Climate Sock

The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

Posted in Climate Sock on August 31st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

This was originally published on openDemocracy

A growing awareness has spread among people worried about climate change that it can’t be tackled without support from the political right. Recently, several campaigning and research organisations have discussed how climate change can be presented in ways that appeal more to conservative and free-market sensibilities.

But this new focus on engaging the right, welcome though it is, overlooks a problem that is no less threatening to efforts to limit climate change. Worries about the climate aren’t just lacking on the political right: over the last few years, climate change has also largely disappeared as a priority for the centre-left.

Less than a decade ago, it seemed impossible to win power in the UK without a commitment to climate change. As it became clear that restrictions on emissions were inevitable, David Cameron saw the danger in being left behind and went to husky-hugging efforts to show that his party was at least as pro-climate as Labour.

Since the 2010 election, however, the main parties’ commitment to climate change has waned. It was often remarked that the 2010-2015 coalition government failed to live up to its goal of being the ‘greenest government ever’, while the new government, free from the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats, has already abolished several measures designed to cut emissions. But the journey of the centre-left wing of Labour (that is, the right of the party) has attracted less attention.

The Labour government under Tony Blair, its most centrist leader, was more forward-thinking on tackling climate change than any previous administration. While far from perfect on the environment, Blair’s government pushed world leaders to agree a deal at the Kyoto climate conference, introduced the Climate Change Bill and created the Carbon Trust, among many other measures aimed at cutting emissions. For Labour’s centre-left, just as it was for David Cameron at the time, wanting to address climate change was a sign of modernity rather than something to be embarrassed about.

Economic credibility vs the climate

The economic crisis changed this. Now, the centre-left is overwhelmingly focused on tackling what it considers to be the main reason for Labour’s latest election defeat: the perception that the party can’t be trusted with the economy. In their view, Labour won’t be elected again until it persuades voters that it will never again drive the car into the ditch (as many people see it).

This means demonstrations of economic competence are prioritised over actions to tackle climate change to a greater extent than before. Witness the response of Labour’s leadership candidates to the recent proposal for a new runway at Heathrow. As soon as the proposal was made, Liz Kendall, the most centrist candidate, called on the government to approve the plans. This was quickly confirmed as Labour’s policy.

The political calculation is obvious. If Labour’s centre-left believes the party can’t win without restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence, the loss of support of the relatively few people greatly concerned about climate change might seem a price worth paying. Their priority isn’t to win over the 1.1 million people who voted Green, but to gain enough support from Conservative voters to form a majority.

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The soft underbelly of climate change policies

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources on June 20th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The soft underbelly of climate change policies

Brits worried about climate change have reasons to be pleased. Our emissions fell last year, global emissions may be turning around, and the Tory government has a new Energy Secretary in Amber Rudd who seems genuinely to care about climate change.

But with the Lib Dem green handbrake gone from government, the UK’s emissions cuts are under attack and may well be facing a greater threat now than they have any time since reducing emissions became government policy.

Now, the principal line of attack is one that people worried about climate change often don’t seem to take seriously, perhaps because it’s not one that comes from clichéd right-wingers. Instead of critics opposing climate policies because they, supposedly, hurt business or growth, the argument is that climate policies directly hurt the poor. This week the Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, made that case.

(Don’t be distracted by the article’s nonsense about climate science: that’s just a stalking horse. No-one serious thinks there’s any reason to doubt what the IPCC says about the relation between emissions and warming)

The logic of Nelson’s argument is that squeezed households of the UK shouldn’t pay more to address climate change than their equivalents in other countries, and that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be wasted on subsidising inefficient green schemes like biomass boilers. Nelson is respected and influential and you can see the appeal for a Tory government that will increasingly try to occupy the political centreground up to the 2020 election.

One implication of this for green policy has already emerged with the plan to curtail the Renewables Obligation subsidy for onshore wind. Since this is the cheapest form of green power, and, if Nelson’s argument wins, it couldn’t be replaced with more expensive forms (tidal barrages, offshore wind etc), the only option seems to be going all out for fracking in the hope it’ll be a success and bring down costs in the short term.

Fracking probably wouldn’t breach our climate targets until after 2025, by which time ministers in the current government will presumably be gone so won’t have to face the consequences of that breach. But such decisions made now – in the name of protecting the UK poor from the costs of energy policy – would make it much harder and more expensive to get back on target for 80% cuts by 2050.

A similar argument is also made by the right about the supposed costs of climate policy for the world’s poor. It holds that the pursuit of renewable energy, being more expensive than fossil fuels, is slowing down development and so doing harm in poorer counties. Use of developing countries’ land to grow biofuels is criticised on a similar basis.

The logic of this is, again, that the focus in these countries should be on reducing poverty rather than emissions (ironically, some argue against emissions cuts in rich countries on precisely the (false) premise that poor countries aren’t cutting their own emissions – the two arguments together would amount to no-one ever cutting emissions).

The challenge for people worried about climate change is that these critics are onto something. Poorer households in high-emitting countries shouldn’t pay more to limit climate change if wealthier households can pay instead. We shouldn’t be prioritising spending taxpayers’ money on poorly structured subsidies for green heating of rich people’s homes. And the poorest people in the world certainly shouldn’t see slower development and less secure access to food than they would if their countries followed a high-emitting path to development.

Climate policy advocates already make some arguments to address all this. An IPPR report this week showed how subsidies for renewables should be restructured to avoid costs falling on poorer households. And the international arguments are easy to refute: no-one I know of now advocates biofuel use if it threatens forests or food supplies, and renewable energy projects are subsidised internationally so they don’t cost more than plants that burn fossil fuels (although even then, we should indeed look at whether the subsidies could be better spent on development, particularly to increase resilience to a more unstable climate, with greater emissions-reductions coming from wealthier countries).

But still, those arguments aren’t yet sufficiently developed by people worried about climate change, nor are they made often enough.

Increasingly, it is people arguing against emissions cuts who claim to be on the side of the poor – campaigning against environmental activists who are presented as blindly pursuing climate policies with no regard for their cost. It’s becoming the soft underbelly of climate policies, vulnerable to attack in the way the earlier battlegrounds (climate science, feasibility of emissions cuts) no longer are.

While there’s much to cheer in the UK’s efforts to reduce emissions, people worried about climate change need to recognise that the arguments have moved on. The new attacks are putting them in danger of being cast, absurdly, as the ones who don’t care about the poor – and giving an excuse for the watering down of the successes of the last decade.

Where the Papal climate change encyclical gets it wrong

Posted in Climate Sock on June 17th, 2015 by Leo – 2 Comments

The Pope’s encyclical will, apparently, tomorrow warn that we need to make significant changes if we’re to avoid “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”.

Despite many reservations about the people who run the Catholic Church, it would be silly of those of us worried about climate change not to welcome Pope Francis’ intervention.

But I think the encyclical makes one important mistake.

According to the leaked draft, the encyclical will say: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of global warming in recent decades is due to … human activities”.

From a communications perspective, raising the question of whether or not climate change is real makes very little sense. By bringing up the question of human contribution, the Pope is drawing attention to and prolonging a debate that shouldn’t exist on the scale it currently does.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly think current warming is principally or entirely due to human activity. There’s no serious doubt about the link – and only very small numbers of people (outside America) think climate change is a hoax.

But some of those who want to stop action on climate change have long sought to fabricate the existence of a debate about whether or not human activity is the cause. By engaging with this debate, even to take one side, the Pope is legitimising it and wasting time that could be spent talking about why it matters.

If we see any headlines along the lines of: “Pope: global warming is real”, he’s scored an own goal. (see update below)

He’s far from alone in this. The first report of the Adaptation Sub-Committee starts, “The overwhelming majority of experts agree that the global climate is changing, and that most of this is caused by human activity”. And the worst culprit is the IPCC, whose Assessment Reports are timed so the lion’s share of the coverage goes to the one that says, essentially, “Scientists still say climate change is real”: the most predictable missed opportunity in climate communications.

By way of comparison, suppose a government white paper outlining a ban on smoking in indoor public places started with a line that scientists indicate lung cancer is often caused by smoking. It would create the false impression of there being a debate (why else would they need to say it?), where there is none (at least, not one that need consume media and public time since the opposing view is so overwhelmed by the evidence). And suppose the coverage ran: “Government: smoking causes cancer”.  We would see it for what it is: a waste of our time.

Update 18/6:  The BBC’s headline, as I warned:

 Telegraph getting in on the action too:


Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

Posted in Climate Sock, London, Transport on June 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

The debate about UK airport expansion has been framed brilliantly by the pro-expansion side, at the expense of climate change.

The Airports Commission is expected to publish its report on London airport expansion this month – recommending a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow.

As things stand, we can only meet the UK’s 80% emissions reduction target if our aviation emissions in 2050 are no higher than they were in 2005.

This could allow for a 60% increase in flights, balanced by improved efficiency and use of sustainable biofuels. That assumes a cut of 85% in emissions from other sectors: the Committee on Climate Change have said they don’t think it’s plausible to count on even greater cuts to balance higher emissions from aviation.

Yet, the Department for Transport’s UK Aviation Forecasts predicts that, even without airport expansion, passenger numbers will more than double by 2050 and emissions will hugely overshoot the target (about 40% above the 2010 level).

It suggests that, if it isn’t constrained by airport capacity, UK aviation would be about 10% greater (I was surprised by how little difference there is).

So even without expansion we appear to have a problem with reconciling flying and meeting our climate targets. Expanding our airports will make this problem even harder. And if we do expand in the South East, there will be even less chance to expand elsewhere – hardly boding well for a rebalancing of the economy.

But that challenge is barely being talked about in the debate about airport expansion.

This, I think, is down to how well the debate’s been framed by those who want expansion: the question is whether we should expand at Heathrow or at Gatwick, not whether there should be an option 3 of not expanding at all.

I’m reminded of Damian McBride’s observation that the up-side for Labour of the Blair-Brown battles was that the media focused on those and ignored the Tories.

The entire focus of airport expansion coverage (and polling) is now on the question of where, not whether.

Similarly, the way the environment is discussed has been framed in a way that helps the pro-airport side.

Gatwick’s marketing talks extensively about the environment, by which they mean local noise and air pollution.

Climate change is typically treated by the media as an environmental (not an economic or social) issue, so Gatwick’s framing of the environmental impacts as local, rather than global, means that climate change is pushed off the table: there’s only so much time the media can devote to a ‘niche’ issue like the environment.

Together, this means the debate’s been framed as a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, while the environment is a metric by which their local impacts can be judged.

Probably as a result of this, there’s been little recent polling on whether or not people actually want a new runway.

The latest I can find is from Opinium’s poll for Carbon Brief in January 2013, which had 39% supporting an increase in flights from the South East, 16% opposing, and 45% in the middle or don’t know. While it doesn’t point to much opposition, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm either.

It suggests an effective opposition movement could do a lot to shift public opinion: much as the XL Pipeline protests have in the US. But they’d need to start with the recognition that their side of the debate is currently not recognised as valid.

Nevertheless, there’s an enormous challenge of expanding airport capacity while meeting our legal climate targets, and public opinion appears still to be largely undecided about expansion. Given that, it’s strange that the debate has been so limited.

To make climate change an election battleground, start now

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics on May 16th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on To make climate change an election battleground, start now

Climate change barely featured in the UK election. No surprise there: it wasn’t big in previous ones.

We’ve become so used to this it largely passes unremarked. But perhaps it’s not inevitable.

Climate change doesn’t come to mind when most people think about the issues facing them or the country. Apart from briefly after the 2013/14 winter floods, it’s barely registered in the various tracking polls.

But when prompted, people overwhelmingly say they’re worried about it.

A new Opinium poll for the Observer reminds us how overwhelmingly people see climate change as real and a threat:

So, if nearly 2 in 3 people think climate change will be a serious threat to global stability, why don’t any major parties try to use it to their electoral advantage?

Perhaps it’s because climate change is something that people don’t think about much: it’s not visible in day-to-day life, so there’s little clamour for political action.

But if that were all, the potential would still exist for it to be more salient since, when they’re reminded of it, so many people are worried about climate change.

The problem is, there doesn’t seem much for a politician to gain by banging on about the climate.

The major parties’ positions look broadly similar to a non-specialist. They all agree climate change is a big problem and say they’re committed to cutting emissions and supporting adaptation.

Unless you’re really into the detail, it’s hard to see why worry about the climate should lead you to vote for one party rather than another.

So from a party strategist’s perspective, there’s not much reason to make climate an electoral issue, when the other parties can shut it down by saying they’re equally worried.

Dividing lines

What parties need are dividing lines – to put themselves on the ‘right’ side of an issue and their opponents on the ‘wrong’ side.

The Tories did this in 2015 on relations with the SNP, and in 2005 on immigration. In 1997 Labour used public services.

Are there climate change dividing lines?

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The Greens’ vote is declining, but were they underperforming anyway?

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics on April 10th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The Greens’ vote is declining, but were they underperforming anyway?

While recent attention has been on the Labour and Tory numbers – with some discussion about whether Ukip’s support’s falling (it did a bit at the end of March but it’s back up now) – a slide in support for the Greens seems to have gone un-commented on.

The latest ten polls, as recorded by May2015, have given them an average of 4.1%: down nearly 40% from their support of 6.7% in mid-February.

The decline seems to have started around two weeks after Natalie Bennett’s calamitous LBC interview and has worsened since the TV debate.

I don’t have evidence the decline’s connected to her media performances, though I’d be surprised if it’s not. While part of the decline might be the squeeze from Labour and the Lib Dems as voters start wanting to make their vote count* – but Ukip face the same threat and their vote hasn’t fallen (at least not by 40%). So we need another explanation, and the leadership looks a likely one.

But, even before recent decline (which is only in a few polls and they might recover from), I’d been starting to wonder, are the Greens underperforming?

It might seem strange to even wonder this. They’ll get their best ever result in May and their membership has overtaken the Lib Dems’.

But, as their supporters like pointing out, their policies are apparently the most popular of all the parties’; they have more people say they’d vote for them if they could win than either the Lib Dems or Ukip; there’s an unusually large number of left-wing protest voters up for grabs; and their leader has been on TV and radio far more than ever before, including being treated as an equal with the Prime Minister.

Yet, they don’t seem to be fulfilling this potential. They’re doing much worse than Ukip, a party who they’re more popular than in terms of both policies and brand.

As I showed before, their media coverage is consistently lower than their support should justify: that’s probably part of the reason for the support gap between the Greens and Ukip. But the campaign has certainly given them far more exposure than they had before, and their support doesn’t seem to have responded.

So rather noting how well the Greens are doing, should we be wondering whether they should be doing better?


* Their new boyband video, weirdly, emphasises several times that [for reasons] a vote for the Greens isn’t a wasted vote. Given how popular George Lakoff is among environmentalists at the moment, I’m amazed no-one spotted that, by repeating their opponents’ accusation, they’re activating the frame of “wasted vote”.

11 climate change election non-issues

Posted in Climate Sock on April 4th, 2015 by Leo – 2 Comments

Inspired by an excellent Stumbling and Mumbling post of economic questions that aren’t big election issues but should be, here are some difficult climate change questions that aren’t featuring in the election but perhaps should be:


1. Are we prepared for everyone to pay more for less obtrusive sources of renewable energy like offshore wind farms, so that a relatively small number of people don’t have to look at electricity plants they don’t like, particularly onshore wind farms?  If so, how much more should everyone pay?


2. How can we continue to expand airports while meeting our emissions targets? If we do continue with expansion where would we make up for the increased emissions? If we don’t, what does that mean for jobs and investment in the UK?


3. Do we need to reduce the amount we travel, internationally and within the UK? If so, how can we do that in a way that doesn’t disproportionately restrict poorer people who’ve benefited from budget airlines?


4. Do we need to discourage growth in particular sectors to achieve our climate targets? If so, which sectors and what will we do to create alternatives for the people affected? And would doing so actually reduce global emissions or just move them to other countries?


5. Are we prepared to make some inconvenient changes to everyday life to reduce emissions, like keeping our homes at lower temperatures, switching to electric central heating and having cars that’re less powerful and with shorter ranges? If so, how can we make sure the burden doesn’t fall most heavily on poorer people and particularly people who would be most affected by lower room temperatures?


6. When we build new homes, should we avoid areas that are more likely to flood when the climate changes? If so, what level of overall global warming should we plan for when we do this? And how can we overcome the increased difficulty this would put on building enough new homes? If not, who will cover the cost when we build in areas that become frequently flooded as the climate changes?


7. What shall we do with existing communities, agricultural land and infrastructure that are flooded more often as climate change increases?  Can we afford to always improve defences and clean up after floods, or will we need to abandon some areas? Who decides?


8. Who is responsible for preparing for the effects of increased heatwaves on the elderly and vulnerable? Do we need to take measures to reduce overheating in housing? Should we be preparing community shelters? Who pays?


9. Where should the UK be in terms of its emissions reductions? Should we be at the front to encourage other countries to make bigger cuts, or should we be somewhere in the middle of the high-emitting countries even if that means global cuts are slower?


10. If the UK’s emissions appear to be falling because we make less and import more, are our emissions cuts meaningful? Should we be accountable for the emissions from the production and transport of what we import?


11. Are we – and other countries that have emitted the most greenhouse gases – responsible for the damage caused by the climate change we’re already committed to? If so, do we need to make amends, eg by paying compensation, paying for non-emitting countries to adapt to climate change, taking in refugees where adaptation is impossible?


I’m sure there are plenty more. What have I missed?

Today’s poll on climate change and flooding: a few comments

Posted in Climate Sock on February 1st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Today’s poll on climate change and flooding: a few comments

A climate change and flooding poll by the Understanding Risk Group at Cardiff Uni has had quite a bit of coverage today, with pieces in Carbon Brief, the Guardian, IndependentTelegraph and BBC.

Those articles all picked up on the large increase in numbers who say they think the world’s climate is changing, and I won’t go over the ground covered by those pieces. But there are a couple of other points about the poll and the coverage that I found interesting:

Firstly, I’m uneasy about polls on belief in climate change. As I’ve written a few times, people’s response to questions about whether or not climate change is real is a bad measure of whether they want action to reduce emissions. Not only are the results misleading, these questions keep the debate about climate change in a place that’s far less useful than it would be if we were instead talking about what we’re going to do about climate change. Even when the results suggest people increasingly think climate change is real, the time spent talking about this could be spent talking about, for example, what kind of deal the UK should push for at the Paris climate conference this year – and it legitimises discussions of some future poll that apparently shows a fall in ‘belief’.

Secondly, I continue to be mystified by the answer choices in the question about the causes of climate change:

  1. It is entirely caused by natural processes
  2. It is mainly caused by natural processes
  3. It is partly caused by natural processes and partly caused by human activity
  4. It is mainly caused by human activity
  5. It is entirely caused by human activity
  6. There is no such thing as climate change
  7. Don’t know

It’s the same scale used in the DECC tracking poll, and as I said about that poll, I find it hard to interpret the results. If I think that climate change is mostly human but a bit natural, should I pick choice 3 or 4?  Both apply. If choice 3 is supposed to mean “equally” human and natural, it should say so, not “partly”.

It’s also not great to have one answer choice that is much longer than the others (pick a card, any card, particularly the one I’ve made stick out a bit) as well as one that combines the others and so looks like the middle-ground option (even though it means the same as 2 and 4). Unsurprisingly, choice 3 always gets by far the most respondents.

The only basis I can see for using these answer choices is to compare with previous polls that used it. But since the choices are so muddled it would still be better if it were dropped.

Finally, I was amused to see the Guardian refer to “only” 14% of people saying they would write to or phone their MP about climate change. If one in seven people really did this, each MP would get about 10,000 letters, emails or phone calls about climate change!

Will more floods change the debate about climate change?

Posted in Climate Sock on December 7th, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off on Will more floods change the debate about climate change?

This article was originally published on Carbon Brief.

It’s nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.

Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have  linked some of these with climate change, and the IPCC concludesplaces like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.

Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.

But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?

To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.

High-water mark of public concern

In terms of public opinion, last year’s floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.

Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It’s hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.

One crucial limitation of this measure is that it doesn’t show whether the public were concerned about the environment in general, or climate change in particular, although another poll at the time found 47% thought the floods were climate-related. It also doesn’t measure underlying attitudes, which might change over longer periods.

However, with questions that are asked consistently and regularly, the YouGov poll and a similar Ipsos MORI poll allow us to compare the impact of last year’s floods with responses to other extreme weather events, and see which have attracted the most public concern.

Looking at 13 extreme weather events occurring in the UK since 2006, none prompted a comparable increase in public concern about the environment. In fact, none were associated with any increase above 3 points, which is around the margin of error.

The difference in response to last winter’s flooding, compared with previous events, may be because this type of polling was less frequent before 2010. But it also suggests that last winter was unusual in the impact it had on people’s views about the importance of the environment as a current issue facing the UK.

Media and political: discussions of climate change

Public concern is just one part of the debate. I also looked at mentions of climate change in UK national newspapers, and found that on several occasions since 2006 extreme weather events have led to an increase in media discussion of the issue.

During storms and floods in July 2007, March 2008 and November 2012 (but not following other weather events), media mentions of climate change increased significantly, in each case by around two-thirds.

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5 years of this blog: my favourite 5 charts

Posted in Attitudes, Bad polling, Climate Sock, Energy sources on November 23rd, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off on 5 years of this blog: my favourite 5 charts

I’ve been writing this blog for five years.  Most grateful to anyone who’s bothered to read it and to everyone who’s re-posted it or used my findings elsewhere.

In the spirit of these things, here are my five favourite charts that I’ve produced over the years:

5. Most people don’t understand the word ‘progressive’ 

Words are useful when they help people understand things. The word ‘progressive’ has become code among politics people for left-wing, or perhaps centre-left, or perhaps liberal in general.

It seems more common in the US and perhaps there people understand it as meaning ‘left-wing’. They don’t here though.

Here, for most people it has no political meaning at all: it just means “someone I like”:

Read the post


4. Wind farms are really popular, even when they’re built nearby

On one level I sort of understand the Tory Party’s opposition to wind farms. I’m sure there are some people that viscerally hate them, maybe even majorities in some communities, and perhaps Tory policy wonks think they’re a bad investment.

But the way some senior Tories talk, it’s as if wind farms are as popular neighbours as paedophile collectives – particularly compared with how they talk about fracking. They seem to assume that wind farms are hated, and everyone knows they’re hated.

Which is odd, because this is what people think about potential local power sources:

Read the post

3. People no longer think the monarchy make Britain better

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