It was an interesting chat over a cuppa. I had managed to grab half an hour 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 yesterday’s UK council elections. The results for the European Parliament will not be known until Sunday, but I would hazard a guess that they will bring with some a few key 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 in the United States, what was once written off as an incoherent party of protest that could not survive for more than a political season is becoming an established feature of the political landscape.
Second, other potential ‘protest parties’ have not capitalised on the general malcontent with the established parties. That doesn’t mean three main party politics is going anywhere soon. UKIP, despite its 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 it is us who 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 as business as usual. This sense of alarm and urgency hasn’t translated into any numbers of votes cast for green parties. In fact the overall share for the Green Party fell from 13% to 9%. Moreover, UKIP is well known for its particular interpretation of the science. For example, this from its 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.
This clearly climate change skeptical political party has in some parts of the country polled over 30%.
Rather than votes being cast for a climate change skeptical party, it’s entirely possible that some people were motivated 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 further increase environmental degradation in order to ensure that the lights are kept on. Fear is a much more powerful motivator.
Fear of immigration has clearly been another important factor in these recent elections. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said that he feels uncomfortable with hearing languages other than English on a train. He would also feel uncomfortable if a family of Romanians moved in next door. The electorate is either not concerned with these sentiments or actually shares them. “The country is full” is something of a banner under which a wide range of parties can set up their stall. Its exclusionary principles are proving remarkably inclusive.
It was immigration and more generally migration that I thought about first thing this morning. Earlier this year I had leaned forward in my cafeteria chair in a supposedly conspiratorial manner and asked the previous 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’. His response rocked me back. “Oh I think we’re locked into at least three degrees of warming.” If you have seen any of the diagrams that visualise the impacts of warming, you will know that this is nowhere near ‘safe climate change’.
So to immigration. These climate change impacts will be felt first and foremost by those countries that have the least resources to deal with it. Which just so happens to be those same countries that are the least responsible for climate change having emitted the least amount of carbon. When their homes are under water, when their crops fail and livestock perish, what are they to do? Are they simply 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 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. A stage that this country via the process of industrialisation had an important hand in making.