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Shifting political realities in the climate crisis age
Robert de Graeff, Senior Policy Advisor, European Landowners’ Organization

26th Mar 2020

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In 2013, a political scientist named Joseph P. Overton coined a concept that has since borne his name; the “Overton Window”. Simply stated, this term is the defining range of what is seen as acceptable political discourse at any given time, and therefore whether new policies and ideas can be allowed to flourish – should they fall outside this window, there will not just be met with political hostility, but the same from the general population. This window moves over time as new data emerges, new ideas spread, and new voters come of age.

In terms of climate change, the Overton Window has shifted dramatically in the last decade. Concepts and ideas that were at first seen as fringe at best, such as reducing carbon emissions through reduced meat consumption or a (drastic) reduction in our fossil fuel consumption, are fast becoming mainstream policy targets. A combination of increasingly dramatic scientific evidence, such as that presented by the IPCC as regards the impact of agriculture on climate change, pressure from youth groups around the world, and fast-emerging technological solutions have radically reshaped what is politically possible when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.

Concurrent with this shift in the Overton Window has been the renewal of the three major European Institutions; Parliamentary elections, the installation of the Von Der Leyen Commission, and the changing of the Presidency of the European Council. Together, they are responding to heightened citizen demand for action on the climate crisis as well as further environmental protection. Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that citizens and activists are no longer content with the mere promise or appearance of action, but are engaged for the long term and wish to see policy outcomes with a real impact.

However, shifts in politics do not come without resistance. The European food system is not well equipped to handle the dramatic shifts that are sometimes suggested without radical reform, the injection of serious funding, as well as generational renewal within the farming community. Despite initial signals through the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy, it remains to be seen how Europe will accelerate the transition to climate friendly food and farming systems in practical terms and step up their performance in terms of delivering not just food, but also biodiversity and climate action.

Furthermore, while there is a shift in political acceptance and popular willingness to engage with the transition in Europe, this is not always the case from around the world. From developing countries that are struggling with food security, to political attitudes ranging from mere acknowledgment to outright hostility to climate measures, the EU will need to take careful stock of the global political scene if the world community is to achieve the goals set out by the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite all these challenges to the delivery of real, lasting solutions to the climate crisis, there is no denying that the Overton Window has dramatically moved in favour of accelerated change. While currently displaced from the front pages by the dramatic escalation of the Corona Virus, there will be no turning back to the emissions or political position of ignorance that dominated the late 20th century. Furthermore, as the response to the current pandemic shows the nigh-unlimited power of concerted state and private action, one cannot help but wonder what level of change could be wrought should similar resources brought to bear to keep global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius.


Robert de Graeff
Senior Policy Advisor
European Landowners' Organization