When Boris Johnson unveiled his 10-point green recovery plan in November, U.K. newspapers were surprisingly acquiescent. 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 be firmly on the right of the political divide. They’ve also been vehemently skeptical of climate change. But now there’s growing public concern about global warming, even among their readership.
That moment in November was a turning point. Some right-leaning newspapers criticized the prime minister’s plan to ban the sale of new fossil fueled cars, but none questioned the science behind it. “This is a volte-face of enormous proportions,” said James Painter, who researches the media’s representation of climate change at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Five years ago you would have had the right-leaning press absolutely slamming the prime minister’s announcement.”
After all, these are papers that claimed credit for Brexit after running sustained and aggressive campaigns in favor of leaving the European Union. They’ve been averse to progressive policies like stronger climate action, preferring instead to champion free markets and whip up nostalgia for the Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. The Daily Express has been one of the most explicitly skeptical of climate science, famously running a story headlined “100 reasons why global warming is natural.” The Sun featured columns by Breitbart News writer James Delingpole blaming the European Union for causing climate change.
Now The Daily Express is campaigning for tax breaks on solar panels while The Sun offers tips to help readers shrink their carbon footprints. Delingpole has been dropped.
The papers say the change was prompted by a realization that their readers are growing more worried about global warming. The latest surveys by market-research firm YouGov show people in the U.K. are now more concerned about the environment than they are about crime or immigration. One poll in October found 56% of those who voted in favor of Brexit wanted the U.K. lead the world on tackling climate change. Awareness of the issue has grown as the government prepares to host global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
The publications’ backing of Johnson’s green campaign has the potential to boost support for stronger policies, as it’s done in the past with Brexit and during elections. It’s difficult for the media to change peoples’ minds about a topic, but it can reinforce existing views through repetition, said Painter. In the case of climate change, the tabloids are a good barometer of how public opinion in the U.K. has shifted, and a sign it will probably continue to move in that direction.