Burning planet
Creative Commons: LQD-Denver

Global warming is looming existential threat. Doesn’t that make it the top issue for Green Parties to campaign on? You’d think it would. But there are a number of reasons why it shouldn’t.

First, let’s consider how people think about global warming. Many believe the risks are uncertain and mostly in the future. They expect the impact to fall mostly on other places. But they understand that the costs will hit us now or soon. Often people think that global environmental systems are beyond the control of individuals, local groups, or even whole countries.

Some may take action, but others do not trust experts or believe that others will act. They may believe that their actions will make no difference. Those that act may make token changes that will have little real impact. People have a variety of other worthy goals that demand their time and effort.

Now let’s think about how global warming is most likely to play out. The best estimates tell us that urgent and dramatic action is needed. But politicians don’t know how to get voters behind action. Most likely we will fail to avoid all the consequences. We will have to live with an unpleasant degree of climate change. Possibly it will be so bad that most of humanity is wiped out.

Economics and global warming

On the other hand, we have been lucky with the economics. Technology can always come up with something. But that’s no good unless the costs add up. Fortunately, renewable energy is getting rapidly cheaper. The battle will be won or lost in China, the EU, the USA and India. Mostly they are showing signs of tilting towards renewables simply because they are both feasible and cheap.

Even in the UK a large part of the progress we have made is down to economics. Our power generation has moved from coal to gas because it made financial sense to the generators. Manufacturing has moved to China because it can make things more cheaply. It took its emissions with it.

Campaigning on global warming

So if people don’t relate to global warming and the future is pretty much determined by large scale factors, is there any point campaigning? Well, yes, some of the decisions are being made by politicians, and public attitudes affect them. We also know that people are more committed to a policy if their own actions can make a contribution. Even if the contribution is negligible.

What does that mean for Green Parties, though? Certainly there is no reason to change policies, such as urging government support for investment in non-carbon infrastructure. Or for subsidies that can achieve pump priming for the growth of non-carbon ways of living. These should certainly get a mention.

But when it comes to campaigning, Green Parties are different from groups such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. The latter campaign on what they think is important. Green Parties exist with the aim of winning elections. That is the whole point of the political approach to the environment. The business of persuading electors to switch their vote is the crux of the issue.

All the factors mentioned suggest that people find it very difficult to become personally engaged with global warming. At least in more than a superficial way. They can’t see that their vote is going to solve the problem. As a consequence, policies on global warming simply are not vote winners.

Campaign priorities

Clearly, Green Parties want to campaign on environmental issues. Quite rightly. Two major issues that have better potential for winning votes are air pollution and wildlife destruction. There are probably others. Much of the most damaging air pollution is generated locally. And disappearing wildlife is causing widespread concern.

These issues have the major advantage that it is possible to see how local action can be effective. It’s possible to see results. They are also getting publicity, such as the campaign to get an inquest verdict that Ella Kissi-Debrah was killed by air pollution. For Green Parties to succeed, we need to emphasise the policies that will swing votes. They may not be the most obvious ones.