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Apr 20, 2006

Environmental Popularity Contest

If you had started to think that the UK wasn’t that different from the US after all, today’s Independent might make you think twice about that. In opinion pieces appearing together in today’s issue, the two British politicians—David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Gordon Brown (Labour Party)—vying to become the next British prime minister tried to out-green each other, both arguing for immediate action to counter climate change. Referring to his recent trip to an research station on an Arctic glacier, David Cameron writes:
This is one of the reasons I decided to go on a fact-finding visit with WWF to the Arctic Research Station at Ny Alesund in Norway. I want to see for myself the effects of climate change, not just to see a retreating glacier but to meet leading scientific and research experts. Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world and we must have a much greater sense of urgency about tackling it.

There are three key elements to the approach we must take. First, we need to recognise that this is an issue that will outlast the span of any one prime minister or parliament and it needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis. That is why the Conservatives have joined together with the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and others to produce a joint statement on a cross-party approach to climate change. Sadly, Labour has declined invitations to join this initiative. Second, we need to recognise the importance of setting clear and binding targets. The Government has set a target for 2010 which it is now unlikely to meet. It also has a longer-term target for 2050 which on current projections it has little prospect of meeting. What we need is a binding annual target that commits us to real progress and a carbon audit office to make sure that we are achieving it.

These are pretty strong words coming from a conservative politician, and one would be hard-pressed to find Democrats in the US regularly addressing the issue so aggressively. Still, his competitor Gordon Brown accuses Cameron of just paying lip service to the environmental cause, as The Independent reports:
In a pre-emptive strike last night, Mr Brown suggested that Mr Cameron's conversion to the green cause was based on spin rather than substance. He told the BBC: "The big issue on the environment is whether politicians can move beyond words to talking about the substantive policies necessary."

Challenging Mr Cameron to support the Government's climate change levy on industry, Mr Brown said: "If you want to support environmental policies you've got to support them in deeds. This means difficult decisions that require leadership. You are going to be judged in the end on the deeds, on what you have been able to do and how you can bring the rest of the world round to the policies that need to be followed." Brown aides contrasted the Chancellor's appearance on the world stage with Mr Cameron's visit to "a glacier" and the Tories' call for people to change their behaviour to help the environment with Mr Brown's plan for worldwide action.

Only time will tell how genuine Cameron really is, but the fact that both politicians are jostling over establishing their environmental credentials is surely a positive sign for the UK. This stands in stark contrast to the US—a country that arguably needs to take decisive environmental action more than any other—as President Bush continues to downplay the human contribution to global warming and to evade taking decisive action on the issue. At the same time, allegations of his administration censoring climate change research continue to emerge, even in the wake of the NASA censorship scandal, which culminated with the resignation of an administration appointee due to revelations made by The Scientific Activist. In the meantime, a recent report indicates that US greenhouse gas emissions—the largest in the world—have continued to rise in the face of increasing international concern.

Now would be as good a time as ever for environmentalism to be the popular cause of the day, and the UK seems to have the right idea here.

7 Comments:

  • Just out of interest, whats the general public perception in the US of green issues? I know in some states (Eg. California) its a relatively significant issue, but overall is it a case of the people at the top blindly ignoring the issues and going against the public feeling, or is there strong support for the Government's stance?

    By Blogger sas, at Fri Apr 21, 05:37:00 PM  

  • Public perceptions in the US are far from monolithic, but I think I can draw some generalizations. Firstly, surveys indicate that the majority of Americans are in fact concerned about the environment and believe it should be a larger governmental priority. A poll conducted this March by Time Magazine, ABC News, and Stanford University found that 88% of Americans believe that "global warming threatens future generations" and 68% believe that "the government should do more to address global warming." When it comes to direct governmental action on these issues, though, the results are mixed:

    Six in ten Americans (62%) think much can be done to curb global warming and 52% favor government mandates. A majority (61%) say they would support a government mandate on lowering power plant emissions, and 87% support tax breaks to develop water, wind and solar power. But 81% oppose higher taxes on electricity, 68% oppose higher gasoline taxes and 56% oppose giving companies tax breaks to build nuclear power plants.

    Regardless of these results, it is clear that the environment is not as great a priority in the US if one looks at the content of the political dialogue and particularly the amount of media coverage given to environmental issues. Although global warming receives a fair amount of coverage in the US, the UK media focuses much more on these issues, and global warming often makes front-page news in British papers. I don't know whether this is a case of the media following public opinion or creating it, although I would guess it's a bit of both. Either way, the political will on these issues in the US is consequently not very strong.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Fri Apr 21, 06:50:00 PM  

  • Dear Nick,
    I think your blog is terrific and check in pretty often. I link back to it from Out of the Jungle and often pick up stories from you -- which tells you just what poor reporting we get here in the states!

    You are right that the feeling on environmental issues is far from monolithic and splits along blue state/red state lines in some ways. I live in Massachusetts, where there is much more of a sense of urgency about global warming and other environmental issues (of course, we'll be inundated as the icebergs melt! that lends a certain urgency all along the coast :) ). But many farmers and ranchers surprise me by their environmental sensibilities, so it's a complex picture. It often depends on who's ox is going to be gored, and how much it's going to cost.

    Love your blog and the issues you raise -- the thing's you have uncovered should be making your blog a must-read for lots of people!

    By Blogger Betsy McKenzie, at Sat Apr 22, 09:06:00 PM  

  • I hate reading over a coment and seeing misspellings! Darn.

    By Blogger Betsy McKenzie, at Sat Apr 22, 09:07:00 PM  

  • Thanks for your comments. Nice site, by the way.

    Even though US feelings on environmental issues are far from monolithic, there is definitely a difference between the US and the UK. About a year and a half ago, long before I moved to the UK, I was talking with another American who had been studying here, and I asked him what the biggest stories in the news currently were. When he told me that global warming was, by far, the story receiving the most press, I was incredibly surprised, and I didn't quite believe him until I came over here. He was right, though.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Sat Apr 22, 10:37:00 PM  

  • You didn't mention --

    The third party, the Liberal Democrats, are accusing *both* the Conservatives and Labor of not doing enough about global warming.

    And the Nationalist parties are even greener than the LibDems.

    Yes, things are different over there in the UK.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 04, 08:02:00 PM  

  • You've gotta love the Lib Dems--it's nice to have a viable third party over here.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Tue Jul 04, 10:55:00 PM  

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