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Guest Blog: Communicating Climate Change in an Era of Populism

By Gitika Bhardwaj on February 26, 2018

Our trustee Gitika Bhardwaj shares her thoughts on communicating climate change in an era of populism.

Street scenes Buchanan Street, Glasgow

Two years on since the signing of the Paris Agreement, what progress has there been in the global climate change movement and what roadblocks remain? There have been moments of magic, as well as moments of madness, in the world of politics and it is this unpredictable political landscape that will remain one of the biggest risks to climate change action over the course of the year ahead.

But there could be a remedy. Effective climate change communications could hold the key to mobilising cross-societal agreement in what has become an increasingly polarised global environment.

Politics in crisis?

The rise of populism has confronted mainstream politics with one of the greatest challenges it faces today. From the success of Donald Trump in the US elections, to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, this trend could come to define the current period of Western politics.

There were hopes that the populist wave might have peaked following the ‘Macron moment’ last year, when the French president defeated far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, in the French elections, following on from Mark Rutte’s triumph over his far-right counterpart, Geert Wilders, in the Dutch elections just over a month before. But with more elections scheduled across Europe this year – most notably in Italy and Hungary where support for populist parties is growing – the anti-establishment sentiment might continue to upset the mainstream political order.

Impact on the climate change debate

But how has this political context affected the climate change debate? In some cases significantly. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, for example, following on from an election campaign that promised support for the coal sector, the US president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, signed by more than 190 countries in 2015. Now that Nicaragua and Syria have signed the historic treaty, the US – the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter – is the only country who intends to be outside of the accord, raising questions about the possibility of limiting global warming to below 1.5°C. Furthermore, the Trump administration has now dropped climate change from its list of global threats outlined in its latest National Security Strategy and the US president continues to express climate change scepticism on his social media channels.

In the UK, after taking on the premiership in 2016 following the Brexit result, Theresa May has had a piecemeal stance towards tackling climate change, having scrapped the former Department for Energy and Climate Change, appointed Michael Gove as environment secretary – who once wanted to remove the mention of climate change from the curriculum – and recently announcing that renewable energy subsidies will be cut until 2025. The snap UK general election in 2017 also saw May forced to form a minority government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who itself has had a debatable position on environmental issues, having previously appointed a climate change sceptic as its environment minister. Fortunately, May has attempted to bolster her government’s green credentials recently, outlining a Clean Growth Strategy which explains how the UK hopes to meet its legally-binding climate change goals. Though this is set to include a 25-year environment plan, there has been criticism that her proposals have not been ambitious enough.

Likewise, in Germany, following the success of the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party in the German elections, Angela Merkel was left taking a more reserved tone on climate change issues as she attempted to forge a coalition government at home. This was under the spotlight at the latest UN climate negotiations, where the German chancellor announced that the nation could miss meeting its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, while avoiding taking a strong stance against coal. However, now that Merkel is on the brink of forming a coalition government with the centre-left Social Democratic Party, we could see Germany get back on track towards becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Hope on the horizon

The response to this political instability is, however, perhaps a reason to be hopeful. One of the impacts of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is the galvanizing effect it has had among the rest of the world, bringing countries closer together in their commitment to seeing the accord come to life.

Following Trump’s announcement, the EU and China, emboldened many by releasing a joint statement upholding their commitment to the agreement; US states, cities and businesses have come together to counteract Trump’s policy shift by mobilising a prominent ‘We Are Still In’ campaign; French President, Emmanuel Macron, has announced that he will help to close the gap in funding left by the US for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; an international alliance to phase out coal by 2030 has been unveiled which will help to accelerate efforts to cut coal from the global energy mix; and now the World Bank has revealed that it will stop financing oil and gas extraction projects from 2019.

Work to do

Given the political climate, however, it is crucial to focus on translating these ambitious pledges into effective action. But how do we do this in a ‘post-truth’ landscape that is being shaped by divisive forces such as populism?

There might be a silver lining. Having conversations with groups across society, as the populist tide rages on, could be a powerful tool in placating the current of disenchantment that has grown. Climate Outreach is working to do just that by expanding the dialogue around climate change, from an issue that is for experts, to one that is for everyone. They have found that values underpin decision-making – rather than politics, economics or science – so finding the shared values that unite us rather than divide us could be a golden opportunity to shore up climate change efforts.

From talking about climate change to people of all ages, faiths, nationalities and sides of the political spectrum, to changing our image of climate change from one of melting ice caps to one of how families are adapting to rising sea levels, it is important that we build a societal consensus that appeals to our shared values so that we can effectively tackle a global problem – while we still can.

We have achieved so many amazing things so far. The development of a solar energy-powered aeroplane which completed its first trip around the world in 2016. The growth of the renewable energy sector to one that now employs almost 10 million people globally. The expansion of the electric car industry with now almost 2 million electric cars on the road worldwide. Solar energy-powered lamps being used to give refugees energy access in camps from Jordan to Burkina Faso. There are now even trains and airports powered by solar energy all the way from the Netherlands to Australia.

But this year marks a deadline for agreeing a ‘rulebook’ for the Paris Agreement – the rules for how the agreement will operate after 2020. In the run-up to this milestone, we need the momentum to continue. With an unpredictable political landscape, that will likely see the US government no longer in the driving seat in the UN climate negotiations as it was ahead of Paris, it will be up to the rest of the world – individually and collectively and from the bottom to the top – to come together to overcome the divisions that have been sown.

Gitika Bhardwaj works at The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House and is a trustee of Climate Outreach.

By Gitika Bhardwaj

Gitika Bhardwaj works at The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House and was on the Board of Trustees of Climate Outreach from 2016 to 2022. She has a Master’s degree in European Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Bachelor’s degree in History from Queen Mary, University of London.

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