After Cancun: Where next for climate politics

By Nick Pearce, Director of ippr.

Expectations are low for Cancun. As Tim Wirth and John Podesta at the Center for American Progress – one of ippr’s partners in the Global Climate Networkput it, negotiators may ‘start to pivot toward a new strategy of gradualism’. On the Cancun agenda is how countries can be transparent in achieving emissions reductions, the introduction of credits for preserving forests into carbon markets, and the transfer of finance from rich to poor countries to help cover climate costs. Off the agenda is a comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty of the kind that was so spectacularly not agreed in Copenhagen this time last year.

The juxtaposition of the climate talks and the icy weather across most of northern Europe is important because, while the relationship between climate and weather is dynamic rather than direct, cold winters and failing global negotiations are both likely to weaken public support for action on climate change.

In fact, in terms of average global temperature 2010 is likely to be either the hottest or second-hottest year in the instrumental records. But it began and is apparently ending with unusually heavy snowfall and biting cold in some of the locations in which winning the political arguments really matter.

In the UK, 71 per cent of people are very or fairly concerned about climate change, down from 77 per cent in 2008 and 82 per cent in 2005 but nevertheless still indicative of the fact that most people are neither climate denialists nor swayed by a spell of cold weather.

But there is a deeper malaise in the way people view environmental problems that may help explain the impasse in international climate talks. In isolation, people express concern about climate change, but in comparison with other issues, the environment is a high priority for only a minority of people. For instance, in an ippr poll conducted before the UK elections, fewer than one in five people in marginal constituencies rated climate change among the top three or four issues on which they would base their choice at the ballot box.

Concern about other issues, such as the economy, spikes sharply in response to real-world events. Unlike many green issues – especially climate change – they are of immediate and visceral concern. The graph below from Ipsos MORI illustrates this point perfectly.


If the public – even in the relatively climate-friendly UK – prioritises the economy over climate change then how reasonable is it to expect governments, especially at a time of economic strife, to sign up to an ambitious climate agreement that sets potentially costly new emissions targets?

Environmentalists argue that comparing climate change with other issues is a ‘category error’ because the potential consequences of global warming are so profound and serious. Unfortunately, in reality the public see it differently – they are concerned about climate change, but they are much more concerned about other issues. So rather than shroud-waving on climate change, it would make more sense to start building arguments for climate action that sit much closer to the immediate concerns of voters.

In the chill of a London December, it is difficult to see the Cancun talks ending in anything more positive than the avoidance of complete failure. Progressives have hitherto pinned their hopes on international negotiations to deliver the step-change that’s needed in our approach to climate change. Perhaps it’s time to turn our focus to the domestic stage and to the task of defining how a fairer, more secure and growing economy can also be a low-carbon economies.

This post first appeared on Nick’s ippr blog. Please accept our continued apologies for the ongoing problems with the appearance of this blog. We are gradually resolving them.

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