Climate change is an issue that, although important, is far away from the immediate concerns of many voters. David Cameron certainly did not seem to think this when he announced that a Conservative government would be the ‘greenest ever’. Nonetheless, the recent reshuffle suggests that even if Cameron did have a genuine concern for climate change there has been a distinct shift in how the Conservative Party will approach it. For Labour it offers an opportunity to paint the Tories into a corner on a problem that will likely assume growing importance amongst the electorate.
The Prime Minister’s changes make for grim reading. Owen Patterson, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is apparently a climate change sceptic and opposed to wind farms. Patrick McLoughlin is now the new Secretary of State for Transport, in a move seen as opening up the way for a third runway at Heathrow. John Hayes a new Minister of State for Energy at the Department for Energy and Climate Change is an opponent of wind farms. These moves should be seen in the context of a wider rightward shift in Conservative Party. However, the fact that Cameron felt he could do this, after making such noise over his green credentials, demonstrates the extent to which climate change has died off as a priority amongst the electorate and media.
This is completely understandable. People’s lives are being directly affected by the economy and that needs to be the priority for our politicians. Even the Green Party seems to be shifting its focus towards economic issues. In addition, and this is admittedly anecdotal, I’ve noticed a creeping fatalism amongst people I know who consider climate change a major problem. This fatalism is often two-pronged: a belief that there will be no major political effort to tackle climate change issues and that climate change is probably beyond the point of no return. Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, argues that the biggest mistake the climate change community has made is to focus on ‘fear appeals’ to motivate people to act. The problem is too much focus on the negative impact of climate change can paralyse us and there needs to be a focus on how to take action to make a difference. He also points out that there are powerful solutions and technologies that if used properly will lessen the danger.
There are a number of indicators which suggest things are getting worse. For example, Arctic Sea ice was recently at its lowest level since records began in the 1970s – and this was two or three weeks before the melt season was due to end. It is estimated that before 2050 there will be no ice at all. For Cameron this will mean his beloved huskies will have nothing to drag him along on. For humanity the lack of ice is bad news because it reflects heat from the sun back into space. The Arctic is only one of many areas where adjustments in the environment could accelerate climate change. Climatologists have found that extreme weather events are happening every 2 to 3 years rather than every 10 to 20 years and leading scientists are linking this to climate change. Polling in the United States has found that increasing numbers of people are connecting extreme weather events to climate change. This shift in opinion could easily develop in the UK.
There are probably Tory strategists hoping to use this rightward shift to force Labour to come out against what could be some very bad decisions on the environment. They will hope to paint ‘Red’ Ed Miliband as some sort of tree hugger with the implication being that he cares more about the environment than he does about the economy. There is one important thing to remember though. A majority of the British public (57%) believe climate change is real and manmade (as do almost all climate researchers (97%)) and there is strong support for renewable energy. Trends suggest there will be more climate change, more extreme weather events and that public opinion will start to connect the two. When this happens people will begin to ask where the parties stand. Labour should push the Tories on this issue over the next few years. Labour needs to be seen party with solutions to the climate change issue, not, as Nick Boles would put it, the ‘latter-day luddites’ many Tories seem to be.