Vote of confidence: how climate-conscious electorates are forcing governments to get serious about going green

By on 14/11/2021 | Updated on 14/11/2021
Youth-driven climate movements have been credited with drawing attention to the inadequacy of current policies to combat the crisis. Photo by Tim Dennell via Flickr

World leaders announced target after target at COP26 but there has been little clarity on the delivery mechanisms behind them. Yet there is evidence that citizens increasingly want action on climate change and that in many countries it is becoming a key election issue. Are we soon to reach a turning point that will see governments finally prioritise the green agenda? Jack Aldane finds out

In the last two years, Australia, Canada, and Germany have all witnessed the devastating effects of extreme weather events linked to climate change. In June, a heatwave in Canada sparked a bushfire that would engulf an entire village in the Western province of British Columbia. The following month, heavy rainfall in Germany and Belgium led to flooding that caused widespread damage and the loss of more than 200 lives. And a year earlier, Australia mourned its ‘Black Summer’, in which wildfires killed at least 34 people, burnt 1.8m hectares and pushed endangered species further towards extinction.

Before now, governments have been able to get away with climate change inaction. But in some countries at least – particularly those where people have experienced the devastation it can cause first-hand – they may not for much longer. Voters across the political spectrum are increasingly demanding faster and more decisive action from leaders.

Here, Global Government Forum explores how voters in Australia, Canada and Germany have pushed their governments to address climate change, the policies that have come about as a result, and what more is needed to combat the crisis.  

Australia: nought to net zero – but is it enough?

Having served as Treasury secretary and later head of the Australian Public Service, Martin Parkinson – who retired from the civil service in 2019 – has watched successive governments’ inaction on climate change with growing impatience. Speaking on an Australian current affairs programme last year, he called their efforts “incoherent” and said the country’s political class was “incapable of grappling” with the issues.

As one of the most mineral-rich countries on Earth, accounting for around 14% of the world’s total coal reserves, Australia is a country still very much divided on the topic of climate change. Indeed, as Parkinson points out: “We’ve lost [prime ministers] John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull over an 11-year period, all to the politics of climate change.”

Yet, while Australia’s industries remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels, a growing proportion of the country’s electorate supports more robust action to address the climate crisis.  

In a poll conducted by the Australian Conservation Fund – billed as the largest ever survey of Australians’ views on climate change –  67% of voters said the issue was either the most important or an important factor in determining who to vote for. It also found that the majority of voters in all 151 federal electoral seats believe the government should be doing more to tackle climate change.

In another recent survey by international policy think tank, the Lowy Institute, overall concern about climate change among Australians was shown to have risen over the last year. Some 60% of respondents (a four-point jump on 2020) said global warming is “a serious and pressing problem” for which countries “should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs”. Only 9% thought climate action could wait until the problem outweighs the economic costs.

There is growing evidence, then, that climate change could be a deciding factor in Australia’s next general election, slated for May 2022.

Martin Parkinson points out that five Australian prime ministers have lost their jobs “due to the politics of climate change” over an 11-year period

The country’s prime minister Scott Morrison has long been criticised for a poor track record on taking steps to address and mitigate climate change. Bowing to increasing pressure, last month the coalition government pledged net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Yet it refused to increase its short-term target to cut emissions by 26-28% compared to 2005 levels – a goal set by prime minister Tony Abbot prior to the signing of the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015.

In his speech at the landmark COP26 climate change conference  in Glasgow, UK, Morrison said it was likely that Australia would reach the 2030 target but would not commit to making it happen. According to Parkinson, the country is on track to achieve only a 35% reduction by 2030.

There is cynicism, too, about Morrison’s net zero pledge after Australia’s treasury secretary Steven Kennedy revealed late last month that his department had only minimal input into the modelling behind the plan.

While this will no doubt be a concern for a large and growing segment of the electorate, there are still those who feel they may be left behind as Australia moves –  albeit at a snail’s pace – towards a greener future.

Parkinson says the current government was handed a gift during the 2019 federal election, when the Green Party led a bus convoy through the central coal seats in Queensland in protest of a proposed new coalmine. The communities there –  all disproportionately dependent on the fossil fuel sector –  did not appreciate the gesture. In the end, the Greens only succeeded in strengthening support for Morrison.

Parkinson says the Greens’ main error was its choice of rhetoric and that the same mistake is being made by national governments worldwide.

“The debate has been couched in terms of reducing emissions. Nobody’s ever couched it in terms of how you manage a ‘just transition’,” he says, using the phrase describing the range of social interventions needed to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods as economies shift to sustainable production.

What is needed in government communications, he says, is to put humans at the centre of the issue rather than talking about climate change only in terms of CO2 savings and ‘National Determined Contributions’.

Canada: Conservatives ditch anti-environment stance  

Home to 9.8% of the world’s oil, Canada faces similar challenges to Australia in terms of reaching consensus on climate change. But there is evidence that citizen support for the green agenda is on the up. In August this year – ahead of the country’s federal election the following month – a study by not-for-profit research organisation the Angus Reid Institute found that one in five Canadians said climate change was the most important issue when considering which party they would vote for, ahead of both access to healthcare and taxes.

Earlier in the year, however, members of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) voted down a proposal to recognise the climate crisis as real by 54% to 46%. The party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, spoke out, urging members not to make it easy for Canada’s ruling Liberal Party to label the Conservatives climate change deniers, and despite the vote, the party developed its own detailed policy platform for last September’s federal elections.

Indeed, every party that won seats had its own climate plan,and Erick Lachapelle, associate professor of political science at the University of Montreal, says the political right’s turn towards action on climate change is a sign there is growing political will to tackle the threat.

“O’Toole got the message,” he says. “He can’t win on what’s seen as an anti-environmental platform. He went against some grassroots in his party and came out with a message that climate change is real and human caused.”

One in five Canadians said climate change was the most important issue when considering which party to vote for, according to a recent survey. Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd via Flickr

After the vote, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party continued to govern as a minority government. The Liberals main climate pledge is to cut emissions by between 40-45% compared to 2005 levels by 2030. Shortly before the election, Trudeau also pledged C$2bn (US$1.6bn) to generate green jobs in the country’s oil-producing regions, though domestic media reported the policy had received a lukewarm reception.

Mark Jaccard, professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, ranked Canada’s four main parties’ climate strategies in order of efficacy and economic costs. His analysis put the Liberals’ plan up top as the most “effective and affordable”.

The Liberals will have to prove over the four years to the next federal election that they are able to make progress and deliver on their promises.

Germany: the Greens make gains

In Germany’s federal election last month, the country’s Green Party – whose plan is to phase out fossil fuels by 2035 – secured 14.8% of the vote share and almost doubled its number of MPs in the Bundestag. The result tallies with the sentiments of the German electorate. A survey by the European Commission carried out between March and April this year showed that 28% of respondents in Germany consider climate change the most serious problem facing the world – a higher proportion than the EU average of 18%.

Nearly nine in 10 respondents (87%) in Germany agreed that tackling climate change and environmental issues should be a priority to improve public health. And close to three quarters (74%) agreed that the cost of the damage caused by climate change is much higher than the investment needed for a green transition.

Moreover, voters in Rhineland and Lusatia, the country’s main coal regions, broadly support the plan to phase out coal by 2038.

“Hot summers and floods have certainly left their mark and put climate change on the general agenda in Germany,” says Frank Steffe. Photo by Analogicus via Pixabay

According to Frank Steffe, senior associate at German climate think tank Agora Energiewende, support for climate action in Germany has increased over the last two or three years, largely due to youth-driven climate movements which have drawn attention to the inadequacy of current policies to combat the crisis. Today, he says, the need for climate action has broad societal consensus in Germany.

“Hot summers and floods have certainly left their mark and put climate change on the general agenda in Germany,” he says. “Many German voters knew for quite a long time that climate change is reality and an existing challenge that needs strong political action.”

He says the previous government failed to deploy sufficient renewable energies and clean mobility systems, encourage green building renovations, and to pass agricultural reforms. It is these areas, he says, on which the yet-to-be-formed coalition will need to focus if Germany is to meet its targets, including reaching climate neutrality by 2045.

“The next government has to be a ‘climate coalition’,” Steffe says. “The necessary policy measures must be well-explained and socially balanced. Of course, some of the measures will be unpopular, possibly leading to conflicts and challenging public debates. But that must not lead to low-level action. In the long run, only serious climate policy will help to win elections and achieve the climate targets set by law.”   

Overpromising, underdelivering?

In Australia, Canada and Germany, the priorities of a growing swathe of the electorate appear to have changed. It could be indicative of a wider trend. But, while statistics point to a general uptick in concern over climate change, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the environmental policies citizens vote for will lead to positive change.

Martin Parkinson fears voters have little reason to trust their governments will do what is necessary. “Governments have made promises which they’re not delivering,” he says. “We are currently heading for 2.7 to 3.5 degrees global temperature [the Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally no more than 1.5. We have to start rapid decarbonisation this decade, and I see very little evidence that anybody has a serious strategy for doing this.”

And he has another concern too: that while some leaders have started speaking the voter’s language at home, they’re failing when it comes to the international cooperation needed to effect real and long-lasting change. Given voters will only accept meaningful action towards reducing global warming, they will need to brush up fast.

“The international order that we’ve gotten used to has been swept away, and we don’t have anything new to replace it with,” Parkinson says. “We absolutely need multilateral cooperation, but I think we’re in a world where we’re less likely to get it than at any time since the end of World War Two.” A depressing thought. Yet with voters now increasingly expecting their governments to get serious about climate change, there is a glimmer of hope. The people are speaking, and governments are being forced to listen.

Register here for Global Government Forum webinar, Responding to COP26: the tasks facing civil servants, taking place on 23 November 2021.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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