Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

by | Nov 22, 2013

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables.

Now look at another report released into Warsaw’s slipstream. The Climate Change Performance Index is released by Germanwatch, a think tank, and the Climate Action Network Europe, an umbrella network for NGOs working on climate and energy. Both organisations are well aligned with the Guardian on climate issues and their media teams would expect to get good coverage.

In the index, the United Kingdom performs surprisingly well. Due to the speed with which its emissions are falling, its improved energy efficiency and use of renewables, and the strength of its policies, it has moved up the league table during the last year and now comes second (out of sixty-odd countries) behind Denmark.

I’d want to interrogate the methodology, but on the face of it (and the Guardian took the subsidy story at face value), impressive stuff.

So how does the Guardian cover this story? Well first of all, not very prominently. And secondly, with an Australian spin! The UK’s performance is summarised in a single sentence – blink and you miss it. And, once again, there’s no quote from a government source. If the British government is not the villain, it seems a story becomes a lot less interesting.

Climate change performance index

Finally, let’s look at the coverage given to the government’s announcement of its own position ahead of the talks. This came in a news release with three main elements, backed by extensive quotes from the lead minister – Ed Davey.

  • The UK government wants all countries to agree how they will reach a global deal by 2015: “No one should leave this conference without the clear understanding and agreement that from here, we must make sure that when we arrive in Paris in 2015 we are ready to strike a deal.”
  • It was pushing the European Union to adopt more aggressive cuts in emissions as part of that deal. “The UK will be working as part of the EU, to gain momentum for a deal with a push for 50% reduction in European emissions. But we will need to see similar ambitions and commitment from other developed and emerging partners before we can sign.”
  • The Brits will join the US is refusing to fund coal-fired power plants in developing countries and have pledged £50m to help least developed countries to cope with the impact of climate change.

For any journalist, this statement should beg a number of questions worth reporting on. For me, three of the most important are. What form of global deal is acceptable to the UK – legally binding or ‘pledge and review’? Is there any chance of Europe agreeing to a 50% cut given its economic and political woes? And, what yardstick will the government use to assess ‘similar ambition’ from other countries – the US and China in particular?

So how did the government’s position ‘cut through,’ to use Hugh’s phrase? It didn’t. First of all, the Guardian had very little space for it, because it had a much more important story to cover – claims in a tabloid, denied by No 10, that the Prime Minister described environmental taxes as ‘green crap’.

The green crapstorm played out across 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Guardian articles, and a live blog, all produced in less than 24 hours and many of which featured prominently on the front page.

The British negotiating position wasn’t even top story in the environment section, let alone being offered prominent space on the front page. And even this marginal coverage missed two of the three government’s messages, focusing only on coal and adaptation (the least important in my view), before moving swiftly onto yet another blow-by-blow account of the tussle between rich and poor countries.

Funding for coal-fired power stations

A day later, Ed Davey managed to get quoted on the timetable for a global deal, but only in the context of another ‘bitter row’ between the EU, and host Poland, China, and others. Still nothing (unless I missed it), on whether the 50% European target is on track or what others would be expected to do to match it.

As Hugh says, the inability of ‘serious politicians’ to be heard on serious issues is indeed ‘troubling.’ I know this will sound laughably naïve to many journalists, but citizens need to understand what position their representatives are taking on an issue whose impact will be felt over generations.

We also need to sustain a political consensus on climate that can survive for decades and under the stewardship of governments of all political stripes.

This isn’t really a problem for the Daily Mail. It – increasingly – dislikes governments of all political stripes and exists to throw a spanner in the works whenever politicians show any sign of acting in the long-term public interest.

But what about the Guardian, Hugh? Why is it so reluctant to give politicians a fair hearing? And on an issue that its readership surely puts high on its list of priorities?


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...