After Cancún: shifting climate gears

The loss of momentum in climate diplomacy reflects deep flaws in the way campaigners understand and frame climate change in relation to people’s lives and interests. There is both challenge and opportunity here, says Andrew Pendleton.
Andrew Pendleton
6 December 2010

Viktor Chernomyrdin, who served as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin for six years during the first post-Soviet decade of the 1990s, once cast an awkwardly illuminating light on the wayward progress of the Soviet Union’s attempted self-reform: “we hoped for better, but it turned out as usual.”

What might be called Chernomyrdin’s law - the optimism of the spirit crushed by the forces of inertia - is a good description of what happened during the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. Then, tens of thousands of campaigners turned up in the chilly Danish capital to demand a fair, adequate and binding climate treaty. They hoped for better.

Their reward - the attendance of more than 100 world leaders notwithstanding - was a flimsy political accord, far less than is required to keep world average temperature increases below 2º Celsius and thus ensure genuine progress in the epochal work of ameliorating global climate change. Even what pledges were in Copenhagen were in most cases reiterations rather than revelations. It turned out more or less as usual.

A year on, the UN climate talks are taking place in the Mexican resort of Cancún (29 November-10 December 2010). Many fewer campaigners will make the journey, and environment ministers - rather than heads of state and government - will be left to agree on some form of outcome in the final few days. Expectations are low, for the climate process is still steadfastly in the grip of the usual.

A distant thunder

Why, despite the hopes of so many committed environmentalists, does the international effort to combat climate change keep reverting to an apparent crash-course with the future? Some blame the background lobbying of companies whose interests lie in maintaining the high-emissions status quo; others argue that political leaders are playing diplomatic games with the wellbeing of the planet rather than facing their responsibility to take a bold stand.

There is something in both arguments. Corporate lobbying is almost certainly a factor. Leadership is doubtless lacking. Geopolitics are never easy. But what many observers of the process miss is that while the majority of citizens are concerned about climate change and share some of their indignation at what goes on at the international level, they simply do not - when it comes to how they vote or what they buy - prioritise action on climate change.

In practice, popular support for the kind of governmental action that is needed is narrow and shallow. It is therefore highly unlikely that governments are going to take risks and go for “better” rather than the usual.

The dilemma is apparent even in Europe, where - according to reliable opinion-poll figures from Eurobarometer - 47% per cent of people think that climate change is the most serious problem facing the world, yet the issue is not a priority in determining the vote of more than a fraction of this figure. A poll conducted for the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) before Britain’s general election in May 2010, for example, found that only 17% of voters in key marginal constituencies listed climate change among their top three or four issues. There were local increases in the green vote, leading to the election of a member of parliament, but the overall pattern was not encouraging.

In Australia’s election in August 2010, five more greens won seats in the federal parliament‘s two houses, but the overall rise in support was slight; polls showed that voters ranked climate change eighth or lower in their list of priorities. Another set of data, from the Ipsos-Mori company, shows that concern about the economy takes a sharp upturn in direct relation to economic travails.

At present, around 70% of people in Britain say the economy (including economy-related matters such as unemployment) is the most important issue facing the country; it is rare for more than 10% to prioritise environmental matters, and even when there are significant environmental events the “spike” tends to be a weak one. The reason for this is simple. Those areas that appear immediate and visceral in terms of citizens’ everyday experience matter to them more than distant threats, however significant the latter may be.

This makes climate change a desperately difficult issue for governments both seriously to deal with and to remain in power – both because the threat, vital as it is, is still distant, and because the actions needed to avoid that threat conflict directly with the concerns people do see as direct priorities. The implication is that climate campaigners can raise the alarm - wave the environmental “shroud” – until they are hoarse or exhausted, without being able to change the reality that people’s primary focus will remain their economic security.

Even the impeccable logic of Nicholas Stern’s economic analysis of and prescription for dealing with the climate threat fails to convince in political terms; for in a period of acute economic and social distress in the major western states, when unemployment is high and public services being cut, the argument for “sacrificing” a proportion - however trivial - of national wealth is seen as adding to the pain.

Moreover, this situation can be expected to become worse not better. It may be that 2009 will come to appear an exceptional year in environmental politics, when the very focus on Copenhagen kept climate change high on the public agenda - only for it now to be seen (especially in a snow-bound Europe) as “last year’s issue”.

A number of factors - continued financial turbulence and the threat of contagion, the currency friction between the United States and China, wider trade tensions, and overriding concerns over jobs and welfare - make the chances of a climate deal, and even any real focus on climate change at all, more remote than ever.

A new story

How can this be changed?

Just as climate science itself is constantly developing and deepening, so much more needs to be known about the politics of climate change. Many assumptions have been made about the need to champion energy security or green growth as frames for climate action, but so far without much of an evidence-base.

Meanwhile, many climate-focused researchers are still searching for the kind of “clinching” cost-benefit analysis or ultra-dire scientific prediction that would (as if by magic) unlock the secret of transforming the agenda. Most don’t even seem to recognise that the consent of everyday people matters, and is now lacking.

Along with better knowledge of the politics, a new story of climate change is needed. It needs above all to be grounded in the truth of what is happening, but also located close to what really matters to people. This in turn requires a preliminary focus on the local and national levels, then building support for those from an international process - rather than starting at the top and working downwards (or backwards).

An approach of this kind, in the context of the urgent attention of most people to their economic security, would also benefit from shifting the relationship in public discourse between the economy and the environment. Again, to argue for a halting or reduction in economic growth at a time when people are already under severe pressure from a downturn carries little persuasive power. But reversing the usual line of questioning - not what can the economy do to save the climate, but what action on climate change can do to save (and boost) the economy - might do.

Viktor Chernomyrdin’s law is not inexorable. But achieving rather than hoping for “better” on climate change will require a much more thorough account of why “the usual” persists. It may be comforting (and to a limited degree plausible) to blame big business and cowardly leaders. But until nation-states develop an understanding of how climate-friendly policies will help and not harm people’s more immediate priorities, progress is likely to be measured in very small increments indeed.

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