A bipartite consensus on climate change?  UK suggests it’s not a pipe dream

A bipartite consensus on climate change? UK suggests it’s not a pipe dream

On this side of the Atlantic, the new greenhouse gas emissions target recently adopted by the United Kingdom stands out not only for its ambition, but also for the fact that the target was adopted by a government conservative.

The UK is now aiming to reduce emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. Of course, setting a goal is not the same as implementing policies to achieve it. And it would be a mistake to assume that the climate policy debate in the UK is perfectly settled and rational.

But the UK example should suggest that climate change policy doesn’t have to be as polarized as it has been so often in Canada over the past 15 years – that it is possible to happen. to a point where the idea of ​​safeguarding the future of life on this planet is not the subject of such acute debate.

Last year, the Pew Research Center published a survey that measured differences in the levels of concern about climate change expressed by those on the political left and those on the right in 14 countries.

In Canada, the gap was 29 percentage points – 82% of those on the left said climate change was a major threat to their country, compared to 53% on the right. Among the countries studied, this was the third highest distribution.

A difference in political culture

The distribution in the UK was only slightly lower, at 24 points. But on the UK political side, concern was significantly higher in the Pew survey – 62% said climate change was a major threat.

Alan andrews worked for eight years in the UK at Client Earth, a charity specializing in environmental law, before becoming Climate Director for EcoJustice in Canada. He noted that the UK Conservative Party has some history with climate change – thanks to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher’s legacy on environmental issues is perhaps debatable. But during what has been described as her “green period,” she spoke of the emerging threat. Andrews highlighted his remarks to a United Nations conference in 1990: “The danger of global warming is still invisible, but real enough that we make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

The late Margaret Thatcher campaigning in 1982. (Associated press)

Andrews also pointed to a multi-stakeholder consensus that emerged in the UK just over a decade ago.

In 2006, Tony Blair’s Labor government issued a landmark report on the economics of climate change, written by British economist Nicholas Stern. Around the same time, Conservative leader David Cameron was looking to broaden his party’s appeal after a string of election losses. He seized on the environment as a way to do it – “Vote blue, go green” was the slogan.

In 2008, Blair’s government passed the Climate change law with cross-party support. This legislation enshrined the UK’s emissions targets in law and created the Climate change committee to provide expert supervision and advice.

Getting out of politics from climate politics

“The Climate Change Act, I think, really cemented that consensus … such that it held for almost 15 years through some pretty tumultuous periods in British politics,” Andrews said in a recent one. interview.

“He is deliberately trying to depoliticize climate change so that it is not used as a wedge problem like you see it being used in Canada. He sets up the Climate Change Committee as a fiercely independent institution with very good staff. resources, which provides very well- The researched and evidence-based policy solutions do an excellent job of communicating not only the threat of climate change, but also the opportunities and solutions that are on the table. government at the feet. “

In Canada, it’s tempting to imagine that the Liberal government’s climate change accountability bill could end up having a similar effect – with a new net-zero advisory committee and the federally funded Institute for Climate Choices fulfilling a function similar to that of the UK committee. However, we do not know whether the Conservative members, who opposed the composition of the advisory committee, will vote in favor of this bill.

When climate change became a corner problem

If they wanted, Canada’s Conservatives could claim their own environmental heritage. Around the same time Thatcher was going through his “green period,” Brian Mulroney negotiated a deal with the United States to tackle acid rain and his government welcomed the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, one of the first major international summits to deal with global warming.

But as major British parties converged on climate policy, Canadian parties polarized. When Stephen Harper’s Conservative government chose to loudly attack the Liberal Party’s call for a carbon tax in 2008, it created a schism that has defined the climate debate in Canada for most of the past 13 years. .

Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to the crowd after winning a majority government on election night in 2011. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press)

Erin O’Toole’s half-hearted embrace of carbon pricing this spring was the Conservative Party’s first step backwards towards progressive consensus on the need for climate action.

Andrews agreed that there were at least two other factors that could explain the difference between the UK and Canada.

First, there’s the potential influence of the UK’s proximity to climate-conscious countries in Europe – and the fact that Canada’s neighbor is the highly polarized United States of America. In the United States, the climate split between the left and the right is 59 points, by far the highest score of the 14 countries surveyed by Pew. In France, the split is ten points.

Second, there is the importance of oil and gas. In Canada, the oil and gas industry represents 5% of the national GDP. In the UK it’s one percent.

In Canada, this emissions-intensive industry is regionally centered in two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which generally vote conservative. Taking this industry into account is essential to meeting Canada’s climate goals, but there is a difficult political history and a highly politicized debate over oil development to overcome.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the current era of heightened climate ambition really began in 2015, when there was a moment of alignment between the Government of Alberta (then led by Rachel Notley of the NDP) and the federal government.

Perhaps the example of the UK – and some other countries where the political divide is even smaller – tells us that the climate action debate doesn’t need to be as divisive as it is. in Canada for over a decade now.

Some disagreement will always exist. But the next step in Canada is to get to a place where the debate is less about whether this country should significantly reduce its emissions and more about how to do it. The example of other countries shows us that this is not a completely unreasonable dream.

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