Thu 21 Nov 2019
A cosy consensus among politicians allowed lofty targets to be set, and then ignored. But now voters want actual solutions
The most shocking political development of 2019 may be the end of the nearly three-decade old consensus that the public doesn’t care about the climate crisis. People were hopelessly and permanently apathetic, the argument went, or unable to see beyond the present. They were said to suffer what Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger memorably called “apocalypse fatigue”, a numbness brought on by years of scientific warnings about a dismal future. And this in turn meant they were uninterested in, if not outright hostile to, any kind of meaningful climate action.
All of this appeared to be backed up by data. Years of polling and other measures of public engagement showed that even as awareness of the crisis grew, there was no interest in changing anything.
But after an unprecedented wave of popular climate protests – centred around the latest and most terrifying scientific predictions – recent polling suggests that orthodoxy has suddenly and dramatically reversed. A YouGov poll found that more than half the country backs a national target of zero carbon emissions by 2030, a policy that as recently as a year ago was offered only by the Green party. Other polls suggest that two-thirds of the country believes the climate crisis is the biggest issue facing humankind, and that it has overtaken the economy on voters’ list of concerns. There have been suggestions that the climate crisis will be a central issue in the upcoming general election – it’s even being called “the climate election” – and a majority of Britons say that it will influence the way they vote.
The public now appears to want to take part in the politics of climate change. The trouble is, such a thing barely exists. This sounds ridiculous, because we have clear evidence of at least two kinds of climate politics: the familiar international conferences, with rooms filled with bureaucrats and national leaders parachuting in for the final handshakes and signatures; and the recent actions by grassroots groups such as the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion. But between the insulated world of international negotiation and street-level protest there is almost nothing.