Is economy trumping environment as major electorate concern?

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 24 May 2019


Last week shipping was once again in the spotlight as the MEPC discussed and debated numerous issues with greenhouse gases and slow steaming all on the agenda. Those debates and discussions will continue in future meetings at MEPC and its sub-committees and no doubt shipping will continue to be attacked by environmental NGOs for its alleged recalcitrance.

But while shipping was coming under scrutiny, events in the wider world would seem to indicate that concern over climate change is taking on much less importance and is even polarising society far more than it has previously done.

On the environmentalist side this polarisation can be seen in child activists given platforms, street demonstrations and a ramping up of rhetoric such that ‘climate change’ has now become ‘climate emergency’. On the other side, there is a noticeable change in the attitude of what might be called the silent majority.

France and other countries in Europe have seen demonstrations against the cost of new taxes and programmes related to the Paris Agreement on a continual basis for over six months. President Macron has been forced to backtrack on some of the ‘climate’ taxes but even so his popularity is at extremely low levels.

In Germany this month, a poll by You Gov showed that citizens of the country are opposed to a tax “on products and services that are damaging the climate, and which could lead to price increases in some cases.” Only those in the 18-24 year age group were generally in favour with 47% for and 29% against. People over 55 were 58% against and 30% for. Overall the result was 32% for such a tax and 49% against.

Germany’s government is currently debating the introduction of carbon pricing, for example through a tax on emissions or an expansion of the existing EU emissions trading system (ETS) to all sectors, including transport and heating. Opponents say it will make German industry uncompetitive and will have a detrimental effect on employment.

Similar sentiments were put to the test even more recently in a General Election in Australia. The coalition government was expected to lose badly against a Labour Party opposition which made climate change a central plank of its campaigning. In the event, the governing coalition, which fought on economic issues and employment including expanding coal and ore production, scored a convincing win turning what had been a minority government into one with a working majority. The leader of the losing Labour Party has resigned saying the climate battle is one for future generations and leaders to fight.

Outside of Europe, there is dissatisfaction with carbon taxing and pricing in Canada where recent provincial elections have generally returned parties opposed to carbon taxes imposed by the national government. Some of that dissatisfaction is taking the form of legal challenges to the federal government of President Trudeau who is another leader who has seen popularity ratings crash.

In South America, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected last year after a campaign which was hostile to climate policies, has this month cancelled a United Nations climate change workshop scheduled to be held in the city of Salvador in August, reaffirming its lack of interest in participating in international efforts to fight global warming. Like US President Trump, Bolsonaro is not a supporter of the Paris Agreement and has threatened to withdraw.

In Asia, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have both reacted to an EU announcement that palm oil will no longer be classed as a renewable energy source. Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan has intimated that Indonesia could pull out of the Paris Agreement as a consequence.

Politics around the world are clearly changing as those most affected by climate change policies and the expenses associated with them make their views heard. Delegates to the IMO are of course selected by governments and if world opinion is turning to a more sceptical view then it may take a while, but the direction of the IMO will inevitable have to change as well.

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