Zadie Smith Joins Protest Against ‘Right-wing Climate Sceptic Thinktanks’

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Prominent writers and actors gathered outside the offices at 55 Tufton Street on Wednesday evening to highlight the role they say organisations based in and around the Westminster address play in spreading misinformation about climate change and lobbying against government action.

They were joined by several hundred protestors opposing “climate science denial and the influence of right-wing climate sceptic thinktanks in UK politics,” according to a statement released by Writers Rebel, an offshoot of the environmental activist movement Extinction Rebellion (XR).

The group, which wants to see climate change and other ecological issues more widely explored in literature, included novelist Zadie Smith and Bafta-winning actress Juliet Stevenson.

Smith told the crowd the “outsized, unruly emotions that surround the scientific subject of climate change” were “not organic, natural or unavoidable, but rather feelings manufactured, targeted, organised and paid for, largely by oil companies and other vested economic interests who are prepared to sacrifice your long-term future for their short-term profit.”

The actor Sir Mark Rylance, who made headlines last year after resigning from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) over its then sponsorship from oil giant BP, environmental writer George Monbiot and Green MP Caroline Lucas also gave speeches.

55 Tufton Street

The site of the protest, located near the Houses of Parliament, is home to a number of pro-Brexit, economically libertarian organisations with a history of opposing climate-related regulations and a shift away from fossil fuel use. 

Among them is the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a charity and lobby group set up in 2009 by former Chancellor and Conservative peer Nigel Lawson to combat what it calls the “extremely damaging and harmful policies” intended to limit carbon dioxide, which its current Deputy Director Andrew Montford has described as “mercilessly demonised”.

Other occupants include the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), a free-market pressure group that campaigns against environmental policies such as Clean Air Zones and the UK’s Climate Change Levy, a tax aimed at encouraging businesses to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Its founder Matthew Elliott later led the official pro-Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, also formerly based at 55 Tufton Street.

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), another organisation criticised by Writers Rebel, has its office a short walk from Tufton Street and admitted in 2018 to have received funding from BP every year since 1967, following a Greenpeace investigation.

Other groups have faced criticism for refusing to disclose information about their funding sources.

In a video ahead of the protest, the actor and writer Stephen Fry said it was “sickening” that thinktanks and lobbyists were being paid to “spread confusion, lies and doubt on the subject of man-made climate change and its horribly real threat,” drawing comparisons with tactics used by the tobacco industry.

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Other messages of support were released by the historian Sir Simon Schama and the novelist Margaret Atwood on Tuesday.

Zadie Smith, who headlined the event, said in a statement: “The heroes of this historical moment are climate activists: they are trying to save us all – primarily from ourselves. Anything the rest of us can do to acknowledge, support or further their work we should try to do.”

The poet Nick Laird, Smith’s husband, said: “The profits of the fossil fuel industry, unprecedented on earth, have been made at the expense of the earth, and those profits now fund a relentless disinformation campaign about the climate emergency.”

Extinction Rebellion on the march

The action forms part of 10 days of protests across the UK as XR calls on lawmakers to support a “Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill”, tabled by Caroline Lucas on Wednesday and backed by a cross-party group of MPs.

The bill’s objectives include cutting the country’s emissions in line with the Paris Agreement aim of no more than 1.5C global temperature rise, as well as restoring the UK’s “soils, biodiverse habitats and ecosystems.” It also calls for the inclusion of emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports to be included in the UK’s climate targets.

Activists marched through central London, Cardiff and Manchester on Tuesday, blocking roads outside parliament and leading to more than 90 arrests by police. Over 20,000 tobacco-style health warning labels were stuck on petrol pumps around the UK by campaigners last week, according to a group of XR-supporting doctors who organised the stunt.

XR’s three demands are for the government to “tell the truth” about the “climate and ecological emergency”, to halt any further biodiversity loss and cut emissions to “net zero” by 2025, and to create a citizens’ assembly whose decisions the government would be forced to implement.

The TPA declined to comment. The GWPF and IEA have been contacted.

Photo credit: Kelly Hill

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