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The role of politics in tackling climate change

Climate change as a scientific concept has been well-documented since at least the 19th century, when scientists acknowledged the effect of greenhouse gases on Earth’s climate.

However, while scientists grasped the concept and it began to take root, it took many years for politicians to take it seriously, and even longer for policy makers to start acknowledging its impact on the climate enough to motivate serious changes in policy.

As the environment begins to change as temperatures rise, life is expected to change for billions of people worldwide over the coming century, and this will have a significant impact on our political discourse.

Slow and steady to act

Hansard is an official written record of debates held within Parliament, including those held within the chambers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Westminster. This archive of political discourse goes as far back as 1799, and allows users to track the prevalence of key topics which shaped British politics over more than two centuries.

The topic of climate change is clearly seen to have been something of a slow burning issue, according to Hansard’s references record. In fact, it didn’t become a talking point capable of gaining much traction until the 1950s. References to climate change only began to increase rapidly from the 2000s onwards.

Standing by is not an option. Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations.

– Theresa May, Former Prime Minister United Kingdom

While British politics may seem slow to act, there is hope for 2021 and beyond. Hansard is brimming full of debates about climate change bills, the merits of measures designed to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions consistently and the UK’s role in ensuring that it abides by the Paris Agreement.

Not only that, but the UK has explicitly committed itself to become the first country in the world to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and enshrine it into law. The issue that we face is whether these debates and recorded words are resulting in actual progress when it comes to the metrics that matter, or whether it’s just a load of hot air.

Pressed for time

Whether we like it or not, climate change will change the way we conduct our politics. The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates that 1.2 billion people live in 31 countries which are unlikely to be strong enough to withstand the impacts of climate change. The uprooting of these hundreds of millions of people could impact our approach to issues such as immigration and the availability of clean water and energy sources.

According to UN estimates, the world population is expected to grow from 7.87 billion people in 2021 to 9.73 billion in 2050 – such growth means more mouths to feed and greater pressure on resources. Our political discourse will need to not just focus on the billions already alive today, but the billions more yet to come.

This will have huge social and political impacts, not just in the developing world, but also in the developed, as mass displacement will lead to larger refugee flows to the most developed countries

– Steve Killelea, Founder IEP – speaking to the Guardian

During the current pandemic, the topic of vaccine nationalism has become a politicised issue which is attracting much debate, as countries squabble about ensuring fair access for their respective populations to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic is a good testing ground for seeing how politics can help mobilise countries to work together and solve seemingly intractable problems, or tear them apart and worsen the situation.

By 2050, political discourse may need to become less nationalistic and less fraught with isolationist tendencies, allowed to soften instead. President Biden’s decision for the US to re-join the Paris Agreement is just one sign that countries could be angling towards a more co-operative relationship. This softer approach could allow countries to collaborate on solutions to climate change, or we risk living in a more isolationist, angrier and hotter world.

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