The ‘penny-drop moment’: building political leadership for radical emission reduction

Five light bulbs in lineThis post is by Rebecca Willis, independent adviser on environment and sustainability and Green Alliance associate, working with us on our Climate Leadership Programme. This is a shortened version of her recent presentation to the Tyndall Centre’s Radical Emissions Reduction conference

Crossword fanatics call it the ‘penny-drop moment’, or PDM: the moment when a series of jumbled clues falls into place, and the whole picture becomes clear. I’ve seen it happen. At the end of a long question and answer session between new MPs and a climate scientist, something clicks. The politicians realise that the development of modern societies, economies, and arguably democracy itself, has only been possible because of a stable climate, and that we can’t take the climate for granted any more. There’s a tangible change of mood as this reality sinks in, and the MPs grasp the significance of climate change for the future of politics and, indeed, their own political careers.

I saw the ‘penny drop moment’ for myself during several workshops for new MPs run by Green Alliance, as part of its Climate Leadership Programme. Since 2009, Green Alliance has worked with over 60 prospective and existing Members of Parliament, to develop MPs’ understanding of climate change and what it means for them. The programme combines dialogue between politicians, scientists and policy experts, with a process of experiential learning in MPs’ constituencies.

Green Alliance’s work aims to take politicians to the ‘penny drop moment’ and beyond, consolidating their scientific understanding of the issue and working with them to think through what climate change means for their role as local leaders and national representatives.

This presentation explores some lessons learned from Green Alliance’s programme, and ask how best to build political leadership for climate change.

Lessons include:

The personal is political.
Politicians’ outlooks are shaped by their education, work and personal circumstances. If climate change has not figured as a salient issue in their lived experience, it is harder for them to engage with the issue emotionally or intellectually. The Climate Leadership Programme works with MPs in their constituency, and puts them in contact with people who are affected by, and understand, the issues.

Political philosophies have been blind to climate change
The two major political traditions in the UK do not yet have a sense of how climate change alters political outlooks and assumptions. For conservatives, a focus on free markets and personal responsibility sits awkwardly with climate politics, which requires a long term, collectivist response. On the left, the focus has been on social equity and fairness, and environmental concern can be viewed with suspicion, as a ‘luxury’ to be worried about only once basic needs are met. Green Alliance has been working with political thinkers in all major parties, to explore with them what climate means for political philosophies and outlooks.

Ask not what we can do for the environment…
To the extent that political traditions have taken environmental considerations on board, the language has tended to be that of ‘protecting the environment’ or ‘preserving nature’: an appeal to altruism. Climate change turns this on its head. We can no longer assume a broadly benign natural environment as a backdrop to politics. Instead, maintaining a stable climate must become a central focus of politics itself. In other words, ask not what we can do for the environment, but what the environment can do for us.

It’s not just a job for the specialists
Each party has a knowledgeable group of climate and energy specialists, who work hard to raise the profile of these issues. However, radical emission reduction is not just about energy policy. It is about land use, transport, agriculture, taxes, social inclusion, education and international development. So political leadership has to come from a much broader base, in other words from those who don’t see themselves as environmental specialists. Green Alliance supports the specialists, of course, but works hard with all MPs to draw out the implications for their own personal areas of expertise.

To lead or to follow?
Particularly in times of austerity, climate change may not be perceived by the electorate to be to be a central political concern, and so politicians may be wary of championing an issue that does not seem to have their constituents’ support. However, the relationship between a politician and their constituents and, indeed, between a political party and its supporters, is complex. It is not about leading or following, but about creating the political space for discussion. There is a need to work with political leaders to create the conditions for the cultural and behavioural shifts that we need.

Flatpacks and blueprints
Much work has been done on mapping potential emissions reduction pathways, and developing a blueprint of the technical and economic resources required to shift to a low carbon future. These visions are necessary but not sufficient. They are like the instructions for a flatpack wardrobe, when all you have is the instructions, not the constituent parts, or even a picture of the finished product. Pity the politicians who are given these instructions. It’s their job to persuade people they want a wardrobe, when there are plenty of people saying that furniture isn’t necessary; then they have to assemble and motivate a team to help construct it; and they have to make sure the final thing is, indeed, a wardrobe. It’s not enough just to provide instructions. Radical policies require political leadership, and politicians need support to manage such a complex transition. The ‘penny drop moment’ is only the beginning.

Watch the video of the full presentation.



  • Rebecca Willis is doubtless right in her analysis of why the two main parties tend not to address green issues adequately. But she is surely wrong in saying “It is not about leading or following, but about creating the political space for discussion”. Leadership is not only leading men over the top into machine gun fire, but also having a coherent attitude to life and the issues it throws up that others respect and find persuasive, and being prepared to advocate it, and live up to it, whenever appropriate. It is not unreasonable to ask politicians seeking our votes to have a genuine concern for the environment, and to maintain that concern publicly in all circumstances, and to reach for the most responsible option. Even if compromises are unavoidable in practice, they should be accepted as such, and not necessarily as the last word.

    A recent poll showing that the public puts environmental issues well below increasing their own economic prosperity is hardly surprising, given the absence of true leadership on what is at stake from Government ministers and their opposite numbers. It is particularly important that those at the centre or on the right of centre of the political spectrum show leadership on environmental issues, since the Green Party, by being so committed to hard left solutions (quite unnecessarily), gives the impression that care for the environment is synonymous with a hard left stance; many potentially supportive people will thus reject both if they are offered no alternative.

    • I would say that it is important that all parties provide leadership on this issue. Dismissing one parties ideas as “hard left” tends to ignore the urgent need for some radical leadership and action on what is a fundamental issue to all.

      Good leadership should consider ALL the options not just those that fit a narrow political view point. Global Warming affects everybody regardless of political persuasion.

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