Beer: Climate Intensity Has Arrived, and Politicians Ignore It At Their Peril
The age of “climate intensity” is upon us, and politicians who fail to take notice are at risk of being swept aside, The Energy Mix publisher Mitchell Beer argues in a post this week for Policy Options.
“For too long, political leaders could tick the box on climate change by expressing their deep, abiding concern, introducing largely cosmetic policy changes, then carrying on with business as usual,” Beer writes. “In Canada, massive fossil fuel subsidies have continued with a nod and a wink, with self-styled climate leaders like British Columbia Premier John Horgan still finding billions in tax breaks for liquefied natural gas developments that will utterly defeat an otherwise solid effort at an ambitious provincial carbon target.”
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But none of that will work in the age of climate intensity. “It’s shifting our conversations. Changing our lives. Taking over our streets. Casting an outsized shadow, for better or worse, on elections around the world. Analysts say it transformed the results of European Parliament elections in late May. And in Canada, it’s coming this fall to a ballot box near you.”
Beer cites a cascade of changes that may be moving too fast for elected officials and their political strategists to keep up—from accelerated scientific reporting on the climate crisis, to a corresponding (and long-overdue) uptick in news coverage, to a global school strike movement that has become the leading edge of public demands for climate action.
He also sees the increased intensity in both the quantity and the mix of story leads crossing his desk for The Energy Mix. [News style is supposed to be consistent, and we always cite our source, even if it’s our own material published elsewhere. But this referring to myself in the third person is getting really old—Ed.] One morning in mid-May, the menu included a blockbuster analysis tracing a carbon footprint equal to 189 new coal plants to the global plastics industry, two competing climate emergency resolutions up for debate in Canada’s House of Commons, and the news that school strike leader Greta Thunberg had gained enough prominence to become a target of choice for far-right provocateurs in Germany. Those headlines showed up on the heels of a major UN biodiversity report, a Green Party win in a British Columbia byelection fought on climate change, and opinion research pointing to climate as a top ballot box issue for nine million Canadians.
Of all those stories, “none of them would have been on anyone’s radar three to five years ago.”
The mounting trend makes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “a textbook example of how not to respond—to the climate crisis itself and to the public urgency it has triggered,” Beer writes.
“Canada is back, my friends,” the newly minted PM told the Paris climate change conference in December 2015. “Canada is back, and we’re here to help.” But “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground,” he added less than two years later, in a keynote address to the big CERAWeek oil and gas conference in Houston.
“That contradiction might have been excused in 2015 or even in 2017,” Beer says. “But not today. Now, with the federal election looming, party leaders are either tripping over themselves to promise to make the Alberta fossil industry great again or calculating how far they can safely stray from that line without losing mainstream support. If climate intensity shifts that mainstream much farther, they’ll all be caught flat-footed, as many of their counterparts have been in the EU.”
The shift is indeed happening elsewhere, he notes. “More than a protest vote, Green strength also rests on deep concern in Germany about the state of the planet,” the Washington Post reported in the wake of European Parliament elections last month. “German voters told pollsters that the environment was their top concern going into the vote, and that was apparent in the outcome. Exit polls in Germany showed the Greens to be the overwhelming top choice for young voters and for first-time voters. The party also did especially well in cities, while taking voters from both the centre-left and the centre-right parties.”
(The Policy Options post was written and filed before Joe Biden, the current frontrunner among 22 candidates for U.S. Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination, abandoned the middle of the road, adopted an ambitious climate action plan, and promised not to accept campaign donations from fossil interests. In its report on Biden’s announcement, the New York Times said the climate crisis now places second among the priorities for Democratic voters, second only to health care.)The election result in Australia, where a climate-denying coalition government pulled off a surprise win last month, shows the climate intensity trend isn’t fully established—yet. “But take a step back, and the momentum is unmistakable,” Beer concludes. “Climate intensity scarcely existed when Canadians last went to the polls, but it’s surging today. With much of eastern Canada still recovering from epic floods, and the West heading into wildfire season, the demand for real action and consistent policies could become an irresistible force on the campaign trail.”