Former peatland forest converted into palm oil plantation in Aceh Jaya district in Indonesia. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.

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.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May could live to regret not putting Article 50 to a vote sooner

Today's Morning Call.

Theresa May will reveal her plan to Parliament, Downing Street has confirmed. They will seek to amend Labour's motion on Article 50 adding a note of support for the principle of triggering Article 50 by March 2017, in a bid to flush out the diehard Remainers.

Has the PM retreated under heavy fire or pulled off a clever gambit to take the wind out of Labour's sails while keeping her Brexit deal close to her chest? 

Well, as ever, you pays your money and you makes your choice. "May forced to reveal Brexit plan to head off Tory revolt" is the Guardian's splash. "PM caves in on plans for Brexit" is the i's take. "May goes into battle for Brexit" is the Telegraph's, while Ukip's Pravda aka the Express goes for "MPs to vote on EU exit today".

Who's right? Well, it's a bit of both. That the government has only conceded to reveal "a plan" might mean further banalities on a par with the PM's one-liner yesterday that she was seeking a "red white and blue Brexit" ie a special British deal. And they've been aided by a rare error by Labour's new star signing Keir Starmer. Hindsight is 20:20, but if he'd demanded a full-blown white paper the government would be in a trickier spot now. 

But make no mistake: the PM didn't want to be here. It's worth noting that if she had submitted Article 50 to a parliamentary vote at the start of the parliamentary year, when Labour's frontbench was still cobbled together from scotch-tape and Paul Flynn and the only opposition MP seemed to be Nicky Morgan, she'd have passed it by now - or, better still for the Tory party, she'd be in possession of a perfect excuse to reestablish the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. May's caution made her PM while her more reckless colleagues detonated - but she may have cause to regret her caution over the coming months and years.

PANNICK! AT THE SUPREME COURT

David Pannick, Gina Miller's barrister, has told the Supreme Court that it would be "quite extraordinary" if the government's case were upheld, as it would mean ministers could use prerogative powers to reduce a swathe of rights without parliamentary appeal. The case hinges on the question of whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights, something only the legislature can do.  Jane Croft has the details in the FT 

SOMETHING OF A GAMBLE

Ministers are contemplating doing a deal with Nicola Sturgeon that would allow her to hold a second independence referendum, but only after Brexit is completed, Lindsay McIntosh reports in the Times. The right to hold a referendum is a reserved power. 

A BURKISH MOVE

Angela Merkel told a cheering crowd at the CDU conference that, where possible, the full-face veil should be banned in Germany. Although the remarks are being widely reported in the British press as a "U-Turn", Merkel has previously said the face veil is incompatible with integration and has called from them to be banned "where possible". In a boost for the Chancellor, Merkel was re-elected as party chairman with 89.5 per cent of the vote. Stefan Wagstyl has the story in the FT.

SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

Michael Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has reminded the United Kingdom that they will have just 15 to 18 months to negotiate the terms of exit when Article 50 is triggered, as the remaining time will be needed for the deal to secure legislative appeal.

LEN'S LAST STAND?

Len McCluskey has quit as general secretary of Unite in order to run for a third term, triggering a power struggle with big consequences for the Labour party. Though he starts as the frontrunner, he is more vulnerable now than he was in 2013. I write on his chances and possible opposition here.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Emad asks if One Night Stand provides the most compelling account of sex and relationships in video games yet.

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