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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.