Why is no one talking about the European Green Deal? Answer: it may be a generational thing

Think Piece by Simon Reid-Henry

You would think, what with floods in Germany and forest fires in Greece this summer, each bracketing the most damning IPCC Report to date, and all in the lead up to the next, perhaps critical, instalment of the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow in November – you would think, in light of all this, that there would be a real sense of concern and engagement around Europe’s flagship response to the climate crisis: the European Green Deal. Or even with COP26 itself. Our research shows that this is not the case at all.

Yes, people are talking about climate, but when it comes to the European Green Deal (EGD), few seem even to have heard of it. This is surely a matter of concern. The EGD is Europe’s only real “answer” to the climate crisis. And with its ambitions for carbon neutrality within 2050 it is a critical part of the multilateral response to climate change globally. So, what explains the lack of engagement?

At Counterpoint we have been looking into the European climate conversation this year to try to answer this question, and to get a feel for what Europeans really are thinking about climate change. To do this we set up a tracker, based on social media scraping, and covering a range of countries and different social groups. Our tracker aggregates climate-related posts to give us a macro and a micro insight into just what, exactly, European citizens are saying about the biggest issue of our time. And the one consistent message it reveals is that what Brussels says about climate goes mostly unheard, when it isn’t being actively contradicted or undermined.

Why is this? Perhaps it didn’t help that Brussels focused its media communications on the (less than barn-raising) Single-Use Plastic Directive in the weeks just before and during the most explosive IPCC Report yet. But the wider European social media ‘peak’ of discussion about the IPCC Report itself only lasted five days, and was strongly uneven between countries: with British, German and French discussion making up the overwhelming majority of all engagements.

The lack of communication between the European polity and its citizens is only part of the problem: the way national governments talk about paying for climate related policies, and, specifically, the European insistence on “balancing the books” act as a braking effect on discussion and debate. More to the point, to always have balanced books means almost by default that major crises go unfunded. This is a lesson that European governments were taught during the Euro crisis and which they have yet to fully learn: for all that last year’s stimulus package – NextGeneration EU – was a step in the right direction. The EGD, by contrast, as set out by Von der Leyen in December 2019, is to be financed by an “Investment Plan”: essentially an enabling plan to encourage others, particularly the private sector, to fund EGD objectives, such as carbon cutting. It is still hoped that one trillion euros will be raised this way; but already, a third of the 1.8 trillion euros secured in the post-Covid NextGeneration EU recovery plan is being used to meet the earlier climate ambitions.

In the United States, on the other hand, advocates of the counterpart proposal for a Green New Deal are much less concerned about the costs of a green recovery: preferring instead to issue central bank credit now and worry about who pays later. It may not be only geography which explains this difference. The age of many US Green Deal advocates (the Bernie Gen-Zer’s mostly) is also revealing of where the real problem for Europe and the EGD may lie. And that is not so much how it communicates with citizens in general, but how it communicates specifically with younger European citizens.

Youth activists, it turns out, are heavily focused both nationally and at the EU level on raising the level of action by governments, hence the main hashtags to date connected with the EGD discussion this year are both critical and generationally inflected: with #nomoreemptypromises coming first, closely followed by #climateactionnow. The recent German election highlights this trend, with exit polls revealing that while over-60s voted comfortably for the seemingly strong (we are not so sure) German centre (35% for the centre left, and 34% for the centre right) under-30s voted much more strongly for the Greens (22%) and the libertarian FDP (20%). 

Focusing on youth, and in particular on the generational divide between younger European citizens and the older European bureaucrats and politicians who serve them, should challenge us to ask whether the issue that really needs addressing by Brussels is that of climate denial among European populations or a more general state of emergency denial among its older generations in particular. Yes, Southern European nations tend to be less concerned about climate than others, and yes, our data reveals confusion in Polish society between weather events and climate change (Polish social media has seen a lot of questioning of climate change because of cold weather, for example). But the real problem seems to lie with the way that older generations relate to “climate” – whether for or against – differently to the way younger generations do. 

For older generations, it seems that Europeans are only really moved to think immediately about climate when it impacts upon other issues they care about. One of the few developments to really trigger debate in Italy, for example, has been the realisation that some EU recovery funds could be accessed based on “Green” considerations. Similarly, as soon as cultural traditions are affected, we see people wade into the climate debate with much stronger opinions than otherwise: Spanish social media debate flared up in July, for example, over the issue of meat consumption. Spaniards eat on average 1kg of meat per week, compared to the 300g advised by the OMS.  But reducing consumption is unpopular among many and strongly divides the population.

The challenge that confronts pro-climate Europeans, then, is that a seemingly moderate “middle-ground” consensus among the older generations over climate conceals an underlying and potentially uglier problem, which is not their reluctance to take action but their own latent future dissent; a dissent driven by the way that climate politics intersects with values that may have little or nothing to do with climate itself, and that people appear to be far more unwilling to allow Brussels to “shape” via taxes, directives, or anything else. These are the proxy struggles of climate change that await us round the corner.

If we don’t see these proxy struggles in action, or read much about them in the newspapers, this is because we are perhaps a bit too obsessed with polarisation in Europe. We assume, as a result, that the middle-ground is consensus-oriented and that the only real challengers to the status quo – in this case on climate – lie at the margins of the political spectrum. Our research suggests it isn’t. And the issue of climate change, and what “activates” climate change as an issue for different groups (generations, classes, nations) is where this assumption of middle-ground (if not middle class) consensus is beginning to break down. In other words, it is time for us all to take climate dissent a lot more seriously.

Published by Counterpoint on 23 September 2021

Why is no one talking about the European Green Deal? Answer: it may be a generational thing

Simon Reid-Henry

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