Environmental politics in a cold climate
By: Matthew Lockwood
Published in: Juncture 21.1 (89-96): Summer 2014
Ten years ago, in early 2004, the chief scientist David King went on the record as saying that climate change was a far greater threat than international terrorism. That spring Tony Blair said that ‘there is no bigger long-term question facing the global community’, and pledged to make tackling climate change a priority for the 2005 G8 meeting, which the UK was hosting.
Over the next five years, environmental issues (most obviously climate change) climbed the political agenda, with a surge in media coverage and public salience (i). This period saw the commissioning and publication of the Stern review; the CBI coming out strongly for action on climate change; successful direct action against new coal-fired power plants; David Cameron hugging huskies in the Arctic; a campaign for a climate change bill that involved groups from the National Trust to Unison to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and which led to the cross-party adoption and passage of a Climate Change Act in late 2008; the creation of the Climate Change Committee and a new Department of Energy and Climate Change; and hundreds of thousands of people descending on Copenhagen in 2009 for a UNFCCC summit that was supposed to save the planet.
A decade later, the environmental agenda appears to be all but dead. After a rush of public interest, the salience of environmental issues has returned to the low levels seen at the start of the 2000s. Climate
change has virtually no traction; even during the recent dramatic flooding there were few attempts by politicians or campaigners to make connections. David Cameron’s claim that the Coalition would be
the ‘greenest government ever’ is met not so much with outrage as with cynical dismissal. Climate denialism appeared to rise sharply after the ‘Climategate’ email leaks (ii) and the proportion of people stating that they did not believe the world was getting warmer increased from 7 per cent in 2008 to 28 per cent in 2013 (iii).
There are already serious implications emerging for policy. In the parliamentary Conservative party, denialism is now matched by a spreading hostility towards renewable energy and an enthusiasm for fracking. Road and runway building is back in fashion. The Climate Change Committee’s original 2011 recommendation for carbon budgeting in the 2020s is now being reviewed by a hostile Treasury. What appeared to be cross-party consensus has been torn apart.
Understanding the dramatic shifts in the politics of the environment matters a lot for future policy too. The current context leaves very little political space for new policy approaches, so the key question is how to expand that space. Here I offer some explanations for what happened, examine the responses of the environmental movement and why these have so far not worked, and point to a possible way forward.
[i] See Lockwood M (2013) ‘The political sustainability of climate policy: the case of the UK Climate Change Act’, Global Environmental Change, 23: 1339–1348.
[ii] BBC News (2010) ‘Climate scepticism ‘on the rise’, BBC poll shows’, 7 February 2010: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8500443.stm
[iii] Wells A (2013) ‘“Global Warming” or “Climate Change”’, UK Polling Report, 5 April 2013: http://ukpollingreport. co.uk/blog/archives/7222.
The full paper is available on the Juncture website (subscription needed): http://www.ippr.org/juncture/editions/21-1