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Climate change has finally returned as a mainstream issue

More than the floods, it is interventions by politicians that have led to a spike in public concern.

More than the floods, it is interventions by politicians.
Former peatland forest converted into palm oil plantation in Aceh Jaya district in Indonesia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Last week, an opinion poll by YouGov found that public concern for the environment had spiked to levels not seen in any national poll since the late 1980s. Twenty three per cent of people polled stated that "the environment" was the number one issue for the country currently. This is up dramatically from the six per cent who chose it the previous week and ahead of issues including health, crime and education.

Undoubtedly the devastating flooding still affecting Britain accounts for part of this sudden spike in concern. The UK has just experienced the wettest January in 250 years; the Thames Barrier has had to be closed a record number of times against high tides; thousands of people have had their homes flooded. Nor is this just a freak occurrence; it is clearly part of a rising trend of extreme weather. Four out of the five wettest years on record have been since the year 2000, and in a separate poll last year over 80 per cent of people said they had experienced more flooding in their lifetimes.

But something else appears to have happened within the last fortnight to have caused such a sudden jump in public concern. We have been experiencing record-breaking floods and storms across the UK since the start of December but only the previous week, concern stood at just 6 per cent. What has changed is that politicians have finally started talking again about climate change.

It is a tragedy that it has taken devastating flooding to make it happen, but over the past fortnight, the relentless weather has forced Westminster to break the climate silence that it has kept for far too long. David Cameron has stated that he thinks "climate change is a serious threat". Ed Miliband has warned that we risk "sleepwalking into a climate crisis" by failing to prepare for global warming, and called on politicians of all parties to rebuild a cross-party consensus on climate change. Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, said that climate change "is a national security issue, definitely." And an "anonymous cabinet minister" has inveighed against Owen Paterson, saying he’s "not climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid."

Other important voices, have weighed in too. Lord Stern, author of the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change, has said that climate change is here with us now and could lead to global conflict. Peter Kendall, outgoing President of the NFU, says "climate change does now really challenge mankind's ability to feed itself", and has attacked Owen Paterson for downplaying the risks. The Met Office has been unusually forthright in stating the links between climate change and extreme weather. And Matthew d’Ancona, foremost chronicler of coalition politics, has captured the dilemma facing Cameron perfectly: "if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather — then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery."

Taken together, these quotes tell us one thing overwhelmingly: climate change has returned as a mainstream political issue.

Let's be clear, while these levels of environmental concern have not been seen since the late 80s, polls have consistently showed huge support for green issues. Whether it's the majority of people who support renewables or the increasing numbers opposing fracking. But what we're looking at here is how much "the environment" is at the forefront of the public's mind as a pressing concern for the country. YouGov themselves don't have a dataset running back very far, but Ipsos MORI's long-term polling data shows that over the past thirty years, concern for the environment as "the number one issue facing the UK" rose dramatically in two periods. The first of these is from 1988 to 1992; the second is 2006-7.

Notably, these two moments of history saw leading politicians repeatedly make prominent speeches on environmental issues; fight for the title of the greenest party; and seek to actually lead public debate on the environmental challenges facing us. In 1988, for example, Margaret Thatcher made a celebrated speech to the Conservative Party conference in which she spoke of the threat of global warming and even claimed, "It's we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth - we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come." Her ministers went on to produce the first ever Environment White Paper and drive negotiations for a climate change convention at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In 2006-7, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responded to David Cameron’s efforts to green the Conservative Party by commissioning the Stern Review and ultimately getting behind the world’s first Climate Change Act.

On each occasion, a vibrant movement made up of the public and pressure groups pushed politicians into articulating green concerns. But to really bring that concern to the fore, to elevate it to an issue of national importance, often requires leadership on the part of politicians.

The question is whether now, in the wake of the floods, we will see renewed leadership from politicians to redouble the UK’s efforts on tackling climate change. A half-billion pound gap has opened up between current flood defence spending and what’s required to keep pace with rising seas and worsening downpours: will politicians come together to tackle that challenge? With climate change loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather, will all the parties commit to properly assessing the risks climate change poses to our country and the world? And given that prevention is better than cure, will all parties see the sense in renewing our efforts to cut domestic emissions, press for a global climate treaty, and do more to tackle climate change in the first place?

One final thought. Clearly, warm words about climate change will come to nought if no one at Westminster backs it up with the necessary regulations and investments. But words, too, have power. When Clement Atlee was asked what he thought Churchill had contributed to the war effort, he replied: "He talked about it." The characteristically understated Atlee did not mean this sarcastically; rather, he meant that it was Churchill's ability to articulate the conflict in terms that summoned up the blood and stiffened the sinews that was itself vital to the prosecution of the war.

And so, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg: you do now need to actually take action on climate change. But please don't stop talking about it, either.