Is this a climate election (yet)?

The short answer might seem to be, “No,” as we parse the psephology. However, there is a significant generational divide.

The Conservative Party devoted just two and a half pages of its manifesto to environmental concerns; “Stewards of Our Environment” (p43) “Animal Welfare” (p54) and “Fight Climate Change and Protect the Environment” (p55). On the other hand, the first section in the Labour Party manifesto was titled, “A Green Industrial Revolution” (pp9-25) promising to radically transform the economy in a “greener” direction.

The Conservatives did announce they were “banning” (perhaps “pausing”) the deeply unpopular natural gas extraction process of fracking, ahead of the election. They also promised not to make changes to the Hunting Act (2004), following the unpopularity of Theresa May’s 2017 pre-election promise to allow a free vote to overturn the ban on foxhunting.

According to the environmental campaigning group Friends of the Earth, in their assessment of the 2019 manifestos, which they scored in ten policy areas (Climate Change, Surface Transport, Aviation, Energy, Homes, Food, Farming and Land-Use, Nature, Local Authorities, Brexit, Rights and Democracy) Labour scored best (33), the Greens second (31), the Liberal Democrats third (30) and the Conservatives significantly lower (5.5):

The Conservatives may have won, despite lower environmental commitments than other parties (with the exception of the Brexit Party) however, the election campaign did signal, in a number of ways, that environmental concerns now have a higher public profile than in previous elections. Pre-election data from YouGov (2019) suggested that for 18-29 year old voters, the second most important issue facing the country, after Brexit, was the environment. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election polling, Labour won more than half the votes of 18-24 year olds (57%) and 25-34 year olds (55%). Thousands in Britain have taken part in the, growing, global School Strike for Climate movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, and thousands more in Extinction Rebellion, in the two years since the 2017 election. By 2024 (the next election date under the Fixed Term Parliaments’ Act) many of those younger participants will also be of voting age.

There were new developments in media coverage of the environment as an election issue. Channel 4 hosted the, “World’s first party leaders’ debate on the climate” (28 Nov 2019). Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour), Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrats), Sian Berry (Green Party co-leader) and Adam Price (Plaid Cymru) all took part. Boris Johnson for the Conservatives and Nigel Farage for the Brexit Party chose not to attend, their parties symbolically replaced by melting ice-sculptures of the planet. This led to a Conservative complaint to Ofcom, which was not upheld. The BBC’s “Under 30s” Question Time special included a segment of questions on the environment, including climate mitigation and meat consumption. And the BBC Sounds election show, “This Matters”, aimed at younger listeners, included an episode titled “Is this the climate election?”

The Green Party of England and Wales increased their vote share (from approx. 500,000, or 2.1% in 2017, to approx. 870,000, or 2.7% in 2019), but, thanks to first past the post, remained static with one MP, Caroline Lucas. Both Lucas and Sian Berry were impressive media performers for the Greens. However, Jonathan Bartley (co-leader) was forced to apologise after a BBC North West television interview, in which he appeared to single out halal meat for a putative ban, prompting a dismayed reaction from Muslim communities, and solidarity from Jewish ones. That incident exemplifies future challenges for those campaigning on environmental issues, inside and outside party politics; to be vigilant about eco-fascist tendencies (witting and unwitting). Xenophobic and/ or racist environmental nationalism is already experiencing a resurgence, exemplified by the (alleged – as he is awaiting trial) Christchurch mosque terrorist’s self-identified “eco-fascist” manifesto (2019). This ideology has the potential to become attractive to certain populations, as global climate impacts become more evidently catastrophic.

While the 2019 general election was taking place, so was the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid. With Greta Thunberg and other youth protesters outside, it had to go to extra time. The final concordat, reported by The Economist, “…agreed on only weak and watered-down commitments to the drastic cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases that had been promised. And a decision on regulations for new international carbon markets was deferred until next year.”

The latest climate models, generated for use in the United Nations’ next major report (due to be published in 2021) suggest that the planet is presently on course for 5 degrees of warming by the end of the century. This would be catastrophic for billions of people, in terms of food, land and health security.

2019 may not have been a climate election for a majority of voters, yet. But as the century progresses, there’s little doubt that future elections will be.