Are politicians ‘taming’ climate change with the language they use?

wordcloud-2This post is by Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis, it is based on research presented in a paper published by the journal Environmental Politics.

While climate deniers on both sides of the Atlantic attract media and public attention, the overwhelming majority of politicians in the UK support the scientific consensus on climate change. Just five out of 650 MPs voted against the Climate Change Act in 2008, and major parties in Westminster have all pledged their support for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed in December 2015.

But that doesn’t mean climate change is an easy subject for politicians. They have the tricky task of turning the scientific consensus about the need for action into a workable agenda that can win people’s support. How do politicians go about this? What ways do they find to talk about the impacts of climate change, and the potential solutions?

Using a technique called corpus analysis, I have analysed hundreds of thousands of words spoken in the House of Commons in 2008, to expose the ways in which politicians try to tackle the climate issue.

Using science selectively
Corpus analysis uses software to spot patterns and styles of speech. It allows you to see what words are used most frequently, compared to normal speech; and the ways in which particular words or phrases are used. It uncovers patterns that you wouldn’t see just from reading the text. It is particularly useful for politics, because the way that issues are talked about, or framed, influences action. Just think about the political framing of welfare issues, for example, and how distinctions between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ are used to make the case for reducing benefits.

The analysis has thrown up some fascinating findings. It shows that politicians refer to climate science a great deal, but use a selective account of that science. They frame climate change as an economic and technical issue, something that isn’t about people or families, or indeed the natural world. Above all, it shows that politicians work hard to explain and justify action on climate change but, in doing so, they ‘tame’ the climate, making it seem a more manageable and amenable issue than it actually is.

When talking about climate change, MPs use words like science, scientific and scientist very frequently, and words about cause and effect. This suggests that they are making statements about the science to build a case for action on climate (or, in the case of the sceptics, to oppose it). It is clear that they do not feel they can take the scientific consensus for granted. But there is very little discussion of abrupt or irreversible impacts (sometimes called tipping points or threshold events). They rarely talk about the potentially radical effects of climate change, even though these are discussed in the scientific literature, like the IPCC’s summary for policy makers.

Leaving people and nature out of the picture
Politicians use economic and technical language to talk about the impacts of climate change, and potential solutions. Words like economy, costs, benefits, measures and efficiency all occur frequently. In fact, when I compared debates on the Climate Change Act with budget discussions in the same year, I was surprised to see that MPs are more likely to use the words costs and benefits when talking about climate change than when discussing the budget.

In contrast, people are rarely mentioned. Words associated with people and family were used six times more frequently in budget discussions than in climate discussions. In the climate debate, the most common ‘people’ word was actually household, which is more a unit of economic analysis than a description of a family. Neither do politicians talk about the environment much. The analysis shows that there is more talk of other species (animals and birds) in everyday conversation than in any political debate on climate.

Perhaps politicians do not discuss the human element of the climate problem or solution because they worry that a more emotional, people-based narrative would be discredited, despite the general tendency of politicians to appeal to personal narratives and human interest. But downplaying the human or social dimension of climate impacts and solutions reduces its relevance and communicability, and narrows the range of options for responding to climate change.

An understandable but flawed strategy
In short, rather than adjusting their world view to accommodate the far reaching implications of climate change, politicians instead attempt to ‘tame’ the subject, to fit into existing world views. This appears to be a well-meaning attempt to frame a difficult, complex issue into something more amenable to the political agenda. Presenting climate as an ordinary, manageable problem is more palatable than discussing the ways in which it might radically alter life as we know it.

The obvious caveat, though, is that wishing climate change to be more manageable will not make it so. Framing climate change in this way may make it more possible to talk about it, but risks failing to address the full implications. The evidence of this study suggests that it is very difficult for politicians to address climate change comprehensively within a formal parliamentary setting, however necessary this is.

New ways need to be found of opening up discussion, perhaps through using different types of debate, such as a ‘national convention’ on climate, or through dialogues between politicians, scientists and the public. This could allow politicians to debate fully the implications of climate change, and build support for a more comprehensive response.

The full paper is only accessible through university libraries, but if you would like to read it, contact Rebecca Willis, as there are a limited number of copies available to distribute for free. This research is part of a collaborative project between Lancaster University and Green Alliance, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

2 comments

  • A most helpful analysis. Do these conclusions have implications for the way that Green Alliance conducts its business? This reluctance to grasp the existential challenge posed by climate change is reflected in the way that other topics are discussed without reference to climate change. Thus fracking is ok because we will need more gas to heat the hundreds of thousands of homes that must be built. No discussion of whether we should build them to a quality that doesn’t really need gas or of lower embedded carbon materials for construction. Just get them built. This ‘un-politics’ is, in reality, just short-term thinking that will leave future generations facing a disaster not of their making.

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