On the Road to Paris and Beyond: What Role for Political Parties?

Jonas Schoenefeld |

As governments gear up for the international climate change Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris in December 2015, this post considers the role of political parties in climate politics. As the locus and focus of much modern-day political debate, parties arguably play a key role in shaping political conversations and actions on climate change. My reflections on parties are based on a recent workshop in London organised by an on-going research project on climate policy and political parties. Drawing on some early conclusions, I will review where parties stand on climate change, and what role they may play in an increasingly polycentric and bottom-up international climate change regime.

Many commentators believe that the current United Nations-driven approach to international climate change policy is failing or at least not delivering the results that are necessary to avert dangerous climate change. As a result, an increasing number of scholars argue that climate change policy should and indeed already has become ‘polycentric’, meaning that multiple governments, non-governmental and international organisations, as well as businesses, are taking action to address climate change in the absence of a strong international regime[1]. Furthermore, as Michael Jacobs detailed at the London workshop, the international climate regime is now moving towards a bottom-up pledge-and-review system where countries put forward their individual contributions to addressing climate change without an overall emissions reductions target defined at the international level.

But what role is there for political parties in this ‘new’ climate governance system? If indeed international climate change policy is moving towards a more polycentric form, localised climate policy-making will take centre stage. This makes political parties – which operate at local (city councils), regional (states or administrative regions), national and international (e.g. the European Parliament) levels – all the more important.

Evidence from the Climate Change and Political Parties project suggests that mainstream parties are in part to blame for the failure of international actors to act on climate change. Surveys indicate that few people regard the environment – including climate change – as a politically important issue. Materials from mainstream political parties in Denmark, Italy and the UK analysed in this research confirm that the low public salience of the climate change issue has an effect on parties: references to climate change in party manifestos appear to follow ‘issue attention cycles’, where parties focus on climate change when it happens to be on international political agendas, such as the passing of the EU 2020 Climate and Energy Package and the Copenhagen climate summit between 2007 and 2009. When mainstream parties shift their position on climate change policy, this process is often driven by party insiders acting as ‘policy entrepreneurs’, such as David Cameron in the UK Conservative Party or Connie Hedegaard in Denmark’s Conservative People’s Party. Professor Neil Carter explained at the workshop how these dynamics drove a cross-party, ‘competitive’ consensus on climate change in the UK between 2008 and 2010. While the appetite of parties to address climate change, particularly among the UK Conservatives, appears to have waned since 2010, a recent cross-party declaration to address climate change may signal a re-kindling of the consensus in the run-up to a general election in the UK.

An important dimension which this project does not cover is the role of smaller parties outside the political ‘mainstream’, including green parties (such as Alliance ‘90/The Greens in Germany) and radical right, climate sceptical parties (such as the UK Independence Party). To what extent have these parties pushed mainstream parties to address climate change (or pulled them away from it)? It is likely that smaller parties with a specific focus on the environment have contributed to putting climate change onto political agendas, but further research is required to support this idea. For example, red-green city councils in Germany appear to have set in motion climate much policy activity at the local level.[2] However, if this is the case, then the recent electoral losses by Green Parties during the 2014 European elections could mean less attention to the issue by mainstream parties.

Taken together, new and increasingly polycentric forms of climate governance will place the onus on multiple political actors to address climate change. Political parties are likely to be at the forefront of related debates – but it remains to be seen whether mainstream parties will be able and willing to take a more proactive, rather than reactive, role in climate politics.

[1] Cole, D. H. (2015). Advantages of a polycentric approach to climate change policy. Nature Climate Change, 5(2), 114-118.

Ostrom, E. (2014). A polycentric approach for coping with climate change. Ann. Econ. Finance, 15, 71-108.

[2] Bulkeley, H., & Kern, K. (2006). Local government and the governing of climate change in Germany and the UK. Urban Studies, 43(12), 2237-2259.