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 three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496