Has ‘climate' become a dirty word? This is the question being asked this morning here at the ‘Visions for a World You Like' campaign at London City Hall.
With global attention focused on the economic crisis and fatigue setting in when it comes to warnings about climate change, how can policymakers get the public back on side?
The point of this new EU communication campaign is to help citizens understand exactly what the climate change problem is and what they and their governments can do to help. But is the very fact that the Commission is launching a campaign like this now an acknowledgement that climate is so far off the public radar it has almost been forgotten?
Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard acknowledged this morning that “climate has fallen nearly off the agenda.” But she said while the dialogue has been subdued, the effects of climate change have not – pointing to the adverse weather events this summer including the drought in the United States.
Hedegaard said the campaign is an attempt to relaunch the debate, “to create a positive narrative around climate". She noted that many companies today have made 180 degree changes in their position on climate change from just a few years ago, and are now asking policy makers for more certain, predictable long-term climate mitigation goals. If governments were hearing the same groundswell of demand from their citizens, perhaps it would be enough to stem the inertia which now seems to reign around the issue in political circles.
Perhaps this is the reason why the campaign will start by focusing on some of the more problematic countries in terms of public opinion – Poland, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria and Lithuania. It features examples of best practices and solutions, capitalising on some of the knowledge gained by member states that are more ahead in this area. One of the ‘case studies' featured today is a heat transfer project at Stockholm Central Station, which takes body heat generated by commuters and pumps it into a nearby office station. While the concept might seem a little gross at first glance, it's heat that is otherwise wasted.
It's probably no accident that the Commission chose London as the site for its launch. This is, after all, the home of the “greenest government ever”, as the Tories like to claim. Plenty of NGOs would dispute whether the Tories' campaign promise has actually turned into reality. But the fact is, this government is talking about climate change in a way that is not being done in any of the countries mentioned above.
Speaking at the launch this morning, UK energy and climate change commissioner Ed Davey welcomed the project and noted that the EU has been a “powerful voice” on climate change. He reiterated his government's commitment to pushing the EU to increasing their emissions reduction target for 2020 from 20% to 30%. Incredibly, he even said such an agreement could be possible in the council in the next six months.
If that ever actually came to pass I'd eat my hat. The obstacles to such an agreement now seem almost insurmountable, in this reporter's judgement. Perhaps this is just a safe position for the UK government to take because they know it's unlikely to actually be brought up again in the council. But Davey seemed to imply that there is some movement on the issue in discussions between him and his German and Polish counterparts. Poland has been the chief obstacle to movement on any climate-related issue in the council.
“I believe Poland is looking for a way out of their current isolation on the environment in Europe,” he said adding that, as a strong ally of Poland, Britain is just the one to woo them over. “Poland needs to realise that time is running out,” he added, saying his door is always open for the Poles, “but not at any price.”
There is a danger of course that all of this can turn into a north versus east and south issue, with a sense that the Northern European countries are lecturing their counterparts. The aim of the project is exactly the opposite – to take the debate out of the ‘policy wonk' circles and to instead engage a sceptical public. In other words, to stop preaching to the choir.
Sandrine Dixson Decleve of the Prince of Wales Trust, a partner in the project, noted that , “we can't all keep talking about this with each other. We have to go out and talk to the people who don't understand.” Representatives from industry echoed this sentiment, saying there is a limit to what they can do if the public is not knowledgeable or engaged.
Laura Palmeiro, a VP with foodmaker Danone, lamented that although the company has started labelling their products such as bottled water with the lifetime emissions they cause, consumers have been perplexed by the labels. “If today you show emissions on a label on a package, people don't understand.” She said a key goal for the campaign should be educating consumers on what emissions measurement is and how to understand it.
It will be interesting to see how this project develops, and how it is received by the public. The economic crisis seems to be an all-consuming thing for the minds of European citizens at the moment. It may be an uphill battle trying to get them to pay attention to these climate issues again.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at DaveKeating@economist.com.
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