British climate politics – this time it’s different (but the same)


Starting about 15 years ago, Britain saw a wave of heightened concern about climate change. It emerged in the spring of 2004, peaked in late 2006 and by the early 2010s had largely dissipated.  But concern about climate change has made a dramatic comeback in 2019. This year has seen a ‘climate spring’ – the school strikes for climate, the net zero report by the Committee on Climate Change and above all the demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion have all pushed the issue way back the agenda. A climate emergency has been declared by multiple bodies and authorities, including Parliament. How far are things different this time round?

The wave of the 2000s appeared to follow the pattern of a classic issue-attention cycle: ‘alarmed discovery’ and enthusiasm that a solution might be found, followed by a realisation of the costs of significant progress, then a gradual decline of interest before the problem gets moved into a ‘twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest’. By this stage in a cycle, new institutions and policies are usually in place to tackle the issue, and of course with climate change in the UK this was the case, with the 2008 Climate Change Act providing a new framework, the Committee on Climate Change a new institution and the Electricity Market Reform some new policies.

In fact, according to Ipsos Mori data on what people see as the most important issues facing Britain, and interpreting ‘Pollution/Environment’ as mainly concern about climate change, attention began to turn away well before the Climate Change Act became law, peaking around the time of the Stern Review and major gales in late 2006. The data can be seen here: Ipsos Mori 97-19.

Certainly, with the financial crisis emerging in 2008, the issue moved down the political agenda. By 2012, when concern slumped to its lowest level (fewer than 5% of people said it was a ‘most’ or ‘other’ important issue) eclipsed by concerns about the economy.

But fast track to 2019 and the current wave of concern is as high, if not higher, than that seen before. In May 2019, 20% of respondents in the Ipsos Mori tracking survey said that pollution or the environment was the most important issue facing Britain today, or mentioned it alongside other issues as important. This is a higher proportion than said this even at the height of the cycle in the 2000s, and significantly, it is higher than those mentioning the economy.*

However, the actors driving the current issue-attention cycle this time round are different from in the 2000s. Then, it was figures from the political establishment, such as David King, the Chief Scientist, who stated that climate change was a greater threat than terrorism, and Tony Blair, who made climate change a major focus for the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005, who were drawing attention to the issue. The mainstream environmental movement, especially Friends of the Earth, who led the Big Ask campaign for a climate bill, also played a major role. This time round the actors are outside the mainstream, like XR, and notably, more of them are younger than was the case in the 2000s. Back then, David Cameron co-opted the issue of climate change to de-toxify the Tory party; and this time round political leaders queued up to appear with Greta Thunberg, but there is a sense that they are not so in control of events this time round.

What happens next therefore seems more unpredictable. But the pattern of the issue-attention cycle has been seen many times before, so it is a valid question whether history will repeat itself, and how long climate change can remain in the public eye. Keeping the climate issue on the front pages will be a challenge for XR, especially as their demands get taken up and institutionalised, as with the case of a Citizen’s Assembly. Only time will tell if things really are different this time around….

* It is possible that some of the rise in Pollution/Environment in the Ipsos Mori tracker actually relates not to climate change but to air quality concerns in cities, which have received an increasing amount of media and political attention over the last 2 years. This is one problem with the data series, and points to the need for a long term tracker focusing just on climate change.



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2 responses to “British climate politics – this time it’s different (but the same)

  1. dkcyeo

    Sure, things are different this time. But there remains a dearth of viable responses. There are no easy solutions or quick wins for this. So although the pressure may be different and the attention more acute, I’m still struggling to see a plausible route to a new paradigm.
    There’s no simple, single “ask” that everyone can get behind that will change things, it’s a wicked problem. At best the answer lies perhaps in dialogue and discourse (e.g. Citizens fora etc), but there at least needs to be some alignment about the contours or parameters of such a deliberation. Penny for your thoughts on what change looks like?

    • I agree with your comments. Personally, I think that change will happen through policies that start small but create the political conditions for their own success. An example from outside climate policy would be the National Health Service – radical at the time but quickly popular and now irreversible. I don’t know what new paradigms will do that, but it seems to me that’s what they have to do if they are to succeed.

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