Failed Swiss CO2 Law — What happened?

DE Version

Despite a loud and vocal youth climate strike movement, a national climate demonstration in autumn 2019 with over 100, 000 participants, a national election in 2019 that was dubbed the ‘’green wave’’ and a mass action on climate last autumn on the Federal Square in front of the parliament, Swiss voters narrowly rejected a revised CO2 law that every political party supported except for the Swiss People’s Party (the largest and farthest right party in the country). Even economiesuisse, the country’s biggest business lobby, supported the law.

Firstly it is important to understand that the law was put to the voters because automobile, building and oil industries along with the right wing Swiss People’s Party were not happy with the law that parliament had passed and collected enough signatures to get the referendum on the ballot.

The CO2 law laid out how Switzerland would meet its commitment to reduce its emissions by 50% relative to 1990 levels, much less than its fair share toward keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C, as mandated by the Paris Agreement. It proposed a carbon tax and dividend with one of the highest carbon prices in the world with two-third of the levies would be returned to the public in the form of reduced health insurance premiums. It is not possible for Switzerland to meet its emission reductions target with current legislation.

Why couldn’t such a wide coalition get voters to agree to a law that the majority of political parties supported?

If the goal is to not only have gotten the CO2 law passed, but to build power in order to accomplish more in the future, there were a number of weaknesses from the perspective of campaigning, political organising and communications framing.

The political parties were lazy — they thought that they had this in the bag, since every party except for one supported the law. Thus the left parties didn’t mobilise their base enough; this is seen by the fact that the regions of the country with the highest percentage of no votes were in regions with the highest percentage of voters, i.e. turnout of the left camp was less (see Figure 1) . The centrist parties, the Liberal Party and the Centre Party were not pressured by the left parties to mobilise their members, with 63% of the Liberals and 53% of the Centre voting against the law. Almost one-quarter of Socialist Party members voted against the law and 19% of the Green Liberals.

The higher the turnout in a region, the more people voted against the proposed law, Source: 20 Minuten/Tamedia post-voting polling, 13 June 2021.

Clearly the fact that the law was a compromise meant that some on the left found it too weak and those in the centre perhaps too stringent or not liberal enough. Within the Climatestrike movement, some chapters in the Romandie, the French speaking part of the country, were against the law and collected signatures to get the referendum onto the ballot, because they felt no law is better than a bad law.

As an avid cyclist, I spend many weekends in the countryside and I get a good sense of which initiatives and referenda will pass based on the signs and flags I see — once out of the city I rarely saw a yes sign, but many no signs against the CO2 law and the two other initiatives related to pesticides. I was rather certain that the environmental initiatives did not have a chance in hell to pass. If we look at the demographics of who voted yes and who voted no, it becomes clear — for the most part those with monthly earnings of over CHF 7,000, living in urban areas,with higher education and who were older supported the law, essentially the elite of the country.

upper left: Education level, upper right: Income/month, lower left: Age, lower right: rural, suburban, urban, Source: 20 Minuten/Tamedia post-vote polling

Ignoring the rural population, those with less education and who earn less is neither a long term strategy to win elections, initiatives and referenda nor make social change in the country. The website of the yes camp highlights politicians and academia; yet this group is unlikely to sway those who voted no.

It also doesn’t look like the yes supporters carried out a spectrum of allies analysis to identify 2–4 key groups in rural areas that could be moved toward voting yes and perhaps serve as spokespersons to the wider rural population.

What if supporters of the law in rural areas had gone door to door or called their neighbours to explain why they support the campaign? What about stands outside supermarkets and churches to share information about the campaign? Given the city-country divide, people are much more open to listening to someone from their community as opposed to a city-dweller or an elite.

Climate campaigns will never have the deep pockets that industry has and cannot only focus on paid ads, but it does have people power, which also tends to build stronger support than ads alone can do.

The arguments made in favour of the law were based on values, which generally is good, but they were neither inspiring nor convincing. The no side of course ran a negative campaign that focused on costs and also fake news. Their framing was clear, while the framing of the yes camp lacked a certain bite and was extremely vague. Were there benefits in the law to individuals that the supporters could have pointed out?

It was great that climate scientists such as Reto Knutti and my former boss, Thomas Stocker were speaking in favour of the law and calling out lies, such as in a glossy magazine that the oil industry published, but it would have been helpful to take that information and have created creative responses with other messengers.

What about holding focus groups to understand the worries about the law of key demographic groups in rural areas and testing messages beforehand to get the framing right in order to run a campaign that is focused on getting the vote out of those who already are on board and shifting key groups toward a yes?

The Swiss People’s Party doesn’t represent my values, but this party does know how to communicate, innovate and take risks. If messages are to be strongly and clearly communicated it is essential to draw a line in the sand and force people to pick one side or the other rather than a message that is of the lowest common denominator. What if one of the key messages had been ‘’let’s get out front and show how it can be done’’ rather than ‘’others are taking action, so we will too’’? Rather than following it would give the image of Switzerland leading by taking advantage of its ability to produce high quality results.

Ultimately though a society that is split by income, geographic location and education level is not viable in the long run. The only way that I know to build bridges is by not ignoring half the population, but by talking to them and applying organising strategy to build power.

climate scientist turned activist; Swiss, Indian, American immigrant.