Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Nick Clegg speaks on the environment

On Monday night, I went along to the Green Alliance annual debate and heard Nick Clegg give his first major speech on the environment as Liberal Democrat leader.

Although much of the policy content was familiar to Liberal Democrat ears, he signalled some important new directions. On funding adaptation measures in developing countries, Nick went further and into more detail than the party has done in the past. He also made a connection between the need for robust climate change strategies – where the Lib Dems scored very highly in last year’s Green Standard Report - and policies to protect the natural environment, where we didn’t.

But it was on the politics on the environment that the evening was most interesting. Nick drew attention to the fact that, despite all the debate and bad news about climate change, just 7 per cent of the British population sees the environment as a major issue.

Nick discussed how to build support for the bold measures needed to mitigate climate change.

"We need to demonstrate that we are all in this together, that Government, business and individuals can trust one another to play their part in the war against climate change [and] that Britain can respond with a green blitz spirit. So let’s do just that. Let’s apportion responsibility and let’s make clear what we expect from one another.

"Today I’m launching a consultation on a Charter for Climate Change: a covenant between government, industry and individuals; a charter that will affirm that each of us has the right to enjoy a clean and secure environment [and] that makes clear the responsibility of every agency, company and person to do their bit.

"That’s the way to bring about a movement for green action: to mainstream environmental action in our society.

"When we learn to trust one another, green ideas will bloom because it’s not the scale of the problem that’s in doubt, but our ability to tackle it."

First, let’s be clear about what a new green leviathan can and can’t deliver. The debate about what to do about climate change is, as with all big policy issues, about money. Who pays? When, why and how do they pay? When should taxes, regulations or other policies be used and how should they be set? For instance, households account for about a quarter of UK carbon emissions and new, politically difficult measures are needed to encourage more environmentally friendly behaviours, Only strong political leadership, delivering a sound policy framework that effects market and individual behaviours, can provide that.

And if a covenant on climate change is going to achieve anything, it will need to be backed up by a multi-party political agreement. A couple of years ago, previous attempts to reach such agreement have failed, in part because the Conservatives would not commit on green taxes.

Still, Nick is surely correct about the extent of public apathy and distrust. A covenant could help to make a green programme stick, by establishing at least broad agreement about how each major group of society and which sectors of the economy are expected to make sacrifices and the sorts of policies should be used. Citizens paying environmental taxes, for example, need to be assured that they will receive something in return and that it’s not just another way for the government to raise revenue. Consumers paying higher prices for higher carbon goods and services need to be assured that everyone is paying their fair share. The compact is worth trying.

What this comes down to is the need to frame climate change and the policies needed to tackle it so that the public will engage with them. There can’t be trust, responsibility or understanding if people aren’t thinking and acting, let alone talking in the same conceptual space. For understandable reasons, UK political discourse tends to frame climate change debate around fear of an impending catastrophe. All of the parties now use this frame, even if it is tempered by economic and political considerations. But a recent, well-researched piece by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times suggests that will not work.

In using the metaphor of a “green blitz spirit”, Nick used a different frame: war and the need for common endeavour. This ties in with the “enemy over the water” archetype that has underpinned successful political narratives in British history. On climate change though, people need to see a threat and agree that they can resist and win.

After looking at the latest evidence, the Framing Science weblog observed that:

The challenge is to define the "old" story of global warming in ways that make it personally relevant to segments of the public currently tuning out the issue.
On Monday, especially during the Q&A, Nick argued that green issues are still predominantly a concern of the better-off groups in society.

So there is an interesting challenge for those discussing his climate change covenant: making it seem relevant and owned by all of us.

1 comment:

Rob Hopcott said...

Unfortunately, Nick Clegg or anybody else announcing a strategy, although commendable, does little to actually make things happen at the speed that may be needed.

Today nine NGOs published their opinion on how the political parties match up to their criteria of 'Fit for the Future' in their 2008 Green Standard review.

Between them, these NGOs have over five million supporters.

How more effective would it be for them to lobby their supporters to conduct a buying strike on non-electric new cars.

Only by incentivising the car companies in this way will they be motivated to give up the large sums of money they have invested in fossilised fuel technology that is so harmful to our climate and produce the all-electric motor vehicles the ordinary public would prefer to buy.