Citizen Action Monitor

How UK politicians can build a political as well as a scientific case for action on climate change

While UK politicians know what needs to be done, most constituents are not asking them to do anything about climate change

No 2163 Posted by fw, February 19, 2018

Rebecca Willis

“Overall, my research has demonstrated clearly that deciding why and how a politician should make a case for why he or she should support action on climate change is not straightforward; it is a complex, mediated, global issue, and the links with everyday lives of voters are not self-evident. … I’ve interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament, and one message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, ‘Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.’ This is a pretty fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?”Rebecca Willis, Green Alliance

In her concluding paragraphs, Rebecca is convinced that her research …

“… has some important messages for those of us who want to see greater political attention paid to climate change. First, politicians don’t have to make their cases alone. Demonstrating wide support, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted. Second, while it is tempting to make a case solely for the benefit of local action to get the right policies in place, such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the wider case for climate action. Third, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support — Who will the policies and actions appeal to? Do the policies and actions help to make the wider case for action?

Applying these lessons will create space for different solutions to a politician’s dilemma to emerge.

Rebecca Willis is an independent researcher with twenty years’ experience in environment and sustainability policy and practice, at international, national and local level. She works with a particular focus on examining how politicians and other decision-makers can be engaged in the transition to sustainable prosperity.

Below is my heavily edited repost of Rebecca’s article. I rewrote large parts of it to enhance my own understanding of her message. My edited repost includes added subheadings, highlighted text, and some bulleted reformatting. Don’t miss her related article at the bottom of this post.

Alternatively, read her piece on the Green Alliance website by clicking on the following linked title.

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There’s no political pressure to act on climate. So how are MPs responding? by Rebecca Willis, Green Alliance, February 9, 2018

Given that urgent action is needed on climate, why do most citizens show so little interest?

Scientists are clear that urgent action is needed on climate. At the Paris Summit in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit rises in global temperatures. And yet climate change barely troubles domestic politics.

Interviews with over 20 UK politicians reveal constituents “don’t ask about it”

Since then, I’ve interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament, and one message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, “Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.”

Most politicians know what needs to be done, but voters are not asking them to do anything. So what should they do?

This is a pretty fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?

Yes, a “small minority” of citizens are vocal, but for most, “climate change is a non-issue”

Let me pause here and anticipate a response from you, as a reader of this blog. You may well want to argue that there is, in fact, pressure for action. You are right – up to a point. Politicians identify a particular group of voters who pile the pressure on. These voters, they tell me, are almost entirely affluent, educated city dwellers. They are vocal, but they are a small minority – one to which, I would guess, you and most readers of this blog probably belong. That leaves a lot of voters, a large majority, for whom climate change is a non-issue.

What’s a politician to do, then, if they know that climate action is urgently needed, but there’s precious little support?

Political representation is a process, an ongoing dialog between politicians and voters

An MP does not represent a constituency just by virtue of being elected. Winning an election is necessary but not sufficient. Instead, representation should be seen as a process of promise- or pledge-making to voters; of politicians making clear what they stand for. These pledges are then accepted, rejected or ignored by the electorate. In short, representation is an ongoing dialogue between politicians and their constituents. For example, when an MP campaigns against a hospital closure, she is, in effect, saying “I am campaigning for local health services and this makes me a worthy representative of this area”. 

Politicians may be ‘influenced’ by voters’ concerns, but they are not ‘bound’ to act on them

The good news is that very few politicians see their job as simply keeping track of which issues the most voters are either for or against. They may be influenced by voters’ concerns, but they are not bound to act on that information.

Nevertheless, many politicians are skilled in making a case for issues that they personally think are important, even if those matters are not a high priority for voters.

It is easy to see how politicians can make a case for supporting local hospitals. But how might this work for climate change?

In my research, I found that politicians used four different ways of making a case for climate action.

1/ Making the case to your constituents that they should take action on climate change for the greater good  of the global community 

The first way puts forward a global problem to which a global solution is proposed. If a politician argues that it is in the interests of the global community to take action on climate change, his constituents may not feel personally threatened by severe weather events happening in remote regions. “So what?” they are likely to say. “I just happen to be here.”

This approach has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. However, it has limited appeal, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space.” In short, this approach is often ignored.

2/ Making the case that local action is necessary as a preventative measure to protect possible local impacts

Another strategy is to tailor the claim explicitly to a local setting, saying that action is necessary to prevent local impacts like flooding. One MP representing a flood-prone area told me that he used floods as a way of talking about wider climate impacts. This claim has the advantage that it links a global issue directly to the local area, and allows a politician to talk in terms of the interests of local people.

The disadvantage of a local prevention approach is that it may not help constituents to link their local action to the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, which are a threat to us all.

3/ Making the case that small practical local actions can be framed as addressing global climate change

The most common strategy that MP interviewees reported was linking global climate change to practical, achievable local actions, particularly economic measures, such as encouraging renewable energy generation, or improving transport infrastructure. This has the obvious advantage of relevance to the local area. As one MP told me, “I’m happy to use an economic argument if that means that more people will come on side… I change the language to be much, much less extreme.The disadvantage of such a claim, though, is that it may reduce the opportunity to discuss the full implications of climate change, focusing instead on small steps at a local level.

4/ Making the case solely for the benefit of local action, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change

A significant minority of MPs in my sample use an intriguing strategy. This approach involves promoting local benefits, like public transport, or reduced congestion, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change. In this case, although the politician is privately thinking of a particular strategy in terms of its climate benefits, they deliberately do not mention this, because they think it would backfire. One judged that, if he had mentioned carbon emissions in arguing for a sustainable transport scheme, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’”.

The challenge for politicians is deciding how to handle the climate change crisis with their constituents

Overall, my research has demonstrated clearly that deciding why and how a politician should make a case for why he or she should support action on climate change is not straightforward; it is a complex, mediated, global issue, and the links with everyday lives of voters are not self-evident.

Three take-away lessons for politicians (and constituents) about climate advocacy

The research has some important messages for those of us who want to see greater political attention paid to climate change.

First, politicians don’t have to make their cases alone. Demonstrating wide support, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted.

Second, while it is tempting to make a case solely for the benefit of local action to get the right policies in place, such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the wider case for climate action.

Third, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support — Who will the policies and actions appeal to? Do the policies and actions help to make the wider case for action?

Apply these three lessons and different solutions emerge

Apply this thinking, and different solutions emerge: like

  • renewable energy owned by local organisations, rather than national scale generation;
  • more resources and more responsibility given to support local areas to achieve carbon reductions;
  • climate considerations embedded into regional and city-level innovation programmes;
  • people-centred transport strategies that engage with the reasons for travel demand; and
  • meaningful consultation on policies, engaging with people directly, and allowing people, politicians and others to deliberate together, and discuss shared solutions.

Above all, it is only by making a bold, positive case for climate policies that we will build a political as well as a scientific case for action on climate.

~ Otherwise, we may all end up like these politicians ~ 

This post is based on a research article published in the journal Political Studies. The research is part of a collaborative project between Lancaster University and Green Alliance, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Download the full paper.

ALSO BY REBECCA WILLIS

What does climate change look like through the eyes of a politician? September 19, 2018 — I’m in a café in the House of Commons, talking to a newly-elected MP about climate change. He’s under no illusions about likely impacts. He points out that where we’re sitting, beside the River Thames, could be under water in decades to come. He calls climate change ‘catastrophic’, and looks for every opportunity he can to raise the issue.  But his commitment has come at a price: speaking out on climate is, he tells me, a ‘career-limiting move’.

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