Cancún is climate change groundhog day

Nowhere in the world is battling climate change a priority.

Climate change groundhog day is almost upon us. Environment ministers have gathered in Cancún, Mexico, for the annual meeting at which they never quite manage to sign a new global treaty. At least not one that includes the world's largest emitters of carbon dioxide – namely the United States and China. This year the negotiators may manage to reach agreement on some rules for how developing countries can be more transparent about their domestic climate initiatives in return for delivery by rich countries on pledges of climate finance.

Many followers of the UN climate talks blame a failure of leadership by governments or expeditious corporate lobbying for the recurring nightmare, but often overlook a basic, underlying political principle: that global deal-making cannot outpace public opinion back home. The big picture still sees the US too hidebound by its domestic travails to make any grand promises on cutting its emissions.

In the relatively climate-friendly UK, even in the teeth of the Climategate email debacle, 78 per cent of people recently polled by Ipsos MORI believe that climate change is either partly or mostly caused by human activity (the number of people who accept humanity's role in climate change is smaller, but still in the majority even in the US). However, in an IPPR poll prior to the May general election, fewer than one in five put climate change in the top three or four issues on which they would base their voting decisions.

Over time, environmental issues in general enjoy the strong support of less than 10 per cent of the UK electorate and rarely peak at more than 20 per cent. The economy peaks at roughly 70 per cent.

This pattern is repeated in many developed countries, on whose leadership the rest of the world's pathway to a clean economy rests. In the recent Australian election, climate change was typically rated eighth or lower in the list of voters' priorities. A US poll from early 2010 ranked climate change 21st out of 21 "priority" issues for the year ahead.

People's views are of course shaped by many influences and the war of attrition is doubtless being fought with considerable funding from carbon-intensive corporate interests. But the paradox of climate politics is more profound and deeply rooted than this. Safeguarding tomorrow's climate requires action today that in many cases may harm the interests not only of what environmentalists call "Big Carbon", but also consumers and taxpayers.

A report this week from the UK's Climate Change Committee suggests that the annual cost of decarbonising electricity supply could be £10bn. This cost will be passed on by utilities to households and industry. Annual household electricity bills in the UK currently add up to approximately £10bn, so it's not hard to imagine how quickly the flimsy support for climate policy could melt away as people see steep rises in the costs of heating their homes.

You don't have to be a climate-change sceptic to feel that a largely regressive de facto tax on household energy, at a time when people are already feeling the pinch, could prove an emissions reduction pledge too far.

Until the climate debate is better handled at the domestic level and the knotty question of who pays is resolved, it is hard to see how the climate cabal can escape their international negotiations groundhog day.

Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research: ippr.org.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496