Public debate on climate change has chiefly focused on two things in recent months – the international climate talks in Copenhagen and the research methods of a handful of climate scientists.
As long as these are the stories people hear about climate change, it is no surprise that public support for a low carbon economy can sometimes be found wanting.
Looking at climate change primarily as an academic debate between sceptics and climate scientists, rather than as a practical challenge to be overcome, means that vital conversations about what a low carbon future would like, and how it can be achieved, are stalled.
And while an international deal on climate change is of the utmost importance, to most people it also seems of utmost irrelevance. After all, they are not diplomats and international agreements are far removed from their daily lives.
If our leaders want public support for a wholesale shift to low carbon life, they need to start telling better stories. If politicians trade bland slogans like ‘ACT ON CO2’ for inspirational stories about creating a better future and ensuring our freedom and security, then people will start to listen. If they swap tales of distant melting icecaps and multilateral agreements for debates about what action we need at home, dealing with climate change becomes relevant.
But better stories are only part of what is needed. In order to influence public support, these stories have to be heard, and they have to be credible.
Politicians should consider carefully who does the talking on climate change. Given that politicians are among the least trusted people in Britain, and many people do not identify with environmentalists, government would be well advised to enlist other people to talk about climate change. Business people could talk to businesses, for example, and trade unionists to trade unions.
Taking practical actions that result in visible change is also critical to gaining public support. Politicians can talk until they are red – or blue – in the face, but people will only believe that change is real and important if they see it happening. Visible projects such as a well-branded national housing refurbishment programme, wind turbines on roofs, or priority lanes for electric cars could help take low carbon living out of politicians’ speeches and into people’s lives.
The Committee on Climate Change has said we need to see a step change in the UK’s efforts to cut carbon; to help make this possible we also need a step change in the level, coherence and quality of political communication. By communicating better with the public, politicians could build stronger support for policies and reduce the likelihood of a public backlash.
But this is not to say that politicians should delay taking action until they have built stronger public support. In fact, taking bold action is a vital communication tool in itself, as it shows politicians’ commitment and reduces the confusing gap between the catastrophe government talks about and its own modest responses so far.