Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

The politics of climate change

Reshaping the climate conversation and a bigger role for the state are key to achieving policy success, writes Tom Burke.

While both the public and most politicians have now become convinced of the reality of climate, neither has yet grasped the urgency of acting on climate change.

This is not for want of effort by climate scientists. Year by year they have given us a better understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change. They have relentlessly communicated what they know through every possible channel. So what is holding us up?

Neither the public nor politicians have yet grasped what is really at stake in the difference between climate policy success and climate policy failure. If you like, we have our priorities wrong. Let me explain.

The first imperative on any government is to maintain its territorial integrity. If it cannot do that, it is not a government in any meaningful sense of the word. Syria comes immediately to mind as a place where a government has lost control of its territorial integrity.

The second imperative is to maintain internal stability. Without it a government cannot maintain territorial integrity. This is particularly true in the urban areas where more than half the world’s population now lives. A picture of what a loss of internal stability looks like is all too readily visible in Haiti or Sudan.

The third imperative is to maintain food, water and energy security without which internal stability becomes impossible. There are other forces that can destroy internal stability but the loss of food, water and energy security guarantees it.

The fourth imperative is to maintain climate security since without it maintaining food, water and energy security becomes progressively more difficult. We can already see in many places around the world that the current level of climate change is already adding stress to food, water and energy security.

The fifth imperative for a government is to maintain access to markets and resources needed to enhance prosperity, and for most – if not all – governments, the fifth imperative is actually their first imperative.

Let me elaborate on the point about political priorities: even if current climate pledges are met – and that is by no means guaranteed even in the EU – then we will breach the Paris Agreement target. This might mean that by the middle of the next decade, say 2035, there could be extended periods of 40°C plus temperatures in the summer across the whole of the Northern Mediterranean littoral. This would not be good for the European tourism industry.

There are now homes in the United States that already uninsurable because of wildfires. This is soon likely to be the case in Southern Europe.

The European Green Deal is the world’s most ambitious and comprehensive package to tackle climate change. It comprises more than 50 measures covering the four main sectors of the energy transition: power, movement, buildings and food and agriculture. Yet even though it is neither big enough nor fast enough to keep the climate safe, it is running into increasingly strong headwinds as politicians across the EU worry more about the impact of climate policy on the fifth imperative.

These considerations lead me to the conclusion that the most difficult and often least systematically understood obstacle to climate policy success is politics rather than technology or economics.

In order to bring about effective environmental change we need to do both policy and politics. This means that we need not only to produce deliverable policy ideas but also to be able to create the political conditions for their adoption. Put at its simplest, policy is a map; politics is the journey.

Getting people to agree on the best way to get from here to there – in this case to a decarbonised economy is one thing; persuading them to actually make the journey is entirely another. Making a good map requires rather sophisticated tools, whereas convincing people to go on a journey is often anything but sophisticated. Having worked inside as well as outside government, I have learnt that simply repeating your policy ideas in an ever louder voice rarely has much impact on the political conversation which determines whether or not they are adopted.

Europe has become perhaps the world’s most prolific fountain of policy ideas for tackling climate change. It is not quite as successful at putting them into practice due to a lack of the necessary political will.

It is typically much easier to create the political will to address an urgent crisis. Few people would have believed in January last year that Germany could eliminate its dependence on Russian gas in twelve months without wrecking its economy. Yet by using the political will generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine it was able – to its own amazement – to do just that.

How then do we build the political will we need to mobilise the abundance of technological and economic resources we already have to keep the climate safe? In the absence of the immediate urgency to create the will needed to overcome the political obstacles to securing climate policy success, we must create what President Carter, channelling William James, called the ‘moral equivalent of war’. He was prompted by the need to reduce America’s dependence on oil after the 1973 crisis.

Firstly, we need to reshape the global conversation on climate policy. There are two categories of voice driving this conversation: climate makers and climate takers. The climate makers are the fossil fuels industries and countries and those industries and countries with an economic stake in building a carbon free future. These are the voices that currently dominate the conversation about climate policy.

The voice of the climate takers however – that is all those economic and other interests that must live with whatever climate results from the voice of the climate makers – is largely unheard in this conversation. Climate takers are the non-energy businesses that drive most of the economy. They are the cities and farmers who must cope with whatever climate comes their way. They are the health, education, legal and other professions whose values and institutions will be overwhelmed by the impact of climate policy failure.

Secondly, you cannot solve a problem of this magnitude and urgency without the state playing a larger role than at present in mobilising the human, technology and economic resources that we have.

Let me be clear: markets play a central role in delivering prosperity. They are an effective tool for exploring the landscape of least cost opportunity. What is more, the competition that drives them is essential for innovation. The path to a safe climate requires a considerable amount of innovation – though technology innovation may actually be the least important part. But markets have no purpose. Given enough time they might discover a pathway to a decarbonised economy. But precisely what we do not have is that time.

This means that if your fundamental political ideas revolve around an effort to reduce the role of government in shaping the economy, eliminate as many regulations as possible and to trim taxation to the bare minimum, you are more likely to be part of the problem than the solution.

Tom Burke CBE is a co-founder of E3G and chairs its Board. He was a Special Adviser to three UK Environment Ministers between 1991 and 97, and is a former Senior Adviser to Rio Tinto, BP & Standard Charted Bank