Amongst the stream of postmortems of the UK’s General Election last night, what do the results mean for the biggest issue facing the UK and the rest of the world?
Optimistically billed by many as the ‘climate election’, the vote took place amidst record public concern about climate change, and highly visible climate protests. The first ever election debate on climate change resulted in the country’s most loved personality, David Attenborough, admonishing Boris Johnson for not turning up (and being replaced by a melting ice block by the organisers).
From a climate perspective, there are some positives that shouldn’t be ignored in terms of the election campaign itself.
For the first time, climate change was an issue that politicians were asked about and that the media focused on. As the climate polling expert Leo Barasi pointed out, all of the MPs elected were in parties that committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. The equivalent figure in 2017 was 0. Some commentators have highlighted that this provides a positive starting point for the new government.
There was also a significant rise in the Green Party vote - arguably reflecting the renewed salience of climate change in the political discourse. And perhaps the fleeting mention of climate change in this morning’s speech by the Prime Minister was driven by the heightened public concern around this issue.
Yet for many in the climate sector, the election result is one that comes with significant worries.
If the new Prime Minister is serious about prioritising climate change, why didn’t he turn up to the climate debate? There is a lack of climate ambition within the Conservative manifesto in comparison with the other main parties. And the Conservative Party’s track record over the past decade on climate and energy policies is littered with causes for concern (e.g. undermining the on-shore wind energy industry, abolishing the renewable energy feed-in-tariffs, support for fracking) and a palpable lack of urgency.
But some things have now become clearer following the election, and they point to some stark decisions and analysis required from climate campaigners and communication strategists as a consequence.
A climate election?
Firstly, while polls throughout 2019 clearly showed concern about climate change surging to new levels (and the big increase in the Green Party’s vote could arguably be attributed to an emerging voting bloc prioritising climate change), the idea that this was a ‘climate election’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
While record-breaking levels of concern about climate change and the powerful street movements of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future are a positive sign and suggest we have reached the ‘starting line’ on public engagement with climate change, we are a long way from the broad-based social mandate required to catalyse political action.
Turning concern into political (and behavioural) action
Boris Johnson’s no-show at the climate debate signals that whilst politicians are acutely aware of the high level of concern about climate change, some calculate it is not an election winning issue and will be trumped by more pressing concerns in the ballot box for their targeted voters.
In many ways the televised climate debate supported this - it was dominated by the generic threat of climate change and a set of solutions that largely revolved around huge numbers of trees being planted. Little mention was made of citizens’ worries around heatwaves and flooding and there was no real discussion of the very real benefits of shifting behaviours or the economy.
Understanding the new electoral map
Efforts to understand the British electorate better on climate change need to be redoubled. How deeply has Brexit cut into, and across, the old partisan distinctions? And how can we adapt and adjust our approach to communicating climate change into the new political landscape?
Like it or not, at least half of the decade ahead in Britain (widely viewed by campaigners and scientists alike as the critical period for slowing down and reversing global carbon emissions) will be led by a Conservative government with a large majority. Shouting at them for their failures and lack of ambition will only get so far - so while this can (and should) continue, working cross-politically is critical, because decarbonisation won’t wait for the next electoral cycle.
The work we have focused on for a number of years at Climate Outreach - testing and developing narratives for engaging wider constituencies, including the centre right - has always been about exactly this: aiming to ensure that the climate change story is one that people with centre-right values have a stake in and want to prioritise.
This work is arguably more important now than it ever was.
Extinction Rebellion has picked up criticism for claiming to be ‘beyond politics’ (when in reality no such thing is possible). But a pluralistic approach to climate change - keeping the ambition of decarbonisation targets, but recognising that the route from A and B is complicated by the political priorities of the governing party and the values of the electorate at any given time - seems essential.
Articulating the climate story through multiple political lenses is critical for an issue that is ‘beyond politics’, in the sense that no political philosophy can escape from the reality of it. However it is deeply political in the sense of the trade-offs and value judgments required to curb emissions and build resilience fast.
Very practically, the UK is hosting the next annual UN climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow in December 2020. How should campaigners approach this? Holding the government to account for their performance is critical. But COPs are famously also a key opportunity to build and leverage political capital internationally, and it is crucial that the UK does this in Glasgow.
Creating a positive national conversation comparable to the UK Olympics in 2012 will be critical to success in Glasgow. Key stepping stones exist. The lessons we have learnt about considered public engagement, the emergence of citizens' assemblies, and the burgeoning interest in ‘just transition’ approaches all provide reasons for optimism.
We’ll be focusing on exactly these issues in the first half of 2020, because no matter who is in government, a clear and careful understanding of the public values that underpin engagement on climate change is critical.