The climate debate is changing: this is what the next fight will be about

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:

Climate change isn’t all or nothing

It only makes sense to argue “we can’t stop climate change so we should give up trying and just adapt to it” if you think climate change is a thing that either happens or doesn’t happen. If it really were too late to stop all climate change, it would indeed make sense to give up too-late cuts in emissions, and start building bigger sea walls.

But the reality is, what we do over the next decade will determine how much climate change we face. And what we do over the decade after that will also determine how much more climate change we face, and so on.

There hasn’t been much talk about this. It’s served campaigners, who need media and political urgency, to set deadlines, by which time climate change must be solved, or we fail. And now it may serve opponents of action to say that those deadlines have been missed, so we should stop trying.

So people who want action on climate change need to find a new way of talking about it, which recognises that there are different levels of climate change** – and less than ideal progress on some fronts doesn’t mean game over.

Arguments about whether or not climate change is real have dominated the media for over four years. They may now be coming towards an end, which is good news for people who want media coverage of climate change to focus on what we’re going to do about it.

But that doesn’t mean the battle is won for those who want to limit the UK’s emissions. Instead, the arguments are shifting, and people arguing for action on climate change need to be ready for the next round, if we’re to avoid losing another four years to futile debates.


* There are problems with these figures, as some of the cuts are from us making less stuff and importing products instead. But even allowing for that, the growing switch to renewable energy indicates progress being made towards lower emissions.

** Incidentally, this shouldn’t include references to global degrees of warming. They don’t make sense to most people, for whom an increase of 4°C doesn’t sound very bad.

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