Opinions - 24.08.2022 - 00:00 

HSG political scientist: “If it rains cats and dogs in the summer of 2023, hardly anyone will still remember this summer’s heatwave in the election year.”

What influence do natural disasters and other events have on the political agenda? An interview with HSG political scientist Patrick Emmenegger.
Source: HSG Newsroom

24 August 2022. July 2022 produced new temperature records all over Europe: MeteoSchweiz reports a “massive and lengthy heatwave”, during which in countries such as France and the UK the 40-degree mark was exceeded. “I hope these incidents are a wake-up call for governments and will have consequences in the next elections in democratic countries,” Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told the media in late July. Yet how justified are these hopes? In the interview, HSG political scientist Patrick Emmenegger speaks of the impact of natural disasters and other incidents on the political agenda.

Patrick Emmenegger, the WMO has hopes of a political “wake-up call” caused by the heatwave of summer 2022. How realistic is this for Switzerland?

Of course, climate change was more prominent in the public debate this summer. We’re not used to lengthy heatwaves and water shortages in this country. However, in the last few months, a whole number of extreme incidents have occurred which preoccupy politics and the general public: the war in Ukraine, worldwide inflation and the concomitant fear of a recession, the energy crisis, a possible real estate bubble, climate change and, latent but still there, the corona pandemic. Now the question is how national and international politics will prioritise these incidents. In early July, the European Parliament declared gas and nuclear power to be sustainable. A year ago, such a decision would have been unlikely. This shows that the issue of energy security is also high up on the international political agenda and may override concerns of climate protection.

In Switzerland, there will be national elections again in autumn 2023. What role will be played by climate change in the election year?

This is almost impossible to say from today’s perspective since, as I’ve said, some issues on the agenda are potentially explosive. Of course, the parties will put their money on the issue of climate change to a greater or lesser degree according to their profiles. I expect both green parties, for example, to focus on it. The Swiss People’s Party, which appeals to completely different constituents, has already launched a neutrality initiative and will place a great deal more emphasis on security issues. Political parties are opportunistic, and in an election year, in particular, the point is to communicate a few tangible messages which primarily appeal to the parties’ own grassroots – and in regard to which the parties are also credited with a certain amount of competence. But there you are: because of the many issues which are currently topical, the strategic choice of subject-matter is becoming more difficult for the political parties. Added to this, there are influences that are beyond the parties’ control. If it should rain cats and dogs in the summer of 2023, hardly anyone will still remember this summer’s heatwave in the election year. And the question as to whether the Ukraine war will quieten down a bit by then or will have escalated further will also play an important role.

An incident that influenced European politics was the nuclear disaster of Fukushima. In Switzerland, this actually occurred in the election year of 2011. How do you rate the “Fukushima effect”, which was often mentioned there?

In autumn 2011, the Green Liberal Party was the great winner. However, it was also able to occupy a vacuum because as a new and green party, it was also electable for many people who would otherwise vote for the more conservative parties. But overall, green parties registered an increase in support, which is why there was a Fukushima effect, albeit not a massive one. The two green parties won their historical gains in the elections of 2019, which were dominated by environment and climate issues. In 2015, however, electioneering was determined by the vast refugee movements, and it was the Liberal Democrats and, in particular, the People’s Party that were able to profit from this. Although the attitude towards the Ukrainian refugees is much more open than it would have been then, migration and security might become more of a focal point again if the war persists. Finally, expectations must remain realistic. In view of their historical gains in the last elections, the two green parties might already regard the 2023 elections as a success if they are able to retain their 2019 share of the vote.

The political agenda is strongly driven by current issues. Wouldn’t it make sense with regard to the solution to complex problems if they remained in focus in the long-term?

Public attention is limited and largely takes its bearings from daily news. This can also be easily observed in the main media, which for reasons of space are only ever able to give prominence to a small number of issues. This leads to a situation whereby many important issues as good as disappear from the public debate. Hardly anyone besides experts is speaking about the war in Yemen or about the desolate humanitarian situation in Syria. However, when it comes to prioritising issues, political parties also have to look to those challenges which are considered to be crucial by their supporters. To return to climate change once more: this is a mega issue which will also occupy us politically for a very long time. But in election years, the political importance of climate change will sometimes be greater and sometimes be smaller.

Image: Adobe Stock / Eric