Have we just squandered a good crisis, and a golden opportunity to kick-start climate action?

March 28, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

For years I, along with others like Alex Evans, have been saying ‘the politics of global carbon reduction is stuck, it will require a major climate shock in the rich countries to unblock it’. The argument is that major scandals, crises etc are required to create a sense of urgency, undermine coalitions of blockers, and convince everyone that a new approach is needed. The classic examples often involve wars and conflicts – the consolidation of the British 

Climate change4 (1)

welfare state after World War Two, or the transformation of Rwandan politics after the 1994 genocide.

Well we’ve seen some pretty impressive weather shocks in the US and Europe in recent weeks – how is our prediction doing?

The floods have shifted public opinion a bit (see bar chart – before and after major floods spread across the UK, with accompanying analysis by Peter Kellner – the numbers are a bit old, anyone got anything more recent?). That tells us that more people think the floods are to do with climate change, but not whether they therefore give it greater political salience, which is what is needed for faster action. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to get the data on that.

But what struck me was the fragmented and ineffective response from the people who ought to have been ‘not letting a good crisis go to waste’ (Rahm Emmanuel). Politicians wandered around in their wellies pointing at water, or argued about dredging the rivers and spending more on flood defences. The occasional ‘we told you so’ banner was unfurled for the cameras, but nothing on a par with the US environmental campaigns around 2012’s floods, pols, welliessuperstorm Sandy. Where was the concerted, pre-planned (it’s not as if we didn’t know the floods would get worse) shock response that was called for? What could have been done better? And did I miss it, or has a similar opportunity gone begging with the Polar Vortex in the US? How about:

–          A climate summit/tribunal, pulling together academics, religious organizations, local governments etc etc to review the evidence

–          Parliamentary hearings, eg Select Committee enquiries into the causes of the floods

–          Putting together coalitions of unusual suspects to raise the issues’ public profile (eg bishops and reinsurers)

–          Did the various research outfits with prior work on this drop everything and repackage that work with links to the floods?

Overall, the level of response feels far weaker than that before the Copenhagen Climate Summit back in 2009 – have campaigners have got trapped in a climate diplomacy ‘land of the linear’, and lost their ability to seize opportunities like that presented by the flood?

There are other explanations of course. People rightly deplore blatant ambulance chasing and opportunism, but there must be a way to overcome that, e.g. combining climate change discussion with volunteering to help those affected. The obvious response is to wait for a decent interval, but that carries a high price in terms of a lost opportunity to grab the media spotlight for a crucial issue.

It’s more than likely that a lot of these things did actually happen, and I just missed them – I’m sure lots of discussions took place among climate change campaigners about how to respond. But if the response had been effective, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It may be about scale of response – did campaigners do a few stunts and press releases, but basically carry on as normal, or did they react to the advocacy equivalent of a major humanitarian disaster (think Asian tsunami), and drop all their other plans to focus on this? Would love to hear from those involved about the obstacles they encountered – do we need to rethink the ‘shocks as drivers of change’ hypothesis?

It’s also perhaps the case that the floods, damaging though they are, have just not been severe enough to unblock the political paralysis (I’ve had similar thoughts on the global financial crisis).

What do you think?

March 28, 2014
Duncan Green