Why politicians can’t solve climate change

Now, I don’t want to launch into a political rant but it often appears that politicians are only concerned with winning the popular support of the electorate. They avoid confronting the difficult issues and students of BBC sitcoms know that the words most likely to strike fear into the heart of Jim Hacker MP, were: ” … a very brave decision minister.”

In some ways, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It broadly supports continuity and stability, avoiding the potential calamity of politicians who pursue their own passing whims with little regard to the hopes and aspirations of the voting public. However, effective democracy does presume that people understand the implications of the policies that their governments pursue. A successful society needs an electorate that is informed, critical and motivated to participate in the political process.

The political process works less well when a country is led by popularist politicians offering sound-bite policies to an electorate that is poorly informed. And no, this is not a rant about Brexit or political developments in America. This is a warning that all democracies have this flaw and we ignore it at our peril.

Now, ask yourself how well informed the general electorate is about global warming. For example, do people believe that global warming is largely caused by human activity? Yes, probably. Do people believe that the current trajectory of climate change could pass a tipping point within fifteen years, beyond which, the impact of climate change could become irreversible? Probably not, because if they did, then we would expect them to be demanding governments do something about it.

There are three more questions we should ask ourselves: Could global warming cause the collapse of human civilization?  If yes, can it be avoided? And finally, the tricky one, do we have confidence that our political leaders will take the brave decisions needed to avert catastrophe?  The answers to these questions are:  Yes. Maybe. Only if the electorate understand the issues and demand that government take action.

Anyone who is surprised by the assertion that global temperatures could pass a tipping point within fifteen years might be interested in the following summary of data provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC).

From a base point in 1870, it has been calculated that global warming will reach the 2 degree target when CO2 emissions exceed a total of 2,900 billion tonnes. Approximately half this quantity was produced during the period 1870 to 2000.  In the period 2000 – 2015, one third of the remaining carbon budget was produced.  It is projected that the remaining volumes will be produced during the period 2015 – 2030.

Obviously, if CO2 emissions increase faster than projected, (e.g. due to a relaxation of environmental regulations) or the estimated 2 degree Celsius figure was set optimistically high, then the tipping point will be reached sooner.

To put this article into its simplest form: Climate change is a reality, the major causes are man-made and preventing a global catastrophe is not simply a technological problem but a social engagement problem. Governments urgently need to initiate a process of ‘participative change’, enabling the electorate to understand the issues, support the transition to a low carbon future and become advocates for change. Unfortunately, many governments are either ignoring the issue – or actively promoting policies that deny climate change. Neither of these two options are sustainable political strategies.

For over twenty years the UN has been convening the ‘Conference of Parties’ (COP) where leaders from across the world meet to decide what they are going to do about climate change. Just over a year ago, COP 21 in Paris had a historical breakthrough, with each nation offering a limit to their green house gas emissions. Just a couple of problems: a). The limits were voluntary. b). The sum total of their voluntary emission targets is projected to push up global temperatures by 3 – 4 degrees Centigrade. (The limit, beyond which global warming will have catastrophic consequences is 2 degrees Centigrade – although some scientists believe that even this target has been set too high).

So, here we are in 2017.  The UN has overseen twenty years of talks, prevarication and empty promises until finally we are offered the “breakthrough” of a voluntary target that is guaranteed to exceed the critical threshold. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that even these inadequate targets will be met, primarily because most governments are reluctant to implement the necessary action to reduce carbon emissions as this would risk upsetting various vested interests.

Clearly, low carbon strategies require some brave decisions but unless we take urgent action, we will soon pass the tipping point, our economies will collapse and the fabric of society will break down. Ignoring the problem is not an acceptable option. Achieving a transition to a low carbon society should be the paramount objective for every government.

So how do we break this apparent logjam of an electorate that is kept in the dark by established politicians incapable of taking brave decisions? One hopeful sign might be a political party that is ready to commit to policies that underpin the transition to a low carbon economy. It would need to be a political party that is not too closely aligned with vested interests and a political party that is prepared to challenge the status quo.

The good news is that the Liberal Democrats are launching their strategy for ‘Zero Carbon Britain.’ The debate needs to start within our party so that we all understand the issues and become advocates in the wider community.  We need to build a groundswell of informed opinion that puts pressure on the current government to acknowledge the scale of the challenge that faces us. Preventing further increases in global temperatures is not primarily a technical problem – we have the capability to dramatically cut carbon emissions – it is a social engagement problem. Our task now is to build the capability to engage the electorate in a complex debate that touches on all aspects of our society, our values and our relationship with the natural environment.

Sometimes it might feel as though the situation is overwhelming but if you need cheering up, just remember, Brexit is a vanity project compared to the need to transition to a low carbon society … but don’t get me started on a political rant.


* Richard Joy is a member of Green Liberal Democrats

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  • Catherine Jane Crosland 28th Jan '17 - 9:46am

    I think the public are concerned about climate change, but unfortunately the major parties do not treat the issue as a priority. What specific policies would you suggest that we, as a party, should campaign for?

  • Fifteen years is so far away and people are so short term. There is a belief that we can muddle through, how you fix that mindset is I’m afraid beyond me.

  • Peter Andrews 28th Jan '17 - 10:05am

    It is simple why politicians will not tackle climate change, because it involves some short term pain in order for long term gain and politicians look in 5 year election time frames at most.

  • Excellent and important article, thanks Richard.

    Sadly, I think Peter is right, and that most politicians are overly focused on the five year cycle, and unless a project has visible, and electorally pleasing results within that time-frame, is it worth it? It takes a certain amount of conviction, in your cause, ability to communicate why it is important and faith in your electorate to understand. This is where educational programmes play a part, but is also where you get accused of interfering or brain-washing or whatever else your opponents complain about inbetween their complaints to Ofcom because the BBC didn’t give equal time to the climate change denier.

    I believe in democracy, but I also believe in a meritocracy, and evidence based policy, and unfortunately, they are not always good bed-fellows, especially when it comes to the tough subjects like climate change. Sometimes the “unelected bureaucrats” do know what they are on about, better than the populist MPs, and we should be careful what we wish for when it comes to reform of the House of Lords!

    I would say that the general public is blase about climate change. Most know it’s a bad thing, but there is a limit to what most people are prepared to sacrifice without being scared into realising it is necessary, especially if they worry that a low carbon economy means a spartan, fun-free existence.

    This complex issue requires two main approaches. The first is to ensure that the public, especially those who vote, accept climate change is a real and pressing problem, and one that can win or lose votes for a politician. The second is to communicate the opportunities for reducing our carbon outputs, and that a commitment to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle is not necessarily on a par with accepting a monastic vocation.

    In my dream world, someone would take the Express Group to court for their persistent mocking of the possibility of climate change, and any political party claiming green credentials needs to taken to task when they suggest policies such as reducing airport passenger duty (hello SNP).

  • nigel hunter 28th Jan '17 - 1:15pm

    One way of impressing on the public the future position would be to point out what sort of planet your children will be living in, dry? barren?or lush and green.? If warming continues it is only a matter of time before the human race will go the way of the prehistoric animals. The planet will still exist but could it end up like Venus? Is that what we want, death of the human race and the planet.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Jan '17 - 2:02pm

    I agree Nigel. We need to tell people exactly what is likely to happen following the 2 degree increase. Most things we see on TV news or Facebook show the effects of global warming now, arctic ice melting, the Great Barrier Reef dying but do not project what these existing effects will mean if global warming continues.
    I’m concerned that environmental scientists are being treated with the Brexit disdain for all experts, indeed I’m part of the age group that mostly voted Brexit (I didn’t) and I can remember back in the 60s or 70s a new Ice Age was being predicted. Others may use this to reassure themselves that nobody knows what they’re talking about.
    However, for my age group 15 years is quite a short time span . Also for the UK and Europe I think it’s worthwhile telling people how quickly the North Sea cut us off from the rest of the continent due to Arctic ice melting, affecting our prehistoric ancestors. It’s already happened to us so it’s more believable that it will happen again.

  • This is a classic Tragedy of the Commons issue, and as ever the real tragedy is that every persons solution, always starts with a * WE Must *. But a ‘We must’, … usually means * Everyone else except ~ ME ~ must *,… do this,… use less of that resource,.. fly less airmiles,.. drive less,.. cut down on this,… that, and so on.?

    I’ve made a study, and made attempts at low carbon living, through the Transition Towns Initiative, and I can tell you that its tough to divest yourself of much of our ‘modernity’.? I’m not convinced that low carbon living is sustainable, and for certain, its not sustainable with the kind of population numbers we have, as of today.

    Society only got to this stage of ‘civilisation’, on the back of fossil fuels, and it amuses me to hear some suggest that we can keep ‘the plates spinning’, and all of this economic complexity going, with a low [or no], hydrocarbon usage.

    If I’m wrong,.. prove by example and action, instead of words.?
    Why not try a low/no carbon lifestyle for yourself, and report back after 6 months. Then please explain how we as a society,.. practically, transition 65 million people in the UK, to that low carbon level of lifestyle. I’m keen to learn how low carbon living works beyond the rhetoric, and the only way to test it, is,.. IMHO, by turning this ubiquitous ~ ‘We must’,.. or ‘the Government must,..into ‘ I must’.?
    Good luck with your first crop from the raised beds.

  • Jane Ann Liston 28th Jan '17 - 9:20pm

    I’ve heard people say that ‘the scientists will come up with something’ (unspecified, of course). And a man who has grandchildren (and as a long-serving councillor, albeit of another party), insisted that jobs were the important thing, no matter how much damage they caused to future generations. Still more people refuse to believe in global warming because (a) there is an unusually-cold winter with lots of snow every now and then, which ‘proves’ that the planet isn’t getting warmer or (b) they like the idea of warmer summers. These are just some of the ways of thinking that somehow have to be challenged and unpicked.

  • Jane Ann Liston 28th Jan '17 - 9:23pm

    By the way, I would never claim to have a perfect low-carbon lifestyle, but I did get rid of my car over 10 years ago and haven’t flown for over 20 years.

  • I know a lot of people who quite deliberately use public transport instead of driving because of concerns about climate change, and I’m one of them. However, it’s amazing how many people who would scoff at climate change deniers who furrow their brow at the idea of anyone choosing to use public transport, and get angry at the price of parking.

    A bit like finding a cure for cancer, there will never be a magic bullet to solve environmental problems, but also like cancer, the scientists (or more realistically the engineers, and logistics experts) have already come up with a great many technological advances and processes that help us to substantially cut our carbon emissions without taking a hit on our quality of life. This is where concepts such as the circular economy come into their own.

    There are of course other angles, such as whether or not quality of life really does rely on getting the latest iPhone on every release, or if people would get more out of life if they weren’t jumping through hoops to get these trinkets, but instead went to the park to enjoy the flowers.

    The problem for politicians is that the newspapers and electorate may pay more attention to our GDP, not whether or not we are actually happy. Families having a nice day out at the local park with a home made picnic does nothing for our GDP.

  • Simon Banks 30th Jan '17 - 8:58am

    I thought from the heading this was going to be a post I would disagree with, for while politicians alone can’t solve climate change, climate change can’t be solved without them. But I broadly agree. As for GDP, the government, if it was interested, could substitute another measure which took account of environmental degradation, resources depletion, future risks piling up and benefits gained without trading (growing your own fruit rather than selling the fruit you grow and buying more fruit from a shop). Especially with cross-party acquiescence in the change, I bet the media and the public would soon be quoting it, while often unaware of how it was different.

  • Graham Neale 30th Jan '17 - 3:49pm

    Frankie and Peter nailed it, we have five year horizons in politics,
    whilst this is a ‘more than a life-time’ problem.

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