Green backlash? U.K.’s leader fuels battle over driving — which could signal a coming climate fight


    Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a review of “anti-car” measures aimed at improving air quality and reducing traffic, and a massive expansion of oil and gas drilling licenses.

    LONDON — Posing in a car once owned by conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak explained why he was launching a media blitz to burnish his own credentials as a champion of the average voter against what he considers state overreach in the name of the environment.

    Signaling his opposition to a slate of environmentally-friendly policies, Sunak said on Twitter Sunday that he knows “how important cars are for families to live their lives,” unlike the country’s “anti-motorist” opposition Labour Party.

    Sunak’s embattled Conservative government subsequently announced a review of “anti-car” measures aimed at improving air quality and reducing traffic, as well as a massive expansion of oil and gas drilling licenses in Britain’s North Sea.

    The prime minister claims the U.K. can do all this and still reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But it was a sudden turn in a nation where there has largely been a political consensus over green politics — and experts told NBC News it may be only the beginning of a broader shift in which right-wing parties view opposition to green policies as an opportunity to win votes.

    Bolstered by a surprise local election victory last month in which the Conservative Party emphasized its opposition to new charges for drivers in London, Sunak has wooed voters by embracing a protest movement that sees such attempts to restrict car usage as an attack on personal freedoms.

    The move comes as several European countries face political turmoil over environmental issues. The Netherlands saw the Farmer-Citizen Movement become a leading political party this year, thanks to its fierce opposition to government plans to reduce or shut thousands of farms, while Poland’s right-wing populist government has criticized the European Union’s renewable energy targets, which commit its 27 member states to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. 

    “What you’re seeing is once again, as with immigration, a center-right party beginning to take on some of the typical tropes and rhetoric of radical right-wing populist parties, who present themselves very often as the friend of the motorist and say all these environmental concerns are overblown,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London and an expert on the Conservative Party.

    On July 21 the Conservatives unexpectedly won a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the parliamentary seat in London’s western suburbs that was vacated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

    The election became a referendum on ULEZ, the ultra-low emission zone, which charges drivers of older, high-polluting vehicles 12.50 pounds ($16) a day to drive in London’s central boroughs. At the end of August the zone will extend across Greater London — and suburban residents’ concerns over this gave the Conservatives a much-needed victory. 

    Some protesters opposing the change are heavily influenced by elaborate right-wing conspiracy theories, and such is the level of disquiet, cameras installed to enforce the scheme have been vandalized or stolen.  

    London’s mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, has nevertheless passionately defended the policy and said it was needed because thousands of people in the capital die each year from air pollution. 

    The vast majority of cars also won’t pay any emissions charge. But the Uxbridge result sparked wavering on ULEZ from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, eager to avoid any potential wedge issues that could help the Conservatives keep power. 

    And Sunak’s media blitz comes as many Conservative lawmakers and party members believe environmental policies will cost Britain too much and have only a limited effect, said Bale.

    “Uxbridge has accelerated or amplified those voices and probably, given the government’s in so much trouble on all sorts of other fronts, encouraged the government to weaponize the issue in the hope of mobilizing some of its base,” he said.

    The Uxbridge win defied political gravity, however. 

    The Conservatives were soundly beaten in two other by-elections the same day, with Labour taking the seat of Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire, a dramatic and unprecedented reversal from 2019, when a Conservative lawmaker triumphed by 20,000 votes.

    There could be more to come: Labour leads by about 20% with a year to go until a national election, according to opinion polls. 

    With an ongoing cost of living crisis dominating voters’ thoughts and most areas of the country untouched by the planned emission zones or similar low-traffic schemes, some analysts have questioned the wisdom of Sunak’s strategy. An opinion poll in May found that 39% of Londoners were in favor of ULEZ, with 35% opposed.

    Many lawmakers in rural seats backed the prime minister’s stance, though Conservative former energy minister Chris Skidmore said the North Sea drilling expansion put Sunak “on the wrong side of history.”

    Protesters from the campaign group Greenpeace took direct action in response to the new North Sea licenses and draped an oil-black covering over Sunak’s home in his North Yorkshire Constituency on Thursday while the family was on holiday in California. 

    A determination to appeal to a perceived median voter, often seen as a driver, is nothing new in British politics. But this debate — a perceived trade-off between personal liberty and environmental policy — is a sign of things to come in politics, according to Neil Lee, a professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics.

    “I think that environmental policy will rise higher up the agenda as climate change and other environmental impacts become more obvious,” he said.

    “It’s not the first of these debates where small groups can hold back moves, which I think in our hearts we know we have to make.

    Ukrainian drones hit sanctioned Russian tanker in second sea attack in a day

    A source from Ukraine’s security service told NBC News the ship was transporting fuel to Russian troops.

    A Russian tanker under U.S. sanctions was hit by Ukrainian drone near a strategic bridge in the Kerch Strait that links Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula, Kremlin officials said Saturday.

    The “Sig” was damaged with a hole “near the waterline on the starboard side, presumably as a result of a sea drone attack” Russia’s Federal Agency for Marine and River Transport said in a statement posted to its Telegram channel. There were no casualties, it added.

    There was no immediate public claim of responsibility by Kyiv, which usually refrains from taking credit for attacks on Russian soil, but a source in Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, told NBC News that it “blew up a large oil tanker of the Russian Federation,” in a joint operation with the navy.

    The tanker was “transporting fuel for the Russian troops,” the source said, adding that it was well loaded and “the ‘fireworks’ could be seen from afar.” They said that a surface drone and TNT had been used to carry out the attack. NBC News could not verify their claims.

    Video broadcast on Ukrainian television and shared by several officials on social media showed a sea drone moving towards the tanker before striking it. The footage cuts out before an explosion is visible. NBC News was not able to independently verify the footage.

    SBU chief Vasyl Malyuk responded to the attack in a Telegram post. “Any explosions that happen with the ships of the Russian Federation or the Crimean bridge is an absolutely logical and effective step in relation to the enemy,” he said.

    “If the Russians want the explosions to stop, they should use the only option for this — to leave the territorial waters of Ukraine,” he added.  

    Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council also appeared to reference the attack, which came a day after his country’s security services said they had carried out a drone strike on a Russian navy ship. 

    “With each new combat mission, Ukrainian combat UAVs and naval drones become more accurate, operators more experienced, combat coordination more effective, and manufacturers get opportunities to improve tactical and technical characteristics,” he said in a post on Twitter.  

    Elsewhere, Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, said on his Telegram channel that several crew members were slashed by broken glass in the attack. The tanker had been supplying oil to Russian troops in Syria, he said.

    Photographs uploaded by Rogov in a separate post showed what he said was the inside of the tanker which had windows blown in, damaged ceilings and office furniture strewn about.

    Later, Russia’s Novorossiysk Maritime Rescue Coordination Center was cited by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying that recovery work was underway on the Sig with two tugboats nearby. Water had stopped pouring into the ship, it said. There was no fuel spill as the ship had been carrying only technical ballast, the statement added.

    The attack briefly halted traffic on the Crimean Bridge, and ferry transport was suspended for several hours, according to Russian-installed authorities in the area, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. 

    The U.S. sanctioned the tanker and its owner, St. Petersburg-based company Transpetrochart, a marine freight company, for helping to provide jet fuel in Syria in 2019. 

    Both Russia and Ukraine have stepped up attacks in the Black Sea since Moscow exited a deal allowing the safe export of Ukrainian grain in July.

    On Friday, Ukraine carried out a sea drone strike on a ship near the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Russia claimed to have thwarted a wider attack on the port, with drones destroyed by ships guarding the base’s outer boundary. 

    But videos circulating online showed the Olenegorsky Gornyak, a Soviet-era warship, being towed back to the port after a Ukrainian intelligence source said it had been damaged in the attack. 

    NBC News was able to confirm that videos were filmed in Novorossiysk and showed the same class of warship as the Olenegorsky Gornyak, using marine ship tracking data and satellite imagery.

    On Wednesday, Russian drone strikes on the port cities of Odesa and Izmail caused significant damage and fires at facilities key to grain exports.

    Odesa, a sea and transport hub and major cultural center, has been hammered by strikes in recent weeks, with dozens of drones and missile attacks targeting sea and river ports.

    Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat, corn, vegetable oil and other agricultural products important to the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia where people are struggling with high food prices and hunger.

    Though the nation can also export by road and rail through Europe, those routes are more costly than going by the Black Sea and have stirred divisions among nearby countries.

    Federal prosecutors on Friday asked the judge overseeing former President Donald Trump’s election case to bar him from publicly disclosing some of the evidence gathered during the their investigation.

    In a court filing, attorneys with the special counsel Jack Smith’s office requested U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ensure that sensitive materials are used by Trump’s defense team for trial only, and that the former president view the materials in the presence of his lawyers.

    “All the proposed order seeks to prevent is the improper dissemination or use of discovery materials, including to the public,” they wrote. “Such a restriction is particularly important in this case because the defendant has previously issued public statements on social media regarding witnesses, judges, attorneys, and others associated with legal matters pending against him.”

    Trump, who was arraigned Thursday on charges that included conspiracy to defraud the United States, pleaded not guilty and has publicly condemned the allegations against him.

    Prosecutors went on to say that Trump had written “multiple posts” that mentioned or implied the case, including one that appeared on his Truth Social page Friday afternoon that read: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”

    Trump’s use of details or grand jury transcripts obtained in discovery “could have a harmful chilling effect on witnesses or adversely affect the fair administration of justice in this case,” the prosecutors wrote.

    In a statement early Saturday, a Trump spokesperson said, “The Truth post cited is the definition of political speech,” and that it “was in response to the RINO, China-loving, dishonest special interest groups and Super PACs.”

    During Thursday’s court hearing, Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya issued Trump a warning that is not commonly given to defendants at arraignments.

    “Finally, sir, I want to remind you that it is a crime to try to influence a juror, or to threaten or attempt to bribe a witness or any other person who may have information about your case, or to retaliate against anyone for providing information about your case to the prosecution, or to otherwise obstruct the administration of justice,” she said.

    A lawyer for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.

    Trump’s attorneys are expected to respond to the prosecution’s proposed protective order, much like in the other cases where Trump has been indicted.

    In June, a federal judge issued a protective order barring Trump from disclosing on social media — or keeping — evidence the government is set to turn over to him in the classified documents case.

    A protective order was also issued in Trump’s criminal hush-money case in New York, where prosecutors asked a judge to ensure that discovery materials in that case be used by defense only for trial, and referred to the former president’s “longstanding and perhaps singular history of attacking witnesses.”

    The next hearing in the election case is scheduled for Aug. 28


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