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?

I don’t think any of the issues currently in the non-specialist climate debate offer useful dividing lines.

The attempts to use fracking as a dividing line in this election didn’t get much play. I’m not surprised. The public are more uninterested than polarised about fracking: in the latest poll only 1 in 3 have a strong opinion, more than on most sources of energy but less than the 52% who strongly support or oppose (mostly support) wind turbines.

But there may be potent dividing lines that haven’t so far been part of the mainstream climate debate.

There are plenty of decisions – in all fields – that don’t get talked about in public by politicians because they’re too difficult and complicated and, above all, because they don’t create obvious winners.

In climate change, these are questions like: if we build a new runway in London where will we make the extra emissions reductions? How much should we be prepared to spend protecting communities and infrastructure in places that will be flooded more often? Should we pay compensation to people in other countries harmed by our carbon pollution? (see longer list here)

These aren’t potential dividing lines at the moment because they’re not acknowledged by the news media and public. The first time a senior politician brings them up, they’ll be seen as a bit odd.

But they’re interesting questions, they relate to our everyday lives and they’re difficult for politicians to answer: once the debate’s started it should be appealing for even non-specialist media.

We’ve probably got five years till the next election. In that time, these questions could – with enough repetition by enough different people – become ones politicians can’t avoid.

Coherent answers

I can see two reasons why this could be a good idea.

Firstly, they are important questions that the country needs to face up to. We could answer them unstrategically as we are now or we could confront them and come up with coherent answers.

And, secondly, for party strategists they offer potent dividing lines:

Are you the party that cuts emissions in ways that make sure low- and middle-income people can enjoy the benefits of the last 35 years of growth (foreign travel, consumer goods, warm houses)? Or are you the party that does it without a plan so only the rich can maintain their lifestyle?

Are you the party that gives communities honest information about future flood risk and helps them decide what defences to put in place? Or are you the party that leaves them at the mercy of developers who’ll build on future flood plains and sell housebuyers up the river?

Are you the party that makes sure Britain can hold its head up around the world by taking responsibility for the damage our pollution causes? Or are you the party that tries to wheedle out of helping the world’s poorest people, who are suffering as a direct result of our pollution?

For sure, there’s a first-mover disadvantage with these arguments. They’re not sufficiently established to get much of a hearing initially and avoiding them is easier than confronting them and giving difficult answers.

But, starting now and with five years of repetition, the issues could enter the mainstream. The overwhelming concern about climate change suggests the public understand there are challenges ahead.

If these questions are raised, climate change might become an election issue. Then, the first party to establish a coherent and popular strategy could benefit from its stance on the climate

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