Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Are we in a climate trance? An update

There is new evidence that the public in Europe, including Britain, is in a climate trance. If so, that’s bad news. If politicians perceive that the public doesn’t care, they may be less inclined to take forward “costly” climate policies. And with the Copenhagen summit barely six months away, this is no time for anyone to go to sleep when it comes to the future of life on Earth. [For my January 2009 blog on the “shock and trance” syndrome, and my reasons for doubting at that time that Britain was really going into a full blown climate trance, click here]

An article in today’s FT says there is general agreement that the economic crisis will be the key issue on voters' minds when they go into the polling booths in next month's European parliamentary elections. No surprise there. But the boss of Gallup Europe is reported as saying that as people have become worried about their jobs and house prices, they are less concerned about the environment, crime and immigration

"There has really been a big shift," said Robert Manchin, managing director
of Gallup Europe, calling climate change "the big loser".

This is backed up by the Eurobarometer poll on the 2009 European Parliament elections. In January / February, EU voters were asked to name which campaign issues they wish to see tackled as a priority during the European electoral debate. Unemployment (named by 57 per cent) and economic growth (52 per cent) came out as the top themes. Just 26 per cent named climate change, a drop of 3 per cent since the same time last year.

UK voters also named unemployment (47 per cent) and economic growth (41 per cent) as their main themes. But 21 per cent named climate change, a drop of 5 per cent since last year.

In Ipsos MORI’s April issues index, 65 per cent saw the economy as an important issue facing Britain (again, no surprise), compared to just 8 per cent naming“pollution / environment” (which is, of course, wider than climate change). The latter figure was up one point from February. Yet in January 2007, at the height of the “shock,” 19 per cent named “pollution / environment” as a top concern.

On the other key measure of a climate trance: what level of interest the media takes, recent developments are a bit more encouraging. Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute studies the extent to which 50 newspapers in 20 countries (including the UK) cover climate change. His tracking graph traced a huge jump in climate coverage over 2007, the year of the IPPC fourth report and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Last year, the trend lines crashed as coverage stagnated. Boykoff has now updated the chart, to cover the first three months of 2009. The trend lines are now moving back upwards on a steep angle, especially in Europe. There was, after all, plenty to report, with the Obama presidency’s early moves, new, more pessimistic scientific evidence and the Bonn conference

In the UK, political interest in climate change is, if anything, higher than it has been for some time, with the appearance of the government’s carbon budgets, the new policy on coal and CCS and the budget measures on environment. The latter were not what they might have been, but at least, they are not evidence of a climate trance. Also this year, the Conservatives have brought out their policies for reforming the electricity networks and the Lib Dems have unveiled the green road out of recession.

So, the British public are mostly concerned with the economic crisis while remaining broadly on side with measures aimed at tackling the climate crisis, so long as they do not impact too heavily on their wallets. And the politicians (and the media) are doing what they think they have to, while remaining mindful of how much they think the public will be prepared to pay for. Let’s see how long that lasts.

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