“Vote Blue, Go Green” is the new slogan of Great Britain’s Conservative Party, unveiled in April before local elections that saw the Tories gain ground on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s beleaguered Labour Party. Linking the Conservatives’ traditional color, blue, with the green of environmentalism reinforced a message that David Cameron, the 39-year-old Conservative Party leader, has been stressing since he was chosen this past fall as the Tories’ new standard bearer: This is not the Conservative Party of old.
In one of his first official acts as party leader–facing off against Blair during Question Time in the House of Commons–Cameron chose to echo complaints by Britain’s environmental groups that Blair talks much but does little about climate change. (Blair, who once called the Kyoto Protocol “not radical enough,” has pledged to reduce Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2010, but his government now admits it will fall short of that goal.) Ben Bradshaw, the Labour Party’s environment minister, fired back at Cameron, charging that the Tories have made “no clear commitments on climate change” and “need to set out new policies, not platitudes.”
“David Cameron is trying to out-Blair Blair,” says Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government. King, whose warning in 2004 that climate change poses a threat more serious than terrorism helped fuel public concern in Britain and beyond, adds, “Cameron is repositioning the Conservatives to capture the middle ground, and there is no question he sees the middle ground as dealing with climate change.”
Whether Cameron’s rhetorical repositioning will be matched by real policy shifts remains to be seen. But a greening of the Conservatives would mirror a broader trend in Northern Europe, where the right-of-center parties governing Germany, France, Denmark and the Netherlands all support firm action against climate change. Germany and Denmark boast two of the world’s most extensive programs of alternative-energy development, especially from wind power. The Netherlands is already preparing a national plan to adapt to the rising sea levels and increased flooding that climate change is projected to cause in years to come. France played an essential behind-the-scenes role at the 2005 G-8 summit, blocking the Bush Administration from watering down the final agreement’s declaration that the science is no longer disputable.
The climate change debate in Europe is much less politicized than in the United States, and there is wide consensus that impacts are already being felt–for example, in the disastrous flooding of the Elbe and Danube rivers in 2002 and the heat wave that killed an estimated 31,000 people in France, Spain and Italy in 2003. Public concern has grown so strong among elites and ordinary citizens that political parties have little choice but to respond. Britain’s Conservatives saw they had to develop their own position because they recognized that Britons “are going to hear about climate change every week for the foreseeable future,” explains James Cameron (no relation to David), vice chair of Climate Change Capital, a London-based financial company that invests in emission reductions worldwide. Just as Republicans in California cannot get elected if they are seen as weak on the environment, so conservatives in Northern Europe must at least look green if they hope to govern.