Climate Change Tumbles Down Europe’s Political Agenda as Economic Worries Take the Stage (N.Y. Times)

By JEREMY LOVELL of ClimateWire. Published: October 13, 2011

LONDON — Climate change has all but fallen off the political agenda across Europe as the resurging economic crisis empties national coffers and shakes economic confidence, and the public and the press turn their attention to more immediate issues of rising fuels bills and joblessness, analysts say.

Sputtering economies, a shift of attention to looming elections and the prospect of little or no movement in the December climate talks in Durban, South Africa, have combined to take the political momentum out of an issue that was a major cause in Europe.

“It is way down the agenda and will not feature in elections,” said Edward Cameron, director of the World Resources Institute think tank’s international climate initiative, on the sidelines of a meeting on climate change at London’s Chatham House think tank. “At a time of joblessness and fiscal crises, it is very difficult to advance the climate change issue.”

That is as true for next year’s presidential elections in the United States as it will be in France, despite the fact that there has been a series of environmental disasters, from the Texas drought this year to Russia’s heat wave and consequent steep rise in wheat prices last year.

According to acclaimed NASA scientist James Hansen, who has been warning of impending climatic doom for decades, the lack of focus on these events is in no small part due to the fact that scientists are poor communicators while the climate change skeptics have mounted a smoothly run campaign to capitalize on any mistakes and admissions of uncertainty.

“There is a strong campaign by those people who want to continue the fossil fuel business as usual. Climate contrarians … have managed in the public’s eye to muddy the waters enough that there is uncertainty why should we do anything yet,” he said on a visit to London’s Royal Society for a meeting on lessons to be learned from past climate change battles.

“They have been winning the argument in the last several years, even though the science has become clearer,” he added.

Nuclear power issue distracts Berlin

In Germany, where a generous feed-in tariff scheme has produced some 28 gigawatts of wind power capacity and more than 18 GW of solar photovoltaic capacity, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government was forced into an abrupt U-turn on a controversial move to extend the lives of the country’s fleet of nuclear power plants. There was a political revolt after the March 11 nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan.

The oldest seven of Germany’s nuclear plants were closed immediately after Fukushima and will now never reopen, while the remainder will close by 2022.

This has had the perverse effect in a country proud of its renewable energy efforts of increasing the use of coal-fired power plants and increasing the likelihood of new coal- or gas-fired plants being built. The price tag will include higher carbon emissions at exactly the time that the Germany along with the rest of the European Union is pledged to cut emissions.

While political observers believe the climate change issue will come back to the fore at some point in Germany — a country where the Greens have played a pivotal political role — the nuclear power issue is so politically charged that it is off the agenda for now.

Even in the United Kingdom, which has a huge wind energy program and where the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power 15 months ago pledging to be the “greenest government ever,” there are major signs of backsliding. A long-awaited energy bill has been shelved, and renewable energy support costs and carbon emission reduction targets are either under review or about to be.

At the Conservative Party’s annual conference earlier this month, climate change was consigned to a brief debate on the opening Sunday, when delegates were mostly just arriving and finding their way around or still traveling to get there.

Damned by faint praise in London

Prime Minister David Cameron did not mention the issue in his speech to the conference — a performance that usually sets the broad agenda for the following year — and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne caused environmental outrage but satisfaction to the party’s right wing by pledging that the United Kingdom would not go any faster than its E.U. neighbors on emission cuts.

This is despite the fact that the United Kingdom has a legal target to cut its carbon emissions by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, with cuts of 35 percent by 2022 and 50 percent by 2025, whereas the European Union’s goal is 20 percent by 2020.

It was widely reported that the 2022 target was only agreed to after a major battle in the Cabinet between supporters of Conservative Osborne and those of Liberal Democrat Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne. It has since been announced that the carbon targets will be reviewed in 2014.

Even in London, where charismatic Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson came to power in 2008 in part on a green ticket, the issue has largely been parked and replaced by transport in the run-up to next year’s mayoral elections. The city’s aging transport system is feared likely to come under massive strain during the 2012 Olympic Games.

Then there is the strange case of a strategic plan on adapting London to climate change, the draft of which was launched with great fanfare and declarations of urgency in February 2010. It was on the brink of publication in September 2010, but after that, it appeared to have vanished without trace.

At the same time, most members of City Hall’s climate change team, set up under the previous Labour administration, have been moved to other jobs.

‘Too difficult — and not a vote winner’

“Political leaders get it, but the treasuries don’t. The men with the money don’t want to be first movers,” said Nick Mabey, co-founder of environmental think tank E3G. “But the political froth has gone. It has become too difficult — and not a vote winner.”

Compounding that problem, at least in the United Kingdom, has been a series of reports underscoring the likely high cost to households of green energy policies at a time when the prices of domestic electricity and gas are already rising sharply.

A recent opinion poll found that the climate change issue has been replaced by concerns over rising fuel bills and energy security.

But Mabey is not too concerned. While the subject may be off the immediate political agenda, behind the scenes, the more enlightened corporate leaders and investment fund managers have been making their own calculations. They are moving their money into the low-carbon economic transformation that in some cases is already profitable and in many eyes essential and inevitable.

The main danger, they say, is that if climate change as a driver of action is allowed to languish too long and become too invisible while energy becomes the main motivator, it will become far harder to resurrect climate change.

For Mabey and WRI’s Cameron, while the deep and seemingly returning global economic crisis has proved a serious distraction internationally as well as domestically, all is not lost.

For a number of reasons, including the rise of a new and major climate player — China — and a series of new scientific reports on climate change due over the next two or three years, 2015 will be the next pivotal moment for the world to take collective action, they say.

“Climate change doesn’t keep people awake at night. Our task for the next few years is to move it back up the political agenda again,” said WRI’s Cameron.

Copyright 2011 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.