by Sergio Vazzoler

The economic crisis has and will continue to have a key role on the agenda and in political communication over the next few weeks in the run-up to the elections on 24 February. All the political leaders will battle it out, each with their own program, some continuing the Monti agenda, others with the ambition (how sincere is unclear) of taking the Monti line forward and making it more acceptable to the “sovereign will of the people” (in actual fact, sovereign only when it’s time to vote, but a lot less so during the parliamentary year spent in fruitless expectation of a new electoral law…).

But there is another crisis that does not appear and, it is safe to say, will not appear on the agenda and in political communication from here to the elections: the environmental crisis. The planet’s state of health is deteriorating much faster than the already worrying forecasts formulated by the scientific community in years past indicated: the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic sea ice and countless glaciers in Europe are melting, our snow-covered surfaces are receding and permafrost is heating up. The extreme climatic events of the last few years – heat-waves, flooding, drought – have led to an increase in damage-related costs (in Europe too). And in all this, the growth of human activities in areas at risk is proving to be a decisive factor.

Some will say this simply shows that the problem is a global one, about which Italy can do very little if the international community as a whole fails to move. Although it may seem plausible, this view is very short-sighted. The task of the communicator is to make the reasons for this distortion clear.

Below is a decalogue setting out all the reasons why it would be advisable to start introducing environment- and sustainability-related issues into political communication:

1. the effects of global warming are not distributed evenly across the planet. Italy, like the rest of Mediterranean Europe, is in a particularly vulnerable position;

2. the chronic and culpable absence of environmental policies addressing Italy’s disastrous hydro-geological situation means that we are paying (in the true sense of the word) a very high price each time the country is hit by an extreme atmospheric event. Indeed, in Italy, floods of just normal intensity are sufficient to cause huge damage;

3. EC laws and directives are becoming increasingly severe and non-compliant member states find themselves facing very heavy fines (Italy risks fines totalling 280 million euro in the waste management sector alone);

4. the other side of the environmental crisis coin is the opportunity to create new jobs and build new economic activities in the transverse sector of environmental sustainability. Surely this is a trump card to play in a country desperate for jobs whose traditional industries have been hit by a structural crisis and have a growing need for innovation to regain competitiveness?

5. interest in and awareness of environmental issues seem to be growing significantly among Italians, and the business community been moving on this front for some time to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by eco-compliant behaviour among citizens and consumers;

6. mirroring the previous point, the boundary between attention to the environment and prejudice against everything manmade, be it a bridge, a waste treatment plant, or power lines, is highly unstable. So there is a need to “provide certainty” (or a minimum of guidance) for potential investors in Italy’s technological, infrastructural and environmental development;

7. in recent years the situation described above has dragged Italian national and local government into a series of environmental conflicts: the Ilva question is just the tip of an iceberg that has grown over time, given that the captains of SS Italy in the first and second republics preferred to navigate by sight rather than plan ahead;

8. the environmental question incorporates positive symbolic values for public opinion, which constitute a potential opportunity: examining the experience of the Green Party and learning from previous mistakes (completely negative and alarmist communication in primis) is all it would take;

9. the younger generation finds politics unappealing and feels unrepresented by today’s politicians (even the rallies during the nationwide tour of “scrapper” Matteo Renzi tended to attract older voters…). But many surveys show that young people are interested in environmental issues and projects. The fact that Italy runs 193 university courses on the green economy is a case in point;

10. protection of the environment and sustainability are closely related to two other sectors of not secondary importance for Italy: agriculture and tourism. For people who make a living from agriculture, sustainability and quality produce are a new dimension to respond to new market demand (with 49,000 biological companies already active, Italy leads the way in Europe), while eco-tourism is the ideal approach to make the most of typical local features, Italy’s natural beauty and archaeology and eno-gastronomic excellence.

Summing up, as argued in the recent report published by Enea and the Sustainable Development Foundation, the green economy is already a reality today but needs the support of a national strategic framework. Monti’s government of technocrats, and the Minister for the Environment Clini in particular, should be given credit for putting the environment back on the national agenda. Whether this will be continue when the politicians return, we shall see over the next few weeks as electoral campaigning goes full throttle.