Climate change is becoming a bread-and-butter issue in the West

As global warming more visibly affects lives, it is no longer a niche topic but a government responsibility like defence

A helicopter operates over a wildfire burning in Gennadi village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, in south-eastern Greece last week. AP Photo
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Clement Beaune, the rising star of French politics, is one of several members of Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet letting the world know he is holidaying in southern France this year. With the lower reaches of the Mediterranean aflame with raging wildfires, it would seem a prudent decision not to venture abroad.

Record temperatures are not one-offs anymore, but a phenomenon predicted to become the norm. Scientists have said that what is regarded as frightening or endangering this year or last year will come to be regarded as cool by the turn of the present century. By that stage, Mr Beaune’s successors may be vacationing in Brittany or Normandy, the temperate maritime parts of France.

Given the weather conditions this year, the French cabinet is unlikely to be in the north. Like the UK, northern France is distinctly lacking in balmy or reliably sunny conditions this year. After last year’s freakishly hot spell, the mercury is topping out just above 20°C – about half the levels seen 12 months ago.

Memories are short, and for some it is easy to forget that it was the warmest June on record in these climes as July wraps up. Which to say that an era of subjective climate change has well and truly got under way in Europe. The same is true in America.

A few decades ago, the only parts of the planet that could truly claim this experience were low-lying states and some of the world’s worst-positioned developing nations, such as Bangladesh. Back in 2009, the Maldives government famously held a cabinet meeting in the sea to highlight their plight.

Nations from China to the South-Pacific states have long made the point that climate change must force recognition from the developed states that they were the ones to benefit from unleashing tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere first.

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Now that climate change is a seasonal reality for even the most prosperous countries, a step change is inevitable in how the battle is fought

The global picture has seen worldwide negotiations drag amid disputes on how to bring about a more equitable and fair transition, as well as deliver compensation for the outright losses of climate change.

Now that climate change is a seasonal reality for even the most prosperous countries, a step change is inevitable in how the battle is fought. Moving beyond international stalemate and domestic timidity lies ahead for politicians of Mr Beaune’s generation – the transport minister is 41.

Backlashes against green policies are widely reported, often as a kind of death knell for the governing parties.

The rollout of heat pump incentives in Germany to move away from gas or boiler-based heating systems has downturned the fortunes of the governing coalition comprised of the Social Democrats and the Greens. The perils of a badly designed transition policy are not unique to Germany’s push to meet net-zero commitments.

The UK’s political debate in recent weeks has been caught up in reassessing its pathway to net zero. In particular, the London Ulez car emissions scheme extension is now in the eye of the national political storm. The government is poised to launch a wholesale “culture war” campaign against how ethical, social and governance (ESG) precepts are interpreted.

France is not too far away from the Gilet Jaunes protests over fuel prices, which have haunted Mr Macron’s ecological programme. Small wonder that Mr Beaune has been told by his boss to “keep a lookout” on his department while away.

What is happening is a closing of the disconnect between people and the target-based policies that the political class have been promoting over the past decade.

To bridge that gap, climate needs to become as fundamental to governments as taxation or defence. That way, voters in western countries could take responsibility at elections by determining the political priority – and, importantly, reconcile themselves to the outcome as time goes on.

Installing capacity for renewable and other non-carbon forms of electricity is a policy that has worked very well for many European countries. But there have been setbacks.

The UK lost its leadership in the climate fight when it decided in 2015 that onshore wind turbine installations would be virtually banned, mainly in England, because of the bizarre idea that the giant turning blades did not look nice.

A similar act of self-harm is now on the cards as the government, responding to its low polls, is likely to decide that solar farms are cannibalising productive land that could be used for sustainable agriculture.

Raising the role of the climate fight as a priority would see fully fleshed-out policy approaches. Deciding, for example, that the UK’s housing stock be upgraded would require a government-backed plan that covered every part of the undertaking, from the size of the skilled workforce needed to the allocation of upgrades.

It would also require a look at how countries could make their own priorities fit within the global need. Countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands have been attempting to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector. The latter has struggled to accomplish this, given farmer concerns that radical changes to cut emissions will affect, and perhaps even destroy, their livelihoods.

There is no one technological solution to the emission from cattle – the voters can see that and have reacted accordingly. The Dutch government has now collapsed over this and other issues, and it is not good enough to simply bemoan the unrealistic nature of the backlash.

Polls show that voters are broadly behind climate change policies. Even those voters who are turning against the leaderships are targeting specific policies. In many cases, these initiatives are either poorly set up or are totally inadequate offerings.

That is the climate change challenge of European politics, not the overall battle to stop something that is bearing down in increasingly real and horrible ways.

Published: July 31, 2023, 5:00 AM