Have we just squandered a good crisis, and a golden opportunity to kick-start climate action?

For years I, along with others like Alex Evans, have been saying ‘the politics of global carbon reduction is stuck, it will require a major climate shock in the rich countries to unblock it’. The argument is that major scandals, crises etc are required to create a sense of urgency, undermine coalitions of blockers, and convince everyone that a new approach is needed. The classic examples often involve wars and conflicts – the consolidation of the British 

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welfare state after World War Two, or the transformation of Rwandan politics after the 1994 genocide.

Well we’ve seen some pretty impressive weather shocks in the US and Europe in recent weeks – how is our prediction doing?

The floods have shifted public opinion a bit (see bar chart – before and after major floods spread across the UK, with accompanying analysis by Peter Kellner – the numbers are a bit old, anyone got anything more recent?). That tells us that more people think the floods are to do with climate change, but not whether they therefore give it greater political salience, which is what is needed for faster action. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to get the data on that.

But what struck me was the fragmented and ineffective response from the people who ought to have been ‘not letting a good crisis go to waste’ (Rahm Emmanuel). Politicians wandered around in their wellies pointing at water, or argued about dredging the rivers and spending more on flood defences. The occasional ‘we told you so’ banner was unfurled for the cameras, but nothing on a par with the US environmental campaigns around 2012’s floods, pols, welliessuperstorm Sandy. Where was the concerted, pre-planned (it’s not as if we didn’t know the floods would get worse) shock response that was called for? What could have been done better? And did I miss it, or has a similar opportunity gone begging with the Polar Vortex in the US? How about:

–          A climate summit/tribunal, pulling together academics, religious organizations, local governments etc etc to review the evidence

–          Parliamentary hearings, eg Select Committee enquiries into the causes of the floods

–          Putting together coalitions of unusual suspects to raise the issues’ public profile (eg bishops and reinsurers)

–          Did the various research outfits with prior work on this drop everything and repackage that work with links to the floods?

Overall, the level of response feels far weaker than that before the Copenhagen Climate Summit back in 2009 – have campaigners have got trapped in a climate diplomacy ‘land of the linear’, and lost their ability to seize opportunities like that presented by the flood?

There are other explanations of course. People rightly deplore blatant ambulance chasing and opportunism, but there must be a way to overcome that, e.g. combining climate change discussion with volunteering to help those affected. The obvious response is to wait for a decent interval, but that carries a high price in terms of a lost opportunity to grab the media spotlight for a crucial issue.

It’s more than likely that a lot of these things did actually happen, and I just missed them – I’m sure lots of discussions took place among climate change campaigners about how to respond. But if the response had been effective, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It may be about scale of response – did campaigners do a few stunts and press releases, but basically carry on as normal, or did they react to the advocacy equivalent of a major humanitarian disaster (think Asian tsunami), and drop all their other plans to focus on this? Would love to hear from those involved about the obstacles they encountered – do we need to rethink the ‘shocks as drivers of change’ hypothesis?

It’s also perhaps the case that the floods, damaging though they are, have just not been severe enough to unblock the political paralysis (I’ve had similar thoughts on the global financial crisis).

What do you think?

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10 Responses to “Have we just squandered a good crisis, and a golden opportunity to kick-start climate action?”
  1. P Baker

    Yes – environmentalists need to learn from the Shock Doctrine. I read that Naomi Klein is soon to launch a withering attack on the environmental movement and I think it needs it.

    In fact there is no environmental movement, just a loose assortment of ineffectual groups. Maybe they need to get together and plan responses to what will be increasingly severe shocks.

    They could try scenario planning …

    Incidentally, a v. good summing up of yours at ODI this week.

  2. Matthew Lockwood

    Some data on salience is beginning to come through. The best readily available source is the YouGov issues tracker (http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/s8e9aboxfh/YG-Archives-Pol-Trackers-Issues(2)-250314.pdf). This shows a sharp in how many people named the environment as amongst the most important problem facing the country today, up from, 6-8% pre-floods to 23% in early February. But…..even at the height of the floods many more people thought the economy and immigration were more important, and health also pipped flooding to the post. Even more important, that spike hasn’t lasted. The proportion of people giving high salience to the environment has fallen off again; still a bit higher in late March, but only just in double figures.
    This shows the problem with the Evans hypothesis; we can get really bad weather shocks (although the 2007 floods did more damage), but these transient events don’t seem to be having a more permanent effect on the priority people are giving to climate change. It may be that this will only happen over the longer term, or with an event so disastrous that it permanently shifts public opinion (maybe the flooding of London on a large scale?), but the question remains, how bad does it have to get? It could be that Hurricane Sandy did this in the US, but I haven’t looked at the evidence.
    What this means for your point about where the climate campaigners are I’m not sure, but I do agree that that blip in salience could have been used better, although I suspect that is about the fact that campaigning organisations (Oxfam included!) find it hard to respond rapidly to events outside their main campaign focus, and the truth is that most environmental and development groups aren’t headlining on climate change these days.

  3. John Magrath

    See this very interesting graphic in Scientific American how across the US political spectrum there’s more agreement than you’d expect from people that global warming happens, is caused by humans and will cause serious problems; but n.b. despite this, hardly anyone thinks it is “extremely important personally” – how can we explain/bridge that disconnection? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/democrats-and-republicans-agree-on-climate-change/?&WT.mc_id=SA_ENGYSUS_20140327

  4. James Painter

    Adam Corner has done a lot of research on this and written a persuasive piece for the Guardian. There’s not much evidence that extreme weather events on their own prompt sustained concern or behaviour change. One of his key points is that ‘The problem is that the “evidence” of extreme weather can be interpreted in multiple, competing ways. Floods have happened before, and will happen again. While the argument that they are made more likely and more severe by climate change is simple enough, it is also vulnerable to sceptical attacks because no single extreme weather event can be conclusively linked to climate change. Uncertainty, once again, rears its ugly head in the communication of climate change.’
    Here’s the link:

  5. Andrew Pendleton

    The answer to Duncan’s question is no. Though of course the various parts of the climate movement Duncan mentions could have done better.
    One of the most interesting questions was how and why dredging emerged as a big thing in UK debate on flooding. Served media purposes, crowded out climate change for a few critical days and was pushed by Liddell Grainger and few other right wingers.

    Also the political class – whom the media pretty much follow around – very significantly under-estimated the scale and impact of the flooding until it hit Wraysbury.

    But no one disaster – barring it being of a very significant scale and sustained (california and its impact on US food, Sandy) will do this. I’ve never agreed with Alex E that there would be one moment; the world, its media and information channels and people’s lives and expectations and politics just don’t work like this. The moment of climate epiphany is a myth. But we should make much more of every single, incremental opportunity.

    Andrew Pendleton
    Head of Campaigns | Friends of the Earth

  6. Guy Shrubsole

    Like my colleague Andrew, my answer to the question in your headline Duncan is ‘no’ – we didn’t squander this opportunity – though certainly more should have been done. Friends of the Earth had been preparing for the eventuality of worse flooding since the floods last winter (2012-13). I offer the following examples of our activities in the hope they can inform and spark future action by other groups – we certainly need many more intervening next time there’s severe flooding, and more importantly, greater preparation in the meantime. It’d be great to speak more about doing so.

    We began responding this time round when the East Coast storm surge hit in early Dec 2013. The storm surge coincided with the Water Bill starting in Parliament, so we drew the link to climate change but also asked: why on earth does the government’s new flood insurance scheme exclude climate change? (See e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/07/flood-insurance-flood-climate-change). This had political impact, emboldening Labour to table an amendment to address this (though it didn’t pass).

    Over the Christmas period, as flooding struck the SE and SW, we again drew the links to climate change, and asked: if the PM is so grateful to Environment Agency staff, why is he cutting 550 staff working on floods? This helped kick the issue on to the front pages (though the brilliant Alex Marshall at ENDS deserves the true credit for this). We outlined what Cameron needed to now do to get tough on floods and the causes of floods: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/12/thanks-wading-mr-cameron-now-what-you-need-do-about-flooding

    This led into a debate about the need for resilience to a changing climate, and how government policy has undermined this – cutting flood defences when in fact we need to spend half a billion pounds more just to keep pace with rising seas and worsening downpours (see e.g. https://www.foe.co.uk/blog/camerons-claims-flood-defences-dont-stack). It blew up into a big political fight – with Paterson and Cameron repeatedly claiming more than ever was being spent, until Defra vindicated us by sneaking out corrected figures showing flood defences had indeed been cut (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/defra-concedes-flood-defence-figures-were-inaccurate-spending-falls-from-237bn-to-234bn-under-the-coalition-despite-repeated-claims-to-the-contrary-9068443.html).

    We know that by drawing the link to climate change repeatedly, we emboldened others to speak out – from the opposition to the Committee on Climate Change. The Met Office’s intervention was one of the strongest they’ve ever done. And when Lord Smith posed the question of whether we can go on protecting all parts of the UK, town and country, from increasing flood risk, we leapt on this as being one of the fundamental dilemmas climate change poses us here in Britain: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/02/protecting-farms-or-front-rooms-impossible-dilemma-climate-change-forces-upon-us

    When Ed Miliband and Philip Hammond both stated they thought climate change was a national security issue, we were able to show through docs released under FOI that yes, even the Ministry of Defence is taking this more seriously than most politicians – with a story on the front page of the Telegraph about how the MOD are considering abandoning certain sites as sea levels rise. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/flooding/10654272/Military-may-have-to-abandon-flood-prone-bases.html

    As a last example, we underlined the importance of flooding to all MPs by writing to them with the figures of how many homes are at flood risk in each constituency in the country. You can see our flood maps showing this here – http://www.foe.co.uk/get_involved/page_41807.html. The response we had was pretty amazing, with lots of unusual voices drawing the link between the floods and climate change, and the need to do more to both adapt and cut emissions in future. E.g. see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-must-do-more-to-protect-households-at-risk-of-further-floods-say-tory-mps-whose-constituencies-are-worst-hit-9157881.html

    Yes, there’s lots more that could have been done and should be done next time floods hit – and we’re preparing. If you’re interested in discussing more and getting involved, I’d love to speak more.

    Climate Campaigner
    Friends of the Earth

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Matthew, Andrew and Guy – a spirited and convincing defence. So question seems to be narrowing down to ‘OK, we can use shocks to kickstart action within the political classes, but the level of impact on public opinion is very limited’. Would you agree with that and if so, any thoughts on how to strengthen the connection?

  7. Guy Shrubsole

    Hi Duncan
    Thanks for the reply. Three thoughts on this:
    – Our response was still limited – needed to be turned round quickly, and other campaigns requiring scarce resource etc. So I don’t think we’ve really tested proper public campaigning on flooding / climate impacts yet. I think our decision to focus on political and media audiences in these circumstances was the right one, but very, very keen to do much more public-facing work in future.

    – The public are already with us to a large extent; there is good polling evidence showing that people think floods are happening more often (which they are), that flooding is likely to increase in future (which it is), and that this is highly concerning (which it certainly is). See for instance http://www.noiseofthecrowd.com/how-can-you-convince-the-uk-to-care-about-climate-change/ and check out the Defra data for more detail. The role environment and development groups should be playing, in my mind, is politicising this nascent agreement into taking action against govt negligence. I’ve written a blog today about this, with regard to the million UK households threatened by climate change: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/03/million-households-threatened-climate-change-must-unite-political-force

    – Thirdly, it would be fantastic to plan properly for public campaigning on this the next time flooding hits. Does Oxfam have any plans for this, and either way, could we meet up to discuss?

  8. Jamie

    Not everyone missed it – down the road from Oxfam HQ local people being flooded were highlighting the need to discuss the issue http://www.climateoutreach.org.uk/climate-flash-mob/ . A small action organised by a small NGO but the picture went viral across the world suggesting that some of us didn’t squander the opportunity.

    COIN also produced a briefing on how advocates should be discussing climate and flooding in light of extensive research, demonstrating that the link isn’t as direct in most people’s understanding as many climate advocates would hope.

    Off the back of all this we’ve also planned a series of community discussions in flood impacted communities to help people understand the links with flooding and be able to discuss them with others http://www.climateoutreach.org.uk/flooding/

    We’d suggest therefore the opportunity is still there and anyone who’d like to participate in our community sessions would be most welcome. If Oxfam or others would like to support this that’d be most welcome too.