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Why are we not voting to save the planet?

As the General Election looms, it appears the economy is more important to voters than the environment, despite the urgency of the climate crisis.

2023 was confirmed to be the world’s hottest year on record, with a streak of 116 days breaking daily records for global air temperatures. With a General Election imminent within the next year, how the electorate votes will determine how much focus and resources are dedicated to climate change and governmental approaches to tackling it. 

Recent polls suggest a Labour government is almost definite, with the party being estimated to win up to 45% of unaffiliated swing voters. However, their surge in popularity can’t be attributed significantly to their environmental policies. 

When asked to prioritise up to three of the most important issues facing the UK, participants in a YouGov survey considered health, immigration, and the economy as more pressing than the environment. Only a quarter included the environment as an issue.

It is not a mystery why the environment is so often forgotten – Great Britain has been left in a state by the current Conservative government. With the persistence of the cost-of-living crisis and the ever-worsening perception of the Conservatives as economically incompetent, particularly following the inflation and instability brought about by Liz Truss’s mini-budget, the economy is also at the forefront of influence on how the electorate will vote. Despite its urgency, environmental action has been overshadowed. Diminishing voter confidence in the government’s ability to tackle inflation and the cost-of-living crisis contextualises why 55% of voters expect the economy to worsen over the next year. 

Our economy, however, is also affected by climate change, a trend which will only increase. We are over-reliant on finite resources such as fossil fuels, and the weather is increasingly unpredictable due to a warmed climate. The cost of consumption and public spending on short term relief to handle crises will continue to grow. Storm Isha, so far, has caused disruption of transport, with 107 mph winds recorded in Dundee, property damage, and more than 20 flood warnings placed in Scotland creating unforeseen costs. Damage to homes from flooding costs £270 million annually affecting 1.4 million people, which is predicted to increase as the planet becomes hotter. 

Investment in renewable energy and limiting reliance on fossil fuels would help to stabilise the economy, making it less susceptible to supply fluctuations causing sudden inflationary peaks. The spike in oil prices in 2022 increased household energy bills by 54%. Unprecedented instability devotes a larger portion of public spending to subsidies and large payments for short term fixes – alternatively, that money could be invested in sustainable development, such as a social climate fund to facilitate a move to renewable energy. 

Economic concerns have overtaken much public discourse recently and taken focus from the pressing severity of the climate crisis. Support for the environment as an important national issue has fallen by more than half since Glasgow hosted COP26 in November 2021. Support is particularly rare in the over 65s, with only 19% listing the environment as an important factor.

Yet over 65s had 24% higher turnout in the 2019 election than 18-24 year olds, giving parties greater incentive to cater to their demographic. Immigration is a particularly important factor to this age group, with over half stating its importance. This accounts for the Conservative government’s intention to pass the Illegal Migration Act, in which immigrants entering the country through so-called illegal channels would be sent to Rwanda, despite the Home Affairs Committee’s impact assessment estimating it to cost £169,000 per person deported. 

As the most direct form of representation, why we vote matters. Investment in, and concern for, the economy is not mutually exclusive to the environment. Despite this, it is clear the environment will not be a decisive factor in determining the UK’s next General Election.

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