IN politics, it’s often not interest, or even commitment, that is the norm, but obsession. The difference is illustrated by the story of Tom Stoppard, as a young journalist, applying for a job as political reporter on the London Evening Standard. “You say you’re interested in politics,” said Charles Wintour, then the editor. “Who’s the Home Secretary?”

“I said I was interested in politics,” Stoppard replied, “not obsessed by it.”

This is the balanced attitude, especially if, reasonably enough, we don’t want to be reminded of who is Home Secretary. Alas, the current trend seems to be rapidly to double-down from middle-of-the-road stances to swivel-eyed monomania.

Look how fast many Eurosceptics went from wanting out of the EU’s political ambit, but staying aligned with the Single Market, to isolationism and banging on about the colour of passports. Or at people who claimed that despite the EU’s deficiencies, Remain was marginally preferable, and then plastered EU flags on their social media profiles, tried to stymie a democratic vote and get elected politicians jailed. Independence is even more divisive, with both sides ignoring facts or public opinion whenever either clashes with their chosen worldview.

It extends into other areas, too. Any proposed reform of the NHS is met by cries that there are days to save it from the privatisation the Tories have apparently been planning for decades, yet somehow never done. Any change to the curriculum heralds the abandonment of spelling, or arithmetic, or history, or alternatively a return to Dotheboys Hall. Mild scepticism about lockdown or masks seems often to progress to a conviction that Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum, Huawei, Big Pharma and lizard aliens have created a vaccine to control your DNA through 5G masts.

But sometimes such positions become mainstream: no one calls it an obsession when it’s widely enough shared. Environmentalism, which from the 1960s until the mid-1980s was the preserve of the crank Left, is now the principal enthusiasm of Boris Johnson’s government, and the central priority for the CEOs of almost every major international corporation. The cranks are now those who fail to subscribe to the every utterance of a Swedish teenager who left school at 15 to start yelling at world leaders, or of Extinction Rebellion, a pressure group that likes shutting down city centres and impeding ambulances.

Though not one of the dozens of disaster scenarios of environmental doomsayers – countries vanishing beneath the waves, famine caused by overpopulation, oil running out, global winter – has transpired, that doesn’t mean that there are not serious threats to climate and the environment.

It’s possible to question the extent to which those are man-made, or whether the cost of a particular change outweighs its benefit, without lurching into the tin-foil-hatted territory of those who deny the overwhelming scientific consensus that there are real, potentially very damaging, global challenges.

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Rather as the current UK government has, despite constantly being characterised as “far-Right”, enacted the most Left-wing policies not just for a Tory administration, but of any party in nearly half a century, it has proposed the most far-reaching green policies – even if they’re not enough to placate the protesters merrily smashing up bank windows with no heed for the climate costs involved in their replacement.

Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for this agenda is such that his depiction of the UK as the most ambitious and committed country may even be true. The UK’s climate target is to keep temperatures lower still than those the Paris Agreement aims for, while banning all conventional and even hybrid cars within a decade, replacing gas boilers (in about 20 million homes, at an average cost of perhaps £18,000 each) and reaching “net zero” by 2050 are all measures that go further than almost anyone else’s plans.

The Prime Minister certainly seems to be genuinely committed to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, being held in Glasgow in November, even if some critics uncharitably claim that’s because he’s looking forward to the swanking potential this jamboree offers him.

Conventional wisdom is that the libertarian and fiscally prudent instincts of Tories should resist environmental restrictions on personal choice and the hugely costly public expenditure they may entail. There are still many in Mr Johnson’s party that take that view.

But there is an equally strong strain in Conservatism (as the name suggests) towards conservation and environmental concerns. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those Tories who proclaim it – whether they do so because they’re genuinely convinced of its importance, or from some sort of romantic pastoral vision, or simply because it has become a more mainstream and popular position.

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The trouble with any realistically transformative environmental programme, however, is that it will have tremendous costs. There are obvious economic ones: swapping to fuels and technologies that are, at least initially, more expensive, or the fact that fewer food air-miles mean pricier groceries. But there are also those of convenience and opportunity: EVs place huge limits on range, foreign travel and even meat-eating need to be cut back. For some environmental purists, growth itself is a dirty word, and much of modern life ought to be abandoned.

The principal argument of Mr Johnson’s supporters in government is that technology can solve those problems, and indeed those costs. They believe that the more committed they are to the agenda, the more likely it is that prices will fall and innovations develop. Against the doctrines of traditional environmentalists, there’s some solid evidence for that.

The global population is three times larger than it was in 1950, yet instead of mass starvation, we produce more food than ever before, and more cheaply. Infant mortality is a fraction of what it was 30 years ago, as is absolute poverty. UK emissions are the lowest they’ve been for a century and a half. Reforestation, along with many other environmental goods such as biodiversity, is actually increasing and damaging practices decreasing in the majority of countries – and these trends are strongest in developed nations.

On this view, environmental progress is a function of economic prosperity, rather than its enemy. If that’s true, Mr Johnson’s green agenda might simultaneously be conservative, radical, and popular. By the same token, it will cost him dear if the sums don’t add up.

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