The challenges ahead for climate policy

However we measure it, climate change has become a less prominent issue in the UK lately. With a new government that looks unexpectedly stable, climate campaigners can no longer count on another election coming along soon to shake things up.  Instead, they need to find ways of working with the current media and political set-up.

There are significant risks in not addressing the way climate change is currently talked about and acted on. While the coalition document suggests the new government has made a fairly good start to climate policy, this may not be sustainable if people don’t start talking and acting differently about climate change.

While climate change has never been the most prominent issue in the UK, lately it’s fallen further from the media’s attention and from most people’s consciousness. Google Trends confirms that both in terms of searches and news coverage, climate change has now dropped to well below the peaks we’ve seen since 2006.

This is confirmed by the latest Mori results from their monthly question about the most important issue facing the UK at the moment. Not surprisingly, the economy is now easily top, but pollution/environment has now fallen to 5% for 2 consecutive months: the worst performance since 2004. Tellingly, of the 18 polls that YouGov has run in the last 14 days, not a single one has been about the environment (1).

It can be tempting to see this not to be great problem.  Most senior politicians at the moment talk like they think climate change is important, and seem to be dealing with it without its needing to be in the headlines. As George Monbiot argued, there is a good case that the major parties have made excellent progress on their approach to tackling climate change.

But even if it turned out that politicians continued tackling climate change without being pushed by pressure from the media and campaigning organisations, there would still be a problem.

We have seen that the government is already perceived to be taking a lot of actions to tackle climate change, but we’ve also seen that politicians are distrusted when they do so.  The suspicion and dislike most people have for politicians in general means that anything the government does on climate change is often assumed to be driven by other motives. Without having public support for any tough measures the government may take, anything they do could be vulnerable to being reversed in the future.

I’m also getting a sense that it has become increasingly normal for climate change to be regarded as ‘just another overhyped scare’, following in a series that included the Millennium Bug, Sars, and H1N1 – even among people who are broadly supportive of action to tackle climate change. I haven’t yet seen any numbers to confirm or refute this – add it to the questions I’d put in my fantasy climate change poll – but if it continues to grow, it could contribute to the challenge governments will face in winning public support for their actions to tackle climate change.

So if climate change is holding public interest less than it has before (though it never has held a great amount of interest) and the government may face more resistance to acting in the future, what happens next? If nothing changes, public interest in climate change will be subject to things that create a news hook, like the weather. If we have a deadly summer heatwave or floods in the autumn, expect climate change to become prominent again.

Even if this happened, it doesn’t sound like a good foundation for basing government policy. It would be perverse for climate campaigners to be hoping for extreme weather, to say the least.

So the challenge ahead looks to be twofold:

  1. Bringing climate change back into the mainstream as an issue that is seen as requiring action;
  2. Framing government climate change policy in a way that ends any question of whether the government is using it as an excuse to raise taxes or take other unpopular measures that have no connection to climate change.

Neither of these are simple goals.  But UK climate policy will struggle to function in an effective and sustainable way if either is not accomplished.

(1) About 10 mins after I published this, the Guardian posted this article talking about a new YouGov poll on climate change.  More about it soon if I can get hold of the data.

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  1. Tom Tapper says:

    Really interesting article, I agree with many of the points you have made. Although, I can’t help thinking that keeping the debate too focussed on the publics perceptions of climate change will distract from a solutions-based approach. Many of the suggested solutions, or remedial actions, make sense regardless of people perceptions of climate change. Perhaps if we take a more energy-security / local production approach – then we may have more success in moving the agenda forward. Would be interested to know your thoughts.

  2. leo says:

    Thanks Tom. I completely agree – the relentless conversations this year about whether or not people believe in climate change do keep us from talking about solutions. And ultimately I don’t see us getting to the place any time soon where everyone believes that man-made climate change is happening (cf the still-running debate about evolution)…

    … in which case there’s definitely a case for emphasising the solutions that are valuable even without needing to tackle climate change. Though this does potentially expose a danger – relying just on those arguments would invite the use of solutions that have no benefit to tackling climate change. For example, American energy security could be improved with tar sand exploration; lots of energy jobs could be created in the UK through construction of new coal-fired power stations. So I feel it’s important we don’t move too far away from the emissions-reduction side of the argument as well.

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