June 8, 2020

We have all become green during the Covid-19 lockdown, but will any more of us vote Green? Early indications suggest the reverse. Mainstream parties are back. Just when people thought that traditional politicians of centre Right and centre Left were done for, hollowed out, many of them have been rehabilitated thanks to the pandemic.

The big losers have been the populists, people who came to power on the basis of easy slogans, half-truths or untruths, and divisive pitches: Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Bombast and bluster only get you so far when tackling a virus. Contrast them with steady, sturdy Angela Merkel. Written off as past her sell-by date only a couple of months ago, the German Chancellor has seen her once-beleaguered Christian Democrats surging ahead.

The keyword is competence, and that gives rise to the question: does competence equal centrism? According to this theory, voters around the world flirted with democracy disrupters, but when confronted with a global crisis, they appear to be retreating to the comfort of the familiar.

The evidence points in this direction, but it is not conclusive. Germany is the clearest case. One recent poll suggests that Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have climbed back up to a combined 40%, its highest for many years. If they maintain those kinds of numbers, they would romp home at the next election, due by September 2021, and dominate the next coalition.

For Merkel, whether or not she stands down as she has promised, that would mark an extraordinary turnaround and a vindication of her style of leadership. The far-right AfD is falling back sharply. The far-left Die Linke too.

What is most fascinating is the fate of the Greens. At the start of 2020 the Greens were being mooted as shoo-ins for the next government, possibly even leading it. Their two co-leaders, Robert Habeck and Annaleena Baerbock, were being mooted as the possible next chancellor. A job share, even? Habeck was eulogised in Foreign Policy magazine as Germany’s answer to Emmanuel Macron. Now this seems a fanciful notion — not because either has done anything wrong. Indeed, one might assume that the tide would be turning in their favour.

It has become axiomatic to declare that Covid-19 has changed us all. Nothing will be the same again, even after the step-by-step opening up of societies. We have become more risk averse. We have come to value the slower values of life. We have suddenly become appreciative of birdsong. Who needs a beach holiday or a long-haul business trip when you have your back garden and Zoom?

These assumptions are based on precarious foundations. We have — at least until now — stayed at home because of a combination of government rule by fiat and individual risk assessment. We have not thought further ahead than that.

Will overall policy-making for our post-Covid future require (or reflect) radical and sustainable changes to behaviour? In a paper for the World Economic Forum, Emily Kirsch, a renewable energy entrepreneur, writes:

“Some have written about the silver lining of coronavirus, arguing that the current drop in emissions and air pollution should be celebrated — but this drop is a direct function of the halting of economic and social activities, and does not represent the liveable future that we need to build.”

“Suggesting that short-term coronavirus-related emissions reductions are ‘good for climate change’,” she adds, “sends a false message that human thriving and economic activity are incompatible with reducing emissions”.

Past crises suggest that populations play catch-up once they feel they are over the worst. For example, much is made of the consequences of the financial crash of 2007-08, but emissions actually fell only by 450 million tonnes (around 1%), which is a much smaller drop than the aftermath of the Second World War, and also during the recessions of the early 1980s and 90s.

Instead, we conformed to the classic V-curve, an immediate plunge followed quickly by a similar surge. Spending and consuming shot straight back up once confidence (and income) returned. Even if Covid-19 produces a U-curve, in which economies stay at the bottom for longer before eventually returning to health, will the final stage of the recovery look different to what came before?

According to forecasts, global emissions are projected to go down by approximately 4-8% this year. The extent of the challenge the world faces with the climate emergency is such that that level of reduction will be needed every year for the next 30 years in order for the net-zero carbon emissions target to be reached by 2050. Even then, such a consistent transformation in the way we lead our lives would only succeed in keeping the temperature rise below 1.5°C.

The trouble is we don’t want to be locked up any more. We will certainly appreciate more cycle lanes and many city authorities, including London’s mayor, are using the crisis to fast track such plans. That is a long-term trend driven both by our consciences and by state action (making car driving ever slower, more expensive and more unpleasant). We might fly less, taking the train more or relying on stay-cations. But aviation accounts for no more than 3% of total emissions. We might eat less meat, particularly beef… it all helps.

But something different will be needed that many people will say they are unwilling to bear. As the Economist put it: “The pandemic is not, as some say, ‘nature’s reset’. Such thinking easily slips into the misanthropy that can lead environmentalists to see people themselves as the problem.”

One of the problems of the Green movement is its cultural associations. Attendance at Extinction Rebellion protests or Greta Thunberg rallies has in some quarters become just one more virtue signal. In an essay in The National Interest, the academic and author Anatol Lieven argues that climate change denial has become “a cultural marker of conservative identity”, particularly in the United States during the dystopian era of Trump:

“These Republican prejudices have been exacerbated by the way in which the Left has loaded onto the agenda of fighting climate change economic, political and cultural issues that are either irrelevant to climate change or directly opposed to action: the abolition (as opposed to reform) of capitalism, and a whole rag bag of identity politics and demands for minority ‘empowerment’.”

Lieven calls for environmentalism to be recast as a national, patriotic issue: in other words, sugar the pill to win red necks over to the cause. To a degree he is right. The green agenda needs to be broadened, to include folk who choose not to associate themselves with “green issues”.

To a degree that’s already happening. Germany’s Greens have extended their reach beyond metropolitans to include traditional more socially conservative voters in small towns and villages, particularly in Bavaria. Austria, too, where the Greens are in government. What they share with the urban hipsters is an antipathy towards globalisation and a yearning for a slower and more traditional way of life.

Local, in this case, does mean global. Confining Green issues to the nation state is to miss the point. International collaboration is the only sensible means of tackling the climate emergency — just as a failure to coordinate the global response to Covid-19 exacerbated the problems the world is facing.

Will voters be more amenable to making the necessary huge changes to their lives needed to tackle not just this crisis, but the one lurking a few down the road? Will they, in practical terms, accept a fiscal system that punishes hypermobility and a social value system in which “excessive” consumer durables are regarded as unacceptable? Will they stay at home more and buy less — not because they are forced to, as now, but out of choice?

In theoretical terms, are they more amenable to a different kind of capitalism and consumerism? Have they moved beyond the era when Gordon Brown told people that shopping was a patriotic duty? They might, possibly, but it will need a particularly deft set of politicians around the world to convince them that the traumas of 2020 were not a one-off. And it is likely that those politicians may not come from the newer order of parties, but from the old established mainstream: safety-first people better trusted to introduce radical policies.