The most shocking political development of 2019 may be the end of the nearly three-decade old consensus that the public doesn’t care about the climate crisis. People were hopelessly and permanently apathetic, the argument went, or unable to see beyond the present. They were said to suffer what Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger memorably called “apocalypse fatigue”, a numbness brought on by years of scientific warnings about a dismal future. And this in turn meant they were uninterested in, if not outright hostile to, any kind of meaningful climate action.
All of this appeared to be backed up by data. Years of polling and other measures of public engagement showed that even as awareness of the crisis grew, there was no interest in changing anything.
For a long time our leaders haven’t been held to account. They’ve been safe knowing the public doesn’t care enough
But after an unprecedented wave of popular climate protests – centred around the latest and most terrifying scientific predictions – recent polling suggests that orthodoxy has suddenly and dramatically reversed. A YouGov poll found that more than half the country backs a national target of zero carbon emissions by 2030, a policy that as recently as a year ago was offered only by the Green party. Other polls suggest that two-thirds of the country believes the climate crisis is the biggest issue facing humankind, and that it has overtaken the economy on voters’ list of concerns. There have been suggestions that the climate crisis will be a central issue in the upcoming general election – it’s even being called “the climate election” – and a majority of Britons say that it will influence the way they vote.
The public now appears to want to take part in the politics of climate change. The trouble is, such a thing barely exists. This sounds ridiculous, because we have clear evidence of at least two kinds of climate politics: the familiar international conferences, with rooms filled with bureaucrats and national leaders parachuting in for the final handshakes and signatures; and the recent actions by grassroots groups such as the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion. But between the insulated world of international negotiation and street-level protest there is almost nothing.
For most people, politics means national politics, and a choice of policies delivered by ideologically distinct national parties. But for nearly a generation, climate politics has hovered in the almost apolitical space of international treaties, out of the reach of the public. Climate policies have been formulated in broad and loosely defined terms that politicians can all agree on. They commit to future targets that would seem to require radical changes in the way we live, but those decisions remain unmade, because the major parties have never brought them in front of a national electorate.
The UK’s own Climate Change Act of 2008 – often touted as the most progressive climate legislation in the world – neatly illustrates the limits of climate politics as they currently exist. The act passed with an overwhelming majority, and committed the UK to an 80% emission reduction by 2050 (since increased to 100%). It started from a premise everyone agreed with: that climate change was a problem, and that we had to do something about it.
But 10 years later, the question of what exactly we will do has hardly been addressed. The government hit its first two mandated climate targets largely by tinkering with policy out of the public eye, decommissioning coal plants and supporting renewables where it was easy to do so. The next steps, though, would require transforming more visible and tangible aspects of public life – whether they are the boilers we use to heat homes, the kinds of food we eat, or the way the countryside is balanced between exploitation and protection – and would involve stronger government intervention, and spending, than has been committed before. There aren’t currently any plans to do that, and so as it stands the UK is expected to miss the 2025 and 2030 targets.
This is how the politics of climate change has always played out. Targets are made by consensus, but policies are never brought forward because they would involve change, and thus be contentious, partisan – the stuff of real politics. Instead, we’re left with a framework that is never filled in, a set of guy-wires meant to steady a bridge that is never built.
For a long time our leaders haven’t been held to account for this; they’ve been safe knowing the public doesn’t care enough to demand more. That appears to have changed over the past year, and the initial response is promising: the declaration of a climate emergency by parliament, and MPs convening a public assembly on the climate crisis are good starts.
But they’re still in the realm of acknowledgement and declaration. They need to go further than that, by presenting people with an actual political choice. Not just a choice of different future targets, but the policies to deliver them. The Greens have been offering those kinds of policies for years. Now Labour has indicated it will bring forward its version of a green new deal, likely a path to net-zero carbon by 2030 backed by new regulations and a massive government spending programme on infrastructure and housing. It’s unclear what the Conservative platform will be, but, several months ago, 41 Tory MPs produced a draft manifesto with market-based initiatives that they believe will deliver net-zero by 2050.
These visions are likely to be attacked by some as reckless, or ineffectual. But they are serious proposals because they place their policies within a political vehicle familiar to each party’s voters, and to the wider public. They indicate that the climate crisis may be about to descend from the lofty realm of consensus into the arena of real politics. That can only happen when the public is given – or demands – a proper democratic choice.
• Stephen Buranyi is a writer in London
By Support The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/21/climate-crisis-politics-voters-targets-action