A Year For Climate Elections

Blog at www.campaignstrategy.org 31 December 2023 by Chris Rose

Here’s a proposal for using the opportunity of 40 countries going to the polls in 2024, to make the most of the climate framing reset brought about by COP28 and the global onset of ‘angry weather’.

As the UN climate conference COP28 ended, Faith Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, told AFP,  “Two hundred countries have signed a document to say goodbye to fossil fuels”.

Petrostates, climate deniers and even OPEC itself had fought to keep any reference to ending fossil fuels out of the ‘decision statement’ and succeeded in surrounding it with a forest of caveats and a fog of qualifications but there it was, as item (d) in para 28, on page 5, Part II.

Hardly anyone will look at those caveats but Birol has helped ensure that millions already know that governments have acknowledged they should ‘transition’ away from fossil fuels, and crucially, to rapidly triple renewable energy.

Many observers greeted this with a tired shrug: the world had known this was needed for so long, why hadn’t it come sooner?  True enough it was decades overdue but it’s a collective political confession with strategic implications.

New Social Facts

In itself the statement cannot mandate a change in the facts on the ground but it does change the terms in which the world’s governments now talk about climate policy progress, and so, as perception becomes reality, it changes the social facts, in this case the accepted reality of what ought-to-be-happening.

In my view it’s a big deal because it pairs the problem of fossil fuels and the solution of replacing them with renewable energy.  This reframes the climate issue in terms that are much more tangible, practical and everyday political than those of earlier eras in the ‘climate change issue’.

Previously the climate issue in COP-world has been framed as a question of science, and expressed in inscrutable terms of ‘emissions’, and since the 2015 Paris COP, through the obscure NDCs (Nationally Determined Commitments) and the hard to explain ‘1.5C’.  Those are all still important but they no longer have to act as metrics in tests of whether or not national governments are measuring up to their international obligations.

Now UN climate political commitments can be expressed in a language understood, and in actions verifiable, at ground level.  “Is my home village, street, city, farm or transport being powered by fossil fuels or renewables?”  The global climate issue can become more ‘relatable’,  and connectable to domestic politics.  Too often the national and international have been badly disconnected.

From the previous post – Al Jaber Proves An Unexpectedly Good Choice For COP President

Shortly before COP28 Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, former Environment Minister of Costa Rica, now CEO of the World Bank Global Environment Facility, argued that national politicians could fail in their international commitments with impunity because that was not a political issue at national level.  It was, he said, an even bigger problem than the shortage of finance for positive climate action and misallocation of public subsidies to fossil fuels, in both developed and developing countries.

Reframing the climate issue as an energy choice makes it not just easier to understand but more specific, like replacing non-specific or complex advice to ‘eat healthily’, with a specific diet instruction: ‘eat this, not that’. Of course many NGOs and businesses have framed the issue in those terms for years but the international political system has only now come into synch.

That should help by removing one big obstacle to generating genuine political engagement with the climate crisis: communicability.  As does the fact, which many national politicians have still not caught up with, that new renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels.  Solar is now the cheapest electricity in history.

That ought to remove another reason why many national politicians have been reluctant to seriously engage with climate action: fears that it might not be feasible and affordable.

Finally, it’s an unwelcome reality that every country in the world is now suffering the havoc wrought by angry weather, which an increasing number of people realise is caused by climate change.  This is making the issue increasingly urgent.  As UN climate chief Simon Stiel said at COP28:

the political and economic logic is increasingly insurmountable: Human lives in huge numbers are being lost in every country, while fossil fuels hit household budgets and national budgets alike. Whilst there are vast benefits of bolder climate action.

And polling not just protest shows that in country after country, the public supports climate action.  So at least in theory, serious action on climate change meets the three default heuristic tests of political decision-making: is it urgent?, is it feasible?, is it popular?

In my view, the convergence of unaffordable climate impacts, affordable renewable energy and a new political default that fossils fuels must go, creates significant new campaign and advocacy potential to stimulate pro-climate action.  Of course potential is one thing and realising it is another: how can it be done?  There is one very obvious opportunity to at least make a start.

40 Elections

As readers have probably noticed, this year is due to see national elections held in 40 countries (more by some measures).  UK newspaper The Guardian has called it ‘Democracy’s Super Bowl’, saying they ‘represent more than 40% of the world’s population and an outsized chunk of global GDP’.  Making these into ‘Climate Elections’ could be logistically convenient for campaign planners as a follow up to COP28, and a global signal from civil society would be noticed by the media.  It’s hardly a new idea and rather obvious but sometimes the obvious and the effective can coincide.

Most importantly, it would be hard for politicians to avoid.  The objective ought not be to try and displace other issues and pressing concerns, although many of them from food security and health to children’s futures and economic prosperity, would also benefit from effective action to rein in climate change.  Rather it should be to maximise greater serious engagement by national politicians on the new climate agenda which governments have, however reluctantly in some cases, committed themselves to at COP28.

There would be no need for a one-size fits-all campaign ask, beyond action to ambitiously implement the agenda already agreed at COP28.   That is already fully equipped with references to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’,  ‘respective capabilities’ and ‘the light of different national circumstances’.  But as Carlos Manuel Rodriguez pointed out,  “climate change performance at the country level is not a political issue” and there is a probably universal need for greater “political control” by civil society.  There are few better opportunities than around a national election.  National climate advocates and campaigners will know what works best and is most needed in their countries.

Nor would it be a failure if some national efforts were much smaller or less successful than others.  We are starting from a low base in many countries, and some governments, including the UK, have been sliding backwards.

For instance UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a short and embarrassing visit to COP28 in Dubai, spending more time in the large jet he travelled in, than he did on the ground, and avoiding contact with UK climate journalists.  This followed an attempt in September to boost his flagging popularity with his own Conservative base by flaunting an agenda of delaying climate actions, falsely insinuating that fast implementation of green technologies would make households poorer, and promoting more oil and gas exploration.  A member of his government even proposed to abolish a ‘Meat Tax’ which did not exist.

The main reason for Sunak’s ‘bonfire’ of green measures was a hope that it would frighten voters away from the rival Labour Party which is way ahead in the polls.  That was based on a calculation, reportedly much debated amongst his advisers, that a bit of damage to the UK’s international climate reputation would benefit rather than harm them at home.  In the event his popularity and that of his party dropped even further, and it went down badly at COP28.

Behind Sunak’s calculation was probably the out-dated conventional wisdom in British Westminster politics that voters do not really care about climate change.  The only systematic study of how UK Members of Parliament think and talk about climate change is by Rebecca Willis, a political scientist now at Lancaster University.

Her work, recorded in her book on climate change and democracy, Too Hot to Handle , included conducting off the record interviews with a representative sample of MPs in 2016. (It’s quite instructive and worth reading, and may be one of only a few such studies anywhere in the world).  Willis found that even those who took climate change seriously felt they had to be careful because their colleagues saw it as marginal, “niche” or a “lunatic fringe” as one said, while another wanted to avoid appearing like “a zealot”, and a third said they were regarded as a “freak”.

One said she thought that a search among Westminster’s 650 MPs for those seriously engaged with ideas such as leaving carbon in the ground would “struggle to get into double figures”.

Political engagement with climate change has since improved in the UK Parliament particularly in the Conservative Party. The Conservative Environmental Network set up in 2013, now has a caucus of over 150 Parliamentarians, out-numbering groups favoured by Conservative climate deniers by three to one.  Even so, that attitudes like those revealed by Willis still exist, is attested to by Sunak’s backfiring green bonfire experiment.

This perhaps shows that it is in old industrial democracies where climate deniers have been most active, that national politicians are furthest behind the curve of public, scientific and business opinion on climate action.  All the more reason to press the climate case at election time, and make sure that was was signed up to in Dubai, does not stay in Dubai.


If you are interested, in this Political Studies paper Willis applied sociological political analysis to the ways UK MPs made a ‘representative claim’ for taking climate change seriously.  Here’s the abstract:

This article analyses interviews with UK politicians, through the framework of the ‘representative claim’ developed by Michael Saward, seeing representation as a dynamic interaction between politicians and those they claim to represent. Thus, politicians need to construct a ‘representative claim’ to justify action on climate. Four different types of claims are identified: a ‘cosmopolitan’ claim, a ‘local prevention’ claim, a ‘co-benefits’ claim and a ‘surrogate’ claim. The analysis shows that it is not straightforward for a politician to argue that action is in the interests of their electorate and that climate advocates need to support efforts to construct and defend claims.

Students of motivational values may also notice that the ‘cosmopolitan’ claim would tend to resonate with universalist Pioneer values, ‘local prevention’ (eg of loss of identity, safety or security) with Settler values, and co-benefits (eg better homes and jobs) with success oriented Prospectors.

Willis also has things to say about the need for pro-climate narratives to be more about people and families, appealing to hearts and emotion and less technical.  If you did consider taking climate into the 2024 elections, these might be food for thought.


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