Climate action: More than fair weather politics?

Climate action: More than fair weather politics?

By Sebastian Merz

February 07, 2014

There is growing concern in political and policy circles about public backlash against climate action. BC Premier Christy Clark, for example, recently expressed her hesitation to make the province a leader on greenhouse gas reduction very bluntly when she commented on the Pacific Coast Collaboration’s carbon-pricing agreement: “It's important to be a leader,” Clark said, “but you also want to have some followers”. 

At the same occasion, Environment Minister Mary Polak made it clear that the BC government was focused on finding “a carbon pricing policy that not only makes environmental sense, but can be supported by the public at large." 

Clark and Polak are not alone in their concern about climate policies that impose costs on voters and, consequently, lead to resistance and potential political fallout. On the other side of the Atlantic, Germany has lately raised some doubts about its commitment to greenhouse gas reduction. Chancellor Angela Merkel—once dubbed “Klimakanzlerin” (or “climate chancellor”)—scared off investors in renewable energy projects last year when her government floated the idea of a cap on rising energy prices. The move came in response to mounting discontent among voters and industry stakeholders over increasing utility bills.

Although this idea has been shelved for the time being, Merkel continued to put on the brakes on climate action when she forced the EU’s new emission standards for cars to be watered down. The justification for her European arm-wrestling was to protect German carmakers and jobs in the industry.

Does this mean that people in places like BC or Germany are “hypocrites” for supporting climate action only as long as it doesn’t cost anything and only until things get difficult? After all, BC voters re-elected a government in 2009 that had just implemented a new carbon tax. Four years and one economic downturn later, Clark won the election with a platform heavily focused on traditional job creation policies.

Is climate action, in other words, nothing more than fair weather politics?

This question was raised at one of our recent Carbon Talks. One of the panelists responded that it was Roger Pielke’s “iron law” of climate policy that was at play here: “when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time.”

If Pielke’s law really is as “iron” as the author says, this does not bode well for our ability to address climate change. Pielke argues that the solution lies in finding policies that don’t hurt anyone—which drastically reduces the number of tools available. However, I don’t believe the story about the public’s hypocrisy is so simple.

It appears to be true that voters tend not to reward bold climate leadership that will cost them in the short-run. Yet, before concluding that they are just too self-centered to support investment in the common good, we may want to ask whether citizens have had enough opportunity to participate in defining our broader interests and in shaping corresponding policies. 

 That the conversation around climate action has again been framed as one of jobs vs. the environment, for example, is not so much the responsibility of voters. It is rather thanks to political actors—and commentators—opting for a tried and trusted strategy to mobilize support and votes.

The alternative would be to engage citizens and stakeholders in an ongoing dialogue to explore the costs and benefits of different policy options. There is evidence to suggest that climate action does not need to conflict with job creation. Plus, taking into account the climate change related challenges we will face in the not so distant future might help to put short-term costs into perspective.

Citizens are ready to engage—last Fall, for example, I had the privilege to help facilitate a dialogue in which people from all over Alberta discussed energy efficiency choices.

Citizen engagement on climate policies has the potential to build broader and more sustainable public support. But it will likely also lead to better policies. It could help ensure that we are focusing on solutions with a long-term view—one that reaches beyond the next election campaign. And it could help address economic and social challenges associated with specific policy measures. Consequently, the ones pushing for more engagement should not just be citizens, but also experts and climate advocates.

There is no guarantee that dialogue will succeed in creating better climate policies and in building greater support. And it may not be an obvious recipe to win an election. At the same time, however, I am not aware of a government that has been punished at the ballot for engaging citizens more deeply in policymaking. And as long as we are not seeing more of this sort of dialogue, it would appear to be premature to conclude that voters are too shortsighted for climate action that is more than fair weather politics.

(Icon photo courtesy of mr_thomas/Flickr)


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