In Depth

Will climate change be the next political faultline?

Environment is rising up the nation’s list of general election priorities

Combating climate change is on course to join Brexit as a political faultline for UK voters, a new survey suggests.

Sky News, which commissioned the poll, reports that the issue is “dividing the UK in a similar way to Brexit”.

What does the survey say?

Among the respondents who backed Labour in the 2017 election, 58% said it mattered a “great deal” that the party they support this time round prioritises tackling climate change. Only 30% of Conservative voters said the same.

Among Remainers, 54% said it mattered a “great deal”, while just 28% of Leavers agreed.

A separate recent survey from YouGov on the issues that will decide the general election found that the environment had risen up the list of voter priorities, from tenth place in 2017 to joint fourth place, with the economy. Only Brexit, health and crime were deemed more important.

Among voters aged between 18 and 24, the environment was in second place, behind Brexit.

“I think over this election campaign politicians are going to have to start discussing the issue of the environment if they want to win over the support of those younger voters,” said YouGov researcher Chris Curtis.

What’s behind the shift?

The BBC lists a number of high-profile events that have fuelled public debate about climate change: the Extinction Rebellion protests, the school strikes led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the record-breaking heatwaves over the summer, and warnings from scientists.

“And on top of it all, the revered tones of Sir David Attenborough have been heard by millions, including right now with his new series Seven Worlds, One Planet, warning that the threat of climate change is real and dangerous,” says the broadcaster.

In an article for The New York Times, political journalist Jack Shenker says: “The next prime minister will be in charge for half of the decade identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the final one in which full-scale climate catastrophe could be averted, and it is no exaggeration to conclude that the victor will set Britain’s course for a generation and beyond.”

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Are the political parties listening?

“For the first time, the environment is central to British election manifestoes,” says George Monbiot in The Guardian. He argues that the Tories’ pledges are “promising” but “vague”, while Labour’s “transformation is genuinely exciting but is beset by some important contradictions”.

“The Liberal Democrats, mostly, get it,” Monbiot continues. “But only the Greens have really grasped what it means to democratise our relationship with the living world.”

Boris Johnson has refused to take part in the first ever election debate on the climate crisis. Channel 4 has invited six party leaders to attend its hour-long Emergency On Planet Earth debate on Thursday, and is threatening to leave an empty chair if the PM fails to turn up.

“The climate crisis continues to be sidelined in political discourse, resulting in the emergency we now find ourselves in,” says Beth Irving, a campaigner with the UK Student Climate Network, in an article for The Independent.

All the same, she concludes, “this must be our first ‘climate election’, not just our second Brexit election”.


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