Monday, March 28, 2016



There is a very high correlation between political attitudes to climate change, and attitudes towards Britain's continued membership of the European Union.

A recent piece by YouGov, Provincial England versus London and the Celts, highlights the fact that the EU referendum is producing a quite unusual demographic divide between "stay" and "leave" voters. The authors claim that "On most issues, different groups vary less than might be imagined. On taxation, say, or the health service, or welfare reform, there is a large overlap in the views of Mail and Guardian readers, young and old voters ...."

But Europe is different.  "For once the differences do match the stereotypes. There is a huge contrast between the kinds of people wanting Britain to stay in the EU and those wanting Brexit." The  figures are interesting, with very pronounced divisions between older (Out)  and younger (In) voters, as well as large differences measured by levels of education and national and regional identity.

Even more dramatic, but less often noticed, is the correlation, at least within the political class, between views on Europe and views on climate change and climate policy. It is unusual for two issues, neither obviously party political, and not obviously linked in their essential content, to divide opinion in this way.

Politicians for staying in Europe and action on climate change.

Lord Deben, formerly Conservative cabinet minister John Selwyn Gummer, is Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, and a member of the steering group of Environmentalists For Europe.  "... without the EU we wouldn’t have clean beaches, we wouldn’t have the quality of water that we do, and we wouldn’t have taken the action we have on air pollution (particularly with regard to motor vehicles)..."

David Cameron, who once promised the "greenest government ever", is recommending a "stay" vote. "Man-made climate change is one of the greatest threats to the UK and the rest of the world, David Cameron has said. The Prime Minister risked a backlash from climate-sceptic Conservative ministers and MPs by insisting that humans are responsible for climate change. His comments appeared to create an immediate division in his own Cabinet, with Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, refusing to fully back Mr Cameron’s claim." [Daily Telegraph,. 26 February 2014] 

Tony Blair as PM, and with all party support, introduced the 2008 Climate Change Act, and is a strong supporter of EU membership. The minor parties, notably the Green party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have always been strong supporters of EU membership and of action on environmental issues.

Politicians for Leave, and opposed to "climate alarmism".

Nigel Lawson is a major figure behind the Global Warming Policy Foundation (a leading vehicle for sceptic views on climate science), and also a lead figure in the campaign to exit Europe. Other luminaries of the Leave campaign include: Chris Grayling (see above), and John Redwood ("BBC peddles climate change alarmism", September 2013).

Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are other major Conservative figures in both the Leave EU and the sceptic camp. "It is widely accepted that carbon dioxide emissions have risen but the effect on the climate remains much debated while the computer modelling that has been done to date has not proved especially accurate. Sceptics remember that computer modelling was behind the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global financial crisis."
[Rees-Mogg, reported in Daily Telegraph, 23  October 2013]

Unsurprisingly UKIP's official position fits this pattern, with doubts on the validity of climate science as well as its main preoccupation of exit from Europe. There are of course exceptions, the most prominent being Labour MP Kate Hoey, a strong supporter of action on climate. Conversely Michael Fallon, Tory loyalist on the EU, has described climate science as theology.


Full explanations are complex. Part of the story is ideological. The Tory party sceptics on both EU and climate tend to be "small state" Tories, for whom the EU as an additional layer of government is anathema. Climate change, as a problem that can only be addressed by government, and , even worse, by global agreements, is increasingly an "inconvenient truth". Somewhat hysterically, other commentators have long branded climate science as a left-wing conspiracy. [Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 12 January 2004]. The growing body of incontrovertible evidence, not just for the underpinnings of climate science, but for the reality of temperature measurements showing global rises in line with climate science models, makes this an increasingly uncomfortable position.

But this theory fails to explain the UKIP commitment to climate scepticism. UKIP's support, however, like that of Trump in the US and other movements in Europe, has often been viewed as an outpouring of anger by groups that see themselves as marginalised. Their rage is directed against political, media  and other elites that they feel have failed them. Given the correlation YouGov observes with levels of education, it may be unsurprising that this is also a group that will extend its distrust of metropolitan elites to a distrust of elites in general, and in this case (unfairly and regrettably) to mainstream science. So perhaps the demographics have something to tell us on climate issues too.

However it does suggest that the two questions, Europe and climate matters, should perhaps be viewed in parallel. And we should look at the case for or against Europe in the context of energy policy, and the successes and failures of climate policy in Europe as a particular element in the referendum debate.


Ben Anstey said...

I think the crossover piece on voting tendencies on Europe and climate change scepticism is an interesting angle. I would recommend reading anything by Ronald Dworkin on political/legal theory and this tribalism in voting patterns e.g. 'Is Democracy Possible Here'?

John Rhys said...

I think the political theory is interesting, and there is a clear link between neo-liberal economics and climate scepticism for the very obvious reason that a huge externality implies a huge intervention at some point in the system, making the carbon climate link and extremely "inconvenient truth".

But there are also other very obvious and even more fundamental reasons that make it very difficult. It is the ultimate challenge in getting total global cooperation; it is very long term in its consequences - many political cycles; humans (all of us) are very bad at understanding comparative risk concepts; and there are long time lags (20 years plus) before we see the consequences. Some of these are addressed in the climate science section.

It is of course a tragedy that it has been politicised to the extent that it has.