pre-emptive measures are not. To avoid drought, for instance, the strategy proposes to reduce demand for water. If in doubt, so such mean-spirited policymaking goes, reduce consumption. If that wasn’t punishing enough, the mayor’s office also threatens to ‘[p]ublish a strategy on how London can achieve a more sustainable water supply demand balance that is resilient to climate change’. And no one wants that.

As for flooding, the pre-emptive actions are surprisingly limited, not least because, as the report notes, the Thames Barrier can deal with any North Sea tidal surge. The fears centre instead on surface water flooding – in other words, rain. Illustrating Boris’s reliance on changing perception over facts, the report states: ‘Our understanding of surface water flood risk is very limited, but the fact that London occasionally experiences surface water floods during heavy rainfall highlights the urgency of needing to address this risk.’

From the Strategy’s tone one could be forgiven for forgetting that London has proved pretty resilient for the couple of thousand years it has existed. It now seems that where the bubonic plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz failed, the weather looks set finally to do London in. Never has London, nor indeed the idea of the city in general, been made to seem so vulnerable, a sitting duck for a range of apocalyptic scenarios.

Instead of calming what he once called climate change ‘hysteria’, Johnson now seems intent on fostering it. But behind his newfound environmental faith and the half-cocked whimsy of his bearing, there lurks a breathtaking cynicism. Exploiting contemporary fears to give his mayorality some semblance of purpose, Johnson has proven himself the natural heir to Livingstone.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild described Boris Johnson as London’s new PC crusader. Brendan O’Neill discussed the London booze ban and the politics of behaviour, condemned London’s new rulers as intolerant and exposed the real Boris Johnson. Or read more at spiked issue: British politics.

(1) See London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, Mayor of London, August 2008

(2) We’ve lost our fear of hellfire, but put climate change in its place, Daily Telegraph, 2 February 2006

(3) Johnson unveils secret weapon in war on climate change – the roof garden, Guardian, 30 August 2008

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Topics Politics UK


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