What’s the link between the rising tide of populist politics and climate denial?

flooded warning signsThis post is by Matthew Lockwood, senior research fellow at the University of Exeter.

Last week I blogged on how UKIP’s rise has been mirrored by a rise in the proportion of people saying that they do not think the world is warming. There may or may not be a causal link between the two, but my hypothesis is that you would expect populism to drive climate denial, not just here but also in the US, in the form of the Tea Party movement.  Let’s assume that my hypothesis is correct. In the long term populism tends to self-destruct but, unfortunately, it can do a lot of damage before that happens. So what should those who are concerned with the effects on climate policy do about it?

The first issue is to note that climate change is actually a side-show in the rise of UKIP. As pollster Anthony Wells has noted, so is Europe really. UKIP is primarily an anti-politics phenomenon, and also partly reflects the fact that so many people were left behind during the economic boom of the 2000s and then suffered further in the downturn, together with anti-immigration feeling in some parts of the country.

Indeed, this is not really even about UKIP per se, many of whose supporters and voters followed other parties until a few weeks ago. Rather it is about populism. Climate change comes in as part of the agenda of the cosmopolitan elite (and even worse, the European elite), who are the underlying target of people’s anger. This fact is important to bear in mind for what follows.

Climate change is a background concern compared to energy prices
Second, to my mind, an important element of the answer lies in the policy agenda. Climate policy is vulnerable because while a majority still believes it is happening, it is very much a background concern, especially relative to more pressing issues like energy prices. Energy costs are a big issue for many disgruntled voters attracted to populism, and I think many environmentalists have underestimated how much this matters politically. Energy bills have of course risen mainly because of oil prices, but it will be easy for climate denialist commentators to place the blame on mitigation policy costs. My view is that we should relieve some of the cost burden that falls on the current generation (and, proportionately, most heavily on the poor), through using long term, public debt to pay for the greening of our infrastructure. This would help take the political wind out of the sails of attacks on climate policies, as well as being fair.

Why the idea of climate change is resisted
Third, and the focus of the rest of this post, is what the implications are for communication. My thinking on this is mainly guided by Paul Taggart’s excellent book on populism. I would approach the problem by distinguishing two audiences. The first is the majority who are not active followers of a populist movement or party, but who may have their belief in man made climate change eroded by populist messages deriding it. For this audience, I think the first step is getting the wider public to think about why those following populist politicians might be so resistant to accepting the idea of man made climate change in the first place.

Many of UKIP’s supporters yearn for certainty and safety in the midst of what seems to be a long, drawn out crisis. Many are pensioners who wish for a return to golden age that, in reality, never was. Yet despite these understandable responses to the modern world, we do need to face up to its problems and complexities. The best, and most humorous, version of this I have come across is this excellent SoapBox video by David Mitchell:

While many in the non-populist majority will understand all of this, I think it will help to spell it out as a key part of the context for the rise in climate denial.

We need Brian Cox
At the same time, we do clearly need to keep on communicating the climate science to this mainstream audience. But we need to communicate it better, and try to make it more interesting. Climate science needs someone like Brian Cox, the man who has made physics sexy. In fact, Brian Cox himself would do nicely, he’s a scientist and you’d think he must be concerned about the anti-science nature of populism, which UKIP shares with the Tea Party (for example, UKIP members are almost five times more likely than the average person to believe that the MMR jab causes autism). We also need climate scientists with better debating skills. It is virtually impossible to pin people like Peter Hitchens down just by using the science, even though he is not a climate scientist, because of his considerable skills of rhetoric.

The failure of facts and weasel words
The second audience is populist supporters themselves. I am distinguishing the large numbers of people who now say they support or vote for UKIP, the ones who matter politically, from the denialist commentators in the media. To reach the millions of people drawn to the messages of populist leaders on climate, we need to draw on Taggart’s analysis, and grasp the full extent to which those in the populist mindset are not listening to conventional politicians, environmentalists or even scientists. They are seen as cosmopolitan elites, with the latter two groups acting in a conspiracy to corrupt politicians and the policy process. Bombarding them with science and facts will not work.

To overcome the abstract nature of climate science, which is all too easily construed as part of a conspiracy theory, populist supporters need to be engaged with something they can see, touch or smell. Parts-per-million and a six degree world may strike fear into the hearts of those in the environmental community, but they are just words (and weasel words at that) to populists. It is also easy not to believe the abstract truth that average global temperatures are rising.

But not believing that the climate is changing is much harder. People can see and feel the changing weather patterns, and many are also aware of how the turning of the seasons has moved. Then there are the more tangible effects of changing weather patterns. More widespread and frequent flooding is one; higher and more volatile food prices are another. It is impossible to ignore these changes: they have clear and present consequences, like the impossibility of getting insurance, and higher food prices at the supermarket checkout.

The truth told by unexpected messengers and vivid examples
It is, of course, necessary to talk accurately about the relationship between climate change and particular events. To have power, these arguments must be true. But, as touched on above, they also need to be put over in punchy ways. Even arguments about changing seasons and food prices will get lost if they are made with dry statistics; people would just see Nigel Farage or someone similar challenging some environmentalist they don’t believe anyway. To cut through, very concrete and vivid examples have to be used to push opponents into absurd positions.

Finally, we also need to go all Marshall McLuhan, and find new and unexpected messengers. Instead of someone from Greenpeace talking about changing weather patterns and ruined harvests, try someone from the National Farmers Union. The farmers who lost tens of thousands of lambs this year know the climate is playing up. These ideas may or may not work. But one thing is sure, in the face of the biggest rise of populist climate denial seen in decades, the climate community needs some way of responding more effectively than it is now.

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