Listen carefully and you might hear the climate debate shifting. The floods may not have a dramatic effect on public opinion about climate change, but they have revealed what the next stage of political arguments might look like.
Most of the UK public have long thought that we need to act on climate change. Only about 1 in 7 people think climate change is some kind of hoax; the overwhelming majority think it’s a serious problem, if sometimes a bit exaggerated.
Of course you wouldn’t know that from the media. Particularly since Copenhagen and the UEA email release, much of the media debate about climate change has carried on as if doubt about its reality and severity are widespread. In general, the media haven’t been interested in other kinds of climate stories.
But with the UK floods that may now be changing. The usual denier voices are still given airtime, and they’re still claiming that climate change isn’t real, or isn’t manmade. But now they’re trying their next fallback: if this is climate change, we need to stop wasting money on cutting our emissions and focus on preparing the UK for what’s coming.
Nigel Lawson used it on the Today Programme; Tim Montgomerie, editor of Times Opinion, has been making the same case today:
If the media now lose interest in debates about whether or not climate change is real, this might be the next big fight.
There are at least three parts to the counter-argument:
The UK isn’t irrelevant
We’re accountable for only around 2% of the world’s emissions. If we shut down the country overnight it would have only a small direct effect on climate change. So, it’s argued, there’s no point us busting a gut to reduce our emissions, when what matters is what the most polluting countries do.
But it’s a straw man. No-one’s suggesting we can single-handedly stop dangerous climate change. The point is if global emissions are to be cut, those countries that can afford to cut their emissions need to do so. If the UK wasn’t pledging big emissions reductions, why should the rest of the EU do the same? And if the EU isn’t, how can we hope to persuade China to act?
Which leads to the next argument:
We haven’t failed to reduce emissions
Since 1990, emissions have fallen sharply in the EU: in France by 17%, in Germany by 24%, and in the UK by 29%. US emissions rose over that time, but since 2000 have fallen by 9%.*
China’s emissions are still rising, but even they are probably moving in the right direction. In ’09, out of all the wind power capacity installed globally, 35% was in China – making it the world’s third largest user of wind energy. This may partly be about cutting local pollution from coal plants, but in a world where everyone else is cutting their emissions, it will be hard for China not to follow.
Part of the blame for this perception of failure may lie at the door of climate campaigners. Every time a climate deal is slammed as a failure by an NGO, the impression is strengthened that nothing is being done. And so it becomes a bit easier for critics of all global deals to say we should stop wasting our time with these negotiations and start preparing for the worst.
And so the third, and most neglected part: