It’s important not to be a climate change zealot

8 March 2019


Banner Image by Photocurry Creative Commons

Investigating how politicians understand and act on climate change

Jamie Ward, NERC Policy Intern, Centre for Science and Policy (January – April 2019).

In the penultimate seminar of the Christ’s Climate Seminar Series, Rebecca Willis, Independent Environmental Researcher, discusses the findings of a collaborative research project to investigate how politicians think and act on climate change.

Scientists and activists are calling for more ambitious and radical action against climate change from government and parliament. With urgency and speed of change required, it is easy to be left frustrated by the relatively slow action. The question is, why is this? What does the complex climate change problem look like from the perspective of a politician? Rebecca Willis, Independent Environmental Researcher, discusses the findings of a collaborative research project between Green Alliance and Lancaster University trying to provide some answers to these questions.

To listen to her talk, click on the link below:

It is clear, urgent and drastic action is required on climate change. The consequences of not doing so are catastrophic and governments need to play their part if the effects are to be mitigated. However, climate change barely makes an appearance in mainstream politics and people feel frustrated about the lack of political will. The question is, why is this? What motivates politicians to act against climate change and what is getting in their way? Rebecca states academics have written a lot about climate change, policy and what should be done, but have not explored these questions. Rebecca describes a collaborative research project aiming to take a deeper look at how politicians understand climate change and how they decide whether or how to act on the issue.

The project used an interdisciplinary approach combining social science and political science to analyse parliamentary debates on climate change, focus groups of stakeholders and interviews with current or former members of parliament.

The seminar focussed on the interview aspect of the study. Rebecca begins by stating most politicians interviewed recognise climate change is manmade, happening and will have catastrophic consequences, which only strengthens the question of why is there a lack of political will against it? Rebecca summarised the interviews into four examples, each describing their opinion of climate change relative to their political responsibilities and the consequences of acting on it. Although each interview was different, there were three themes that were present throughout.

The first theme describes the challenge of fitting climate change into everyday politics. Politician’s priorities are on tangible issues that affect their constituents in the short term rather than distant and complex threats such as climate change. The second theme involves the MP’s sense of identity. Several MPs described acting on climate being a career-limiting move; they would be labelled as a freak, zealot or obsessive by other MPs. The need to fit in and our sense of identity is important to all of us, including MPs, so the fear of being labelled and negatively impacting their career can pressure MPs to not act. The final theme relates to representation and how politicians see their role on a local and national level. MPs describe the difficulty of acting on an issue when their constituents don’t pressure them to do so. They emphasised the difficulty in making a case for climate change to their constituents and comparatively how easy it is to argue for relatable local issues such as a new local hospital.

Using this research and having a better understanding of politician’s thoughts about climate change, what should be done? Rebecca argues both MPs and the public should confront power on the social norm of climate change, push the argument of the co-benefits of tackling climate change, emphasise local action and, as was mentioned repeatedly in the last seminar, engage the public.

Questions and comments were taken from the audience with a general theme of government action on climate change. Topics discussed included: amplifying the voices of young people in the climate discussion; the similarities of the politics of Brexit and climate change; the severity of the consequences of not meeting climate targets for governments; and with climate change rarely being in mainstream politics and the apparent lack of noise from constituents to their MPs, should we take more responsibility as individuals to raise these issues?