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Tom Rachman is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

In the Inferno, Dante wrote his enemies into scenes of hell, plotting torments for the brutes and charlatans who besmirched 14th-century Italy.

If he wrote today, Dante could find plenty of fresh characters, not least among the political leaders so venal that they will worsen the climate crisis for personal advancement.

A troubling case unfolds today in Britain, showing how precarious is the effort to slow environmental destruction – and how flawed are democracies when politicians worry more about their polls than about their souls.

In recent years, both major British parties – the Conservatives and Labour – have promised serious climate action. The governing Tories even made it law, pledging “net-zero” greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, and a ban on selling new fossil-fuelled vehicles by 2030.

Yet something is shifting.

Elections are expected next year, and the Conservatives are forecast to lose humiliatingly. After 13 years in power, the Tories have worsened the country by most measures, championing the disaster of Brexit, ravaging public services, and clouding these isles with the drizzle of national failure.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – a talented and wealthy go-getter, unaccustomed to flops – is frantic to retain power. And he appears to smell an opportunity: undermine environmental protections.

Even as Europeans roasted in this summer’s heatwaves (including thousands of British tourists evacuated from Greek wildfires), Mr. Sunak’s administration was making it cheaper for companies in the United Kingdom to pollute. At last, he’d found a competitive advantage over the European Union! What possible downside could there be?

He also stepped into a debate over the fee levied on drivers who enter London city centre in polluting vehicles, challenging such “anti-car schemes,” and assuring motorists that he was on their side. Next, Mr. Sunak said he would grant hundreds of new licences for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

The strategy is evident, as is the desperation: Make the Labour Party’s environmental policies seem like a drag on the economy that nobody can afford in hard times. (Never mind that the hard times are because of Conservative misrule.)

An unwitting accomplice in Mr. Sunak’s strategy is the protest movement Just Stop Oil, whose activists specialize in P.R. disasters, such as throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and blocking rush-hour traffic that stopped a mother from driving her newborn to hospital, and impeded low-wage workers from reaching their jobs.

The right-wing press – craving a bloody chunk of outrage ever since they lost their longtime chew toy, the EU – devours such scenes, characterizing climate activists as out-of-touch granola-chompers who needn’t work for a living. Net-zero policy is “a Trojan horse for the total destruction of Western society,” one newspaper headline proclaimed.

Certain environmentalists “don’t want to save the planet so much as to control its inhabitants,” columnist Allister Heath warned in The Telegraph. “They are eternally disappointed by real-life human beings and their individualism … They dislike freedom and don’t want us to choose where to live, shop, eat or send our children to school.”

Yes, demons walk amongst us! Only, this time they’re green!

When politicians flirt with such claptrap, they inflict damage beyond the irresponsible policies themselves. They drag the debate into absurdity, jeopardizing the public consensus about what is genuine, and which dangers are urgent.

In the United States, the politicized denial of uncomfortable facts has created a portion of the electorate that hears the alarm of scientists, and sneers, considering it fiddlesticks from culture-war dupes. British politics risks degenerating in this direction, if opportunists persist down this reckless path.

But the larger lesson is this: All politics are becoming climate politics. Even when global warming is not the point, it is lurking. How can we grow the economy? Can we agree on facts any more? Does politics allow for honesty?

In recent years, Britain has sunk far because of wishful thinking. The coming electoral campaigns of both the Conservative Party and Labour will reveal whether politicos here believe you can level with the public, or if truth is just a losing issue.

Before manmade climate change, Dante made hell. In its eighth circle, he wrote, you’d find the scoundrels who exploited positions of power for personal profit, forever plunged into boiling tar (fittingly, a product of coal or petroleum).

But a contemporary Dante wouldn’t need to imagine the hellfire down below. The inferno is coming to us, up here on Earth.

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