A little while ago I had managed to grab a half hour cuppa with a previous vice chairman of the IPCC. Topics of discussion roamed far and wide but with an understandable focus on climate change. As I sat at my desk this morning, blearily staring into the clouds of my coffee, I thought about that meeting in the light of the local council elections. And I would hazard a guess that the results for the European Parliament election will bring a few messages.
First, the United Kingdom Independence Party has significantly increased its seats and its overall influence on British politics. Perhaps in a similar evolution to that of the Tea Party movement in the US, what was once written off as an incoherent party of protest that could not survive for more than a season is becoming an established feature of the political landscape.
Second, other potential protest parties have not capitalised on the general malcontent towards the established parties. This doesn’t mean three party politics is going anywhere soon. UKIP, despite its comparatively strong showing has no control of any councils. But the lurch in the main parties’ response to these results can only be in one direction as they attempt to reduce the UKIP threat.
What has any of that got to do with climate change? Well, in its latest round of reports the IPCC has concluded that it is now 95% certain that humans are responsible for the observed dramatic increase in carbon emissions, and that our prospects as a global, industrialised civilisation are not good if we continue with business as usual. This sense of alarm and urgency hasn’t translated into a surge of votes for European green parties, for example.
Additionally, UKIP members are well known for their particular interpretation of the science. Even if we leave aside the idea that this winter’s storms were caused by gay marriage, there’s obviously sceptical claims in the party’s manifesto:
The slight warming in the last hundred years is entirely consistent with well-established, long-term natural climate cycles… We do not however regard CO2 as a pollutant. It is a natural trace gas in the atmosphere which is essential to plant growth and life on earth.
It is this, clearly climate change-skeptical political party, that has in some parts of the country polled over 30%.
It’s entirely possible that this was in part because there has been such recent bad news about the climate. The main theme of UKIP’s climate change policy is energy security, with an important fossil fuel component. If you are convinced that we are heading towards climate chaos, then you may be more inclined to support policies that would ensure the lights are kept on regardless of increased environmental degradation. Fear is a much more powerful motivator.
Fear of immigration has been another important factor in these recent elections. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said that he feels uncomfortable hearing languages other than English on a train. He said he would also feel uncomfortable if a family of Romanians moved in next door. The electorate is either unconcerned by these sentiments or shares them. “This country is full”, is something of a banner under which a wide range of parties set up their stall. Its exclusionary principles have proved remarkably inclusive.
And it was immigration or more generally migration that I thought about this morning. Previously, I had asked the former vice chairman of the IPCC what he thought was going to happen. What were his predictions for global average temperature increases? I’ll be honest, I was expecting some polished response, a general message of concern but tempered with ways we can get engaged to “make a difference”. But his response shook me: “Oh I think we’re locked into at least 3°C of warming.” If you have seen any of the diagrams that visualise the impacts of such warming, you will know that this is nowhere near “safe” climate change.
So to immigration. The impact of climate change will be felt first and foremost by those countries with the least resources to cope. These also just happen to be the same countries that are least responsible for climate change, having emitted the least amount of carbon. When their homes are underwater, when their crops fail and livestock perish, what are they to do? Are they going to stay there and die quietly? Would you?
The emotions that some experience when looking out over the rolling hills and patchwork fields of this green and pleasant land are essentially the same that others feel in their, very different landscapes. A sense of belonging, place, history, culture and meaning. But such landscapes have never been immutable. Humans have radically transformed the planet and continue to do so. Change is the only constant.
Rather than retreat and turn inwards in an attempt to deny the forces that spiral around us, we should take our responsibilities seriously and seek influence on the global stage. Not least because Britain, through centuries of industrialisation, has played a large role in setting that stage.