HomeClimate changeWhat motivates politicians to act on climate change?

What motivates politicians to act on climate change?

Climate ChangeThis post is by Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis who is working with us on a new research project, in collaboration with Lancaster University.

How often have you heard the lament amongst environmentalists, “what’s lacking is political will”? If only politicians understood enough, and cared enough, to confront and act on environmental issues like climate change, the argument goes, they could implement the solutions (green the economy, fine the polluters) and lead the transition to a sustainable society.

But is it as simple as that? What is this elusive quality, ‘political will’? Put another way, what is it that motivates politicians to take action on climate change, and what gets in their way?

This question is at the centre of a new collaborative research project between Lancaster University and Green Alliance, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which I’m really pleased to be working on over the next three years.

No major party emphasises climate change in its offer to voters
Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme, which I established in 2009, works with politicians to develop their understanding of climate change, and what it means for their role at the national level and as representatives of a particular constituency. The programme has received very positive feedback from MPs, some of whom have since become closely involved in decision making on climate policy. Yet, still, none of the UK’s main political parties emphasise climate change in their offer to voters. And climate policies are still not embedded within overall political strategy.

From an academic perspective, while much has been written about climate politics and governance, there has been little or no investigation into how politicians, as individuals within the political system and wider society, understand or make decisions on climate change.

How politicians understand climate change
Hence we are undertaking this research, which aims to take a deeper look at how politicians understand climate change and its implications for political life, and how they decide whether or how to act on the issue.

The research consists of:

  • theory review, drawing on sociology, political theory, science studies and other disciplines;
  • a detailed analysis of politicians’ speech, using corpus techniques (statistical analysis of Hansard text) to look at how politicians talk about climate change;
  • focus groups with stakeholders who work with politicians, including environmental NGOs, businesses, government representatives, to discuss experience of working on climate change politics;
  • interviews with current and former MPs.

The findings will be published through a series of blogs and discussion papers for Green Alliance, as well as publications for an academic audience. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think about the project, so please get in touch if you want to know more.

This project is funded through a CASE Studentship from the ESRC North West Doctoral Training Centre.


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Rebecca is a researcher at Lancaster University and an associate of Green Alliance.

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