The rise of the ‘climate election’?

Four years ago, when British voters re-elected David Cameron as their next Prime Minister, votes were cast on the issues of the economy, immigration and healthcare. ‘The environment’ did not even feature on Ipsos Mori’s list of fourteen key voter issues, and any mention of the climate was reserved for the Green Party, who returned just one MP in 2015. 

Just four-and-a-half years on, the landscape has shifted irreversibly. Labour voted to endorse a ‘Green New Deal’ at their September conference  – a large scale, long-term investment in green infrastructure and jobs. Labour, The SNP and the Greens have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, the Liberal Democrats by 2045, and the Conservative Party by 2050. The Conservatives, for their part, have ramped up the rhetoric on climate change, announcing a pause on fracking, and boasting their credentials with Britain being the only industrialised economy to have legislated to tackle climate change.

The parties have good reason to green up their policies. Fuelled by warnings from the UN that we only have 11 years to prevent irreversible climate damage, mass protests and global climate strikes have sprung up across the world – and voters have started to take notice. A YouGov tracker monitoring views on the environment for nearly a decade reports a recent increase in salience of the issue, as 27% of voters now cite the environment as one of their top three key issues – behind Brexit and health.

An Opinium poll for ClientEarth found that 54% of British people mark climate change as an important enough issue to influence their vote. The figure was 74% for those under 25. 56% support the total decarbonisation of the UK economy by 2030, and 47% of Conservative voters back a zero-emissions target by 2030, compared with just 16% who support the government’s current aim of reaching zero emissions by 2050. 

British voters are not alone in their shift towards environmentally friendly policies. The Canadian election in October was branded by some pundits as ‘the climate election’, with some attributing Trudeau’s re-election to his party’s action on climate change – committing to net zero emissions by 2050 and the commitment to maintain a price on carbon despite initial opposition. 500,000 people marched in the climate strike in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. 

The momentum behind the climate movement shows no sign of slowing. During the 2016 US presidential debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent less than 6 minutes discussing climate change. In the Democratic primary race in 2019, nominees battle to appear greener than each other – from Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal, Elizabeth Warren’s comprehensive climate plan, and Pete Buttigieg’s ‘local fixes for a planet in crisis’. Again, voters will thank them. Generation Z (those born after 1996), who could account for one in ten voters in 2020, consistently rank climate change as one of their top two priorities, rivalled only by gun violence. 

The ‘green surge’ was apparent in the European elections of May 2019, which saw Green parties score double digits across Europe’s biggest countries – 20% in Germany, 15% in Ireland, and 12% in both France and the UK. In the Swiss Parliamentary election of October 2019, the country’s two Green parties took more than 20% of the vote, as pressure mounts from mountain communities threatened by mudslides and melting Alpine glaciers. 

Whether the increasing salience of green issues will affect genuine legislative action on climate change remains to be seen. The 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25), the world’s largest climate summit due to be held in Madrid this December, has had a shaky start as first Brazil, then Chile reneged on their hosting commitments due to ‘budget constraints’ and anti-government protests.

Next year, the spotlight will be on the UK, as Glasgow is due to host COP26. Up to 30,000 delegates are expected to attend the event, making it the largest summit the UK has ever hosted – on an issue which was a fringe concern just 5 years ago. It will be a pivotal year for global climate governance with the US presidential elections, and with 2020 being the year in which governments are due to review their carbon emission promises in line with the latest science. For ‘global Britain’ to begin leading the way on climate diplomacy could be instrumental in expanding our soft power capabilities post-Brexit.

The UK’s role as host of the summit offers Britain a chance to show global leadership in climate action. The frontrunning parties in the December election offer voters a variety of policies for tackling environmental crisis, offering hope to climate activists the world over. Voters can choose between the moderate to the transformational – all at varying costs. How big a role the next British government plays in global climate action is ultimately up to the public.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.