Climate Majority

Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 12th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

This was originally published by The Ecologist.

11 years ago the EU introduced wide-ranging rules regulating the manufacture and supply of chemicals. The rules imposed significant costs on businesses and, it’s hoped, will save many lives. But they were passed with little media coverage and have become a fact of life with few people being aware of their existence.

Given it’s been possible to restrict businesses and address a threat to public health without public debate when it comes to chemicals, could the world do the same with climate change? If that threat can also be tackled with rules that few people hear about, perhaps public opinion doesn’t matter.

Day-to-day life

Sadly for technocrats, this is unlikely. The challenge ahead, to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and stop warming crossing dangerous thresholds, is enormous. Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution; the world will need to reverse that rise, cutting emissions at an unprecedented rate until humans stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere within the next few decades.

That means not only cleaning up industrial sectors that are distant from most people’s lives, like electricity, chemicals and shipping (whose obscurity is reflected in the fact its crucial climate conference, happening this week, is getting almost no mainstream media coverage), it also means cutting emissions from most people’s day-to-day lives, like the ways we travel and the food we eat. Without cutting emissions from sectors like agriculture and aviation, the world won’t stop dangerous warming. It’s unlikely to be possible to clean up these sectors without most people noticing and agreeing to the changes.

So public support for tackling climate change will be essential, yet it’s far from assured. The problem isn’t climate denial: few people think the whole thing is a hoax, even in the countries where denial is loudest. A majority of the public accept climate science and believe it’s a threat that needs to be tackled. The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with it – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions. Preventing dangerous warming may depend on public enthusiasm, but at the moment apathy is far more widespread.

This isn’t just a problem for the future – it matters right now. Take the UK: its emissions are falling fast but this progress has come without confronting the emission sources that would be less popular to cut. Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow would make the UK’s climate targets much harder to achieve, yet few politicians are prepared to acknowledge that cutting emissions probably means restricting flying. Similarly, the EU’s backing for TAP, a new pipeline that would bring huge volumes of Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, suggests the bloc is also taking decisions now that will make it much more difficult to cut emissions in the next few decades.

Distant threat

If most people are worried about climate change, why does this kind of polluting infrastructure keep getting built, and why is there so little pressure for the measures that will be needed to prevent dangerous warming?

Psychologists have identified a host of reasons most people avoid thinking about climate change. Among these are the way the problem seems distant – its impacts are mostly in other places, it will mostly happen in the future – and progresses slowly, and the fact it requires sacrifices now to avert problems later. The barriers the mind puts up to avoid worrying about climate change might make the problem seem hopeless: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes himself as “deeply pessimistic” about it.

But we must avoid confusing the inherent nature of climate change with the way it’s widely described and understood. For example, the fact the threat seems distant has more to do with the way its effects are described, notably the emphasis on ecosystems like the Arctic. The consequences for polar bears aren’t enough to motivate most people, and now climate change is hitting the people whose emissions need to fall – with storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012 made more likely by climate change – it’s no longer necessary to talk about it as a distant threat.

The same applies to the idea that climate change requires sacrifices for future benefits. It may well do, and, if that’s all that most people hear about it, there’s unlikely to be widespread enthusiasm. But there are plenty of ways in which tackling climate change can bring benefits beyond averting future problems, from cleaner air and new jobs, to better insulated homes and, perhaps, communities that jointly own wind farms and solar panels.

This is a matter of choice. Climate apathy could spell disaster for efforts to prevent dangerous warming but it isn’t inevitable. The fact it is so widespread is a result of various ways climate change has been, and continues to be, described. That can change. It will take a widespread shift in how the issue is talked about, but it’s still possible to turn apathy into action.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 26th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Worries about climate change have been slowly increasing in the UK for the last few years. This has continued in 2018, with the latest wave of the BEIS (previously DECC) climate and energy poll, out today, showing concern is at its highest level since the series began with 2012.

I’ve combined this with earlier polls that have asked the same question, going back to 2005, making the longest-running comparable series of data that I’m aware of on UK concern about climate change. (See here for links to the earlier polls.)

27% are now very concerned about climate change and 47% somewhat concerned, making a total of 74%. That’s the highest since 2010, if we look at the proportion who are very concerned, or equals the 2012 level if we look at total concern. On either measure it’s still behind the levels in 2005 and 2008.

July 2018 update: see here for why the 2005 poll may not be comparable.

 

This mirrors the trend of rising concern about climate change that we’ve generally seen in the US and Australia.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 23rd, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

I’m on this week’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, hosted by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, talking about what people think about climate change and what could influence public opinion.

The other guests were stellar: Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Agreement), Kim Holmen (head of the Norwegian Polar Institute) and Joss Garman (climate activist and policy thinker).

You can listen here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Climate change isn’t left-wing – another political division is more important

Posted in Climate Majority on February 7th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate change isn’t left-wing – another political division is more important

An Axios journalist’s description of people who want an immediate switch to 100% renewables as “far-left” has provoked argument.

Some have been bemused, some combative, and some patronising.

But most people probably agree with her. A poll I commissioned for my book found that climate change is the issue most associated with the political left.

And yet it’s easy to find problems with the idea that climate change is a left-wing interest:

  • Lord Deben (John Gummer), Greg Clark, Claire Perry and Amber Rudd are all right-of-centre but are serious about tackling climate change.
  • Jeremy Corbyn is to the left of Ed Miliband but doesn’t seem any more interested in climate change than his predecessor.
  • Ukip aren’t particularly to the right of the Tories but are vastly worse on climate change (want pull out of the Paris Agreement etc).
  • The TUC is left-of-centre but doesn’t take climate change that seriously – backing high-carbon projects like a new Heathrow runway.

What’s going on?

The problem comes from thinking along only one axis, the economic one. If we expect everyone who’s left-wing to be worried about climate change, we’ll keep on finding contradictions.

Instead, we should pay more attention to another axis, variously called internationalist-nationalist, open-closed, liberal-illiberal – and Remain-Leave.

Look at this YouGov poll. The single best predictor that someone’s interested in climate change is that they oppose significant reductions in immigration. The next best predictor is that they oppose the reintroduction of capital punishment.

Of the three parties’ voters, it’s Lib Dems, not Labour voters, who are most interested in climate change. Supporting the more left-wing party doesn’t mean you’re more worried about the climate.

The people who are most worried about climate change are most likely to be the ones in the top half of the two axes – the internationalist, open, liberals, Remainers.

Graphic from The Climate Majority

This isn’t to say the left-right axis is irrelevant. As a general rule, the more left-wing someone is, the more likely they are to be worried. But it’s a stronger rule that the more internationalist they are, the more worried they are.

It explains all the contradictions we saw above. Their northerly positions on the open-closed axis tell us why Lord Deben and co are worried about climate change while Ukip don’t care.

We keep on missing this, because the term “left-wing” tends to be conflated with the top-left quadrant, while the term “right-wing” tends to be conflated with the bottom-right quadrant. But that leaves out many people.

This probably helps explain why polls that ask people where they are on the left-right scale and what they think about climate change find that self-identified left-wing people are much more worried about it (eg here and here).

The two axes are important for understanding how to talk about climate change to people who aren’t already worried about it.

One lesson is it doesn’t make sense to ask what the left or the right – even the centre-left or centre-right – think about climate change, without also thinking about what you mean on the other axis.

If you’re talking about climate change with someone in the top-right quadrant – think George Osborne – you might expect them to be sympathetic, but perhaps worried about the economic costs. If you’re talking to someone in the bottom right quadrant – say Theresa May – you might expect them to be less interested, but perhaps persuadable on the basis of national interest.

It’s clearly wrong to say that wanting 100% renewables right now is far-left. If there’s any point on the political axes that predicts that view, it’s more like extreme-internationalism.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on January 31st, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

It was the coconut cheese that did it. For most of January I’d believed that being vegan was no sacrifice – if anything it meant I was trying foods I wouldn’t normally think to eat. Some of them were very good. Jackfruit can be cooked into something like a sticky pulled pork that makes a superb burrito. But as I slathered pickle to mask the taste of the coconut-based fake wensleydale, it was inescapable that I would prefer to be eating the real thing.

Why had I bothered with Veganuary? It’s true I don’t want animals to suffer, want to prevent the toxic waste that comes from some farms, and hate the way so much land is used for raising animals, rather than for homes or wildlife. But none of that was enough for me to make the change. I did Veganuary for just one reason, and that was the climate change effect of meat and dairy production.

The world’s promise to avoid dangerous climate change is soon going to crash into its taste for meat and milk. By the time my seven-month-old is 40, the world should have become carbon neutral. Some parts of that switch seem hard but possible. The radical growth of solar and wind power and the arrival of electric cars that are better than petrol ones at least show how those sectors could eliminate emissions.

Food is different. Livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions and it’s hard to see how those emissions go away unless a lot of people consume a lot less meat and milk. As more people move out of poverty, the world’s demand for animal products looks set to increase, when emissions should be going in the other direction.

That seemed a good reason for me to try being vegan for a month. It seemed obvious that, if I believe the world should cut emissions fast, I should deal with my own emissions. Climate change is an ethical problem, so it would be unethical for me to worsen it if I can reasonably avoid doing so, however small my individual contribution. I wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle into the vast ocean, so why should I be relaxed about releasing planet-warming gases?

But, midway through Veganuary, an evangelical free-marketeer – who is as worried about climate change as I am – told me I was completely wrong. He argued that my voluntary restraint would have no effect. Not even a tiny, insignificant effect. None at all.

His argument was that my voluntary restraint would reduce the price of the dairy I was avoiding, so others would consume it instead. If you bought a pint of milk last month because it was on special offer, perhaps you’ve got me to thank for it. Even if hundreds of millions become vegan, there are many more around the world who want to eat more dairy and would welcome to chance to buy it. Voluntary restraint is pointless (if the market’s working properly).

To quote Tim Minchin, “Hmm, that’s a good point, let me think for a bit. Oh wait, my mistake, that’s absolute bullshit”.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but here’s why the free-marketeer is wrong, and voluntary restraint is essential for the world to avoid dangerous climate change

There are two ways food emissions might fall:

  1. Billions of people decide to stop eating high-emitting foods.
  2. Governments apply taxes or laws or incentives that force farmers to come up with cleaner ways of producing the same foods or cleaner alternative foods.

Our free-marketeer believes only the second option can work, and I happen to agree with him. But he’s wrong to think this doesn’t involve voluntary restraint. (The only way I can see 1 succeeding is if breakthroughs in low-carbon foods are so astonishing that consumers prefer them to food from animals; given the ridiculous low cost of meat it’s hard to see artificial foods being able to win on price).

Imagine Michael Gove announced next week that he’s introducing a carbon tax and it’ll eventually be high enough that meat and dairy consumption will fall 90% unless the industry effectively eliminates its emissions. There would be outrage. There’s no way it would pass. (and now, for a laugh, imagine a left-wing party that didn’t have the support of most of the media doing the same)

The only way food emissions will fall is if there’s public support for the switch. That’s only going to happen if the problem and the solution are first normalised. Emissions from agriculture are far too high and have to fall, which means far more people will have to eat a low-carbon diet – and that low-carbon diet has to be much more appealing than it is now.

This is why it’s right – maybe essential – for people like me to eat less meat and dairy. We’re showing that cutting emissions is something that people do, which starts conversations about what dealing with climate change will actually look like, which will make it seem less bizarre when the time comes for a government to try to reduce emissions from food.

We’re also creating incentives for the food industry to come up with better alternatives to meat, which eases the way for others to follow. In short, someone has to try the coconut wensleydale, so that no-one else has to.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Climate denial is dead – but the fight for green votes is about to get more interesting

Posted in Climate Majority, Politics, U.S. on January 7th, 2018 by Leo – 2 Comments

This was originally published by Political Betting

Donald Trump’s tweet that the snow-blasted US east coast would benefit from some global warming has reignited attention to his climate-change denial. But after a year of his presidencyit’s increasingly clear that, in terms of both public opinion and policy, rejection of climate science is a sideshow.

Having a climate-change denier in the White House might seem like a triumph for people who want to stop action against global warming. Trump’s plan to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement certainly gives the impression he’s winning that fight.

But in reality, Trump has only shown that climate denial is defunct. When he tried to topple the climate deal, the rest of the world pushed back. No other country has joined his planned defection – instead several have accelerated their timetables for cutting greenhouse gas emissionsAnd investors are giving up on climate denialMajor fund managers like BlackRock are now demanding to know how emission cuts will affect their investments and are selling businesses that depend on fossil fuels.

And climate denial is a far weaker electoral force than it seems. Only about 10% of Americans firmly oppose climate action, with another 11% doubtful about itWhile Trump won among both groups, most of his voters can’t be described as climate deniers. And in the rest of the world, vanishingly few people think climate change is a hoax. Recent datafound that at least 97% agree climate change is happening, in 19 of the 22 countries polled for the European Social Survey.

If anything, the evidence points to climate change being an untapped electoral opportunity for environmentally-conscious politicians. In most European counties at least 20% are very or extremely worried about climate change.

In the UK, where 1 in 4 are very or extremely worried about climate change, it’s effectively been off the electoral battleground since Cameron’s husky-hugging Arctic trip.To most voters, it seemed there was a consensus among the major parties about the issue. But that could now change.

The Tories are hunting for ways to stop, and reverse, the loss of younger voters, put off them by values-driven concerns like foxes, Brexit and citizens of nowhere. Burnishing their approach to climate change might help the Tories: a UK YouGov poll for think tank Bright Blue found it’s the second-top subject that under40s wants politicians to talk about more, ahead of education, housing and immigration.

Meanwhile, other parties may see an opportunity in hitting the government harder on climate change. The Lib Dems, in particular, might wonder if they can appeal to the voters looking for a party with a more robust message on climate change.

Most voters, though, are in the middle on climate change. Around half the public have little doubt it’s real and a threat, and want it dealt with, but don’t think about it much. Satisfying them, while meeting increasingly tough climate targets over the next couple of decades, will be a growing challenge.

Trump’s climate denial will get attention as long as he’s in power, but we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking he’s doing any more than appealing to a section of his base. The rest of the world has moved on, and the risks are far greater to parties that drag their feet than those that set the pace.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

How 2017 killed climate denial

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 29th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on How 2017 killed climate denial

Business Green have published my article about why 2017 was the death of climate denial and why we should worry instead about climate apathy. You can read it here.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Climate change, tropical fish and anxiety

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 21st, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate change, tropical fish and anxiety

I’ve got an article about how climate change affects me emotionally, in this month’s Resurgence magazine.

You can read it for free here.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

Four (other) climate change books to read

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 2nd, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Four (other) climate change books to read

I was asked to write a short piece on the climate change books on my shelf, for Big Issue North. It’s not online, but here it is, reproduced with permission:

 

The UK government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

Posted in Climate Majority, Transport on October 23rd, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on The UK government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

This was originally published by openDemocracy

Arguments about a new Heathrow runway may have receded to a distant rumble, but it’s an increasingly important question, with the government now planning to drop rules intended to make a new runway compatible with climate limits.

In the effort to limit climate change, a new Heathrow runway is a big deal. It would produce around 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 8% of all the emissions the UK can release in 2050 if it is to meet the Climate Change Act. Even if more efficient planes could cut that slightly, it’s a vast amount for one strip of tarmac.

Even so, debate about the new runway is just part of a bigger argument. It’s nearly inevitable that meeting the UK’s climate targets would only be possible with restrictions on flying, regardless of what happens at Heathrow. But the government has quietly proposed a new aviation strategy that suggests it isn’t prepared to do that.

Suspension of disbelief

It’s mathematically possible for the UK to build a third runway at Heathrow and still meet its emissions target – but you have to suspend your disbelief to imagine it actually happening and the government now appears to have given up on the fantasy.

When the Airports Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, it knew it had to say something about climate change. So it came up with an answer that ticked the climate box, but which was hard to take seriously. Its cunning plan was for Heathrow to expand and then for every other UK airport to be prevented from doing the same. Even that wasn’t enough – to meet its climate limits, the UK would still have to leave some of its airport capacity unused. The Commission’s idea for how to do that was an implausible plan to ramp up ticket prices by eye-watering amounts, with the aim of discouraging poorer people from flying.

These were never realistic suggestions and, in its proposed new strategy, the government has given up the pretence that they would happen. Instead, it has set out a plan where “consumers are the focus of the sector and… their expectations continue to be met”. Since the government expects demand “to increase significantly between now and 2050”, its prioritisation of consumers over the climate means it is planning for more airport capacity “beyond the additional runway” – whipping away the justification of Heathrow expansion before the bulldozers are even warmed up.

This is a plan for the UK to miss its climate targets. It would mean aviation expanding well beyond what the government’s climate advisors say is possible within emissions limits. The result would be other sectors having to cut their emissions more than they are already due to, something the advisors say may not be possible. The only hope may be electric planes, but these still seem far off – if they are possible at all – for anything other than the smallest of aircraft.

Public support

Alarmingly, the government might well get away with this inconsistency – because its position is what most people want. A new survey has shown there is little public appetite for restrictions on flying for the sake of the climate.

The poll, part of the respected British Social Attitudes survey, found the UK public are intensely relaxed about the climate costs of flying. Only 35% disagree that people should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they like, even if it harms the environment. That’s a fall from a peak of 49% saying the same in 2008. And, when it comes to their own travel, just 21% say they would be willing to fly less to reduce the impact of climate change.

It’s striking that the survey also found that the highest-ever proportion now understand climate change is real and caused by human activities. So the lack of worries about the impact of flying don’t seem to be a result of doubts about the reality of the problem.

Instead, the survey reflects the fact that most people realise climate change is a threat, but haven’t had to confront what it will take to deal with the problem. This isn’t a surprise when many climate campaigners have focused on the easy and uplifting emission-cutting changes, like the switch to renewable power and efficient appliances, that make our air cleaner or reduce household bills.

Confronting the problem

Those uplifting changes are still necessary and it’s right to inspire people with evidence of how cutting emissions can make their lives better, but we can’t keep putting off the unwelcome conversations. The longer we do so, the harder it will be to win support for the difficult measures that will be needed.

As I argue in my book, The Climate Majority, flying isn’t the only one of these unwelcome issues, but it may be the first that countries like the UK will have to confront. Decisions that the government makes in the next few years could leave the UK with expensive infrastructure that could put the climate target out of reach.

The new aviation strategy reflects the obvious – but previously denied – fact that a new Heathrow runway would make it much harder to limit emissions. Yet public opinion is moving away from being willing to deal with the problem, just when wide support is most needed.

It’s possible that a new runway at Heathrow will be stopped by local protests that have little to do with climate change. But, whatever happens with that strip of tarmac, the UK’s climate target will be in trouble unless more people realise their desire to stop global warming is in conflict with the government’s plans – and the popular wish – for ever more flights.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.