New year diaries

31st January 2020

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Margarita Papadopoulou

The start of a new decade has us flicking through our personal archives. What were we doing in 2010? Who were we working for? What were our resolutions?

I was working for WWF-UK. Part of the job was to provide the whole organisation with a summary of the news each day. Looking back through them recently, I found myself reflecting on a painful period for those of us covering environmental issues. There was Climategate – the release of hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia – and Glaciergate – a high-profile mistake in an IPCC report. The two scandals fuelled the fire in sceptics' bellies.

Indeed, this was a time when the Daily Express was publishing front-page headlines such as '100 reasons why global warming is natural'. The public was also increasingly baffled – not only about what action they should be taking, but also about how on earth the planet could be warming, given all the snow (winter 2009-10 was the coldest winter since 1979, according to the Royal Meteorological Society). As one letter to a national paper put it: those scientists “really don't know what they are talking about“.

David Cameron declared he would lead the greenest government ever. It didn't quite turn out that way

It was also snowing in Copenhagen, the city hosting COP15 in December 2009 – hyped by many as the 'last chance saloon' to strike a deal that would prevent the world warming up. Keeping up with the coverage was a Sisyphean task, and having felt so involved, the failure was hard to take. I can only imagine how the negotiators felt.

A period of reflection followed. How could public opinion be rescued from the nets the climate sceptics were casting far and wide? That was the question I threw out to colleagues in a summary dated 6 January 2010, which cited a comment piece in The Times by Alice Thomson, exploring how James Cameron's film Avatar could be an unlikely hero in changing public opinion on climate change. The piece argued that people don't want to be lectured on green issues by politicians, and that “going green is just another luxury that we have learnt to do without in the recession“. Films, Thomson said, have a genuine power to change opinion and engender commitment in the young (Greta Thunberg would have been seven at the time Avatar came out).

For those who missed it, Avatar was about blue people saving the world, created by a man called Cameron. “Of course we've seen it,“ said a wag in the shadow cabinet. A few months later, after some husky-hugging, David Cameron entered Downing Street declaring he would lead “the greenest government ever“. It didn't quite turn out that way, his environmental legacy summed up in four words: “cut the green crap“. That comment, reportedly in relation to rising energy bills, was made in 2013.

The environment was falling down the political pecking order – and fast. By September 2014, even Ed Miliband – who, as climate secretary, had been one of very few politicians to come out of COP15 with his reputation enhanced – was forced to admit that “the environment isn't that fashionable any more in politics, as you may have noticed with David Cameron. But it matters.“ Then came the winter floods here in 2014, which refocused minds. The noise from sceptics was washed away: an Ipsos Mori poll in January 2015 showed that nearly nine in 10 Britons said climate change is happening. Less than a year later, the Paris Agreement at COP21 proved the political mood had shifted. But not far enough.

Public concern about the climate emergency has surged; in March last year it was higher than at any point since at least 2008. However, in a survey just before the world's biggest climate demonstrations in September 2019, only 23% of people in the UK felt the government was doing enough. Since June 2016, Brexit has sucked the life out of everything. Theresa May, succeeding David Cameron, showed a fleeting interest in climate change before falling on her sword, while Boris Johnson continues to offer mixed messages. With just nine months until COP26 in Glasgow – which has to kick off this decade better than COP15 did the last – the new prime minister needs to deliver on his promises. Why not make it the government's new year's resolution?

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher.

Picture credit: Getty Images

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