What does climate change look like through the eyes of a politician?

hop 2I’m in a café in the House of Commons, talking to a newly-elected MP about climate change. He’s under no illusions about likely impacts. He points out that where we’re sitting, beside the River Thames, could be under water in decades to come. He calls climate change ‘catastrophic’, and looks for every opportunity he can to raise the issue.  But his commitment has come at a price: speaking out on climate is, he tells me, a ‘career-limiting move’.

It’s easy to get frustrated with politicians. We know the consequences of not acting on climate change. We know what needs to be done. We just need to get on with it – which means that politicians need to play their part. No surprise, then, that climate activists are quick to express exasperation at the slow pace of change in government and parliament.

But what does it look like from the politician’s point of view? How do our elected representatives think through their own stance on such a complex issue? I’ve just published some research offering some answers to these questions. It’s based on interviews with fourteen current and former MPs, as part of a joint project between Lancaster University and Green Alliance. In the full paper (free access), you can read four politicians’ stories, and a more detailed discussion of the findings that I’ve summarised below.

The politicians I spoke to understood the need to act on climate change. But it’s long been known that the way in which people act on scientific evidence is complex. We don’t just look at the evidence and calculate a rational response; instead our understanding is mediated by our social setting, outlook and experience. Politicians are no exception. Though each individual is different, there were three common themes that emerged from the interviews.

  1. How it makes them look

First, politicians’ responses depend on their sense of identity: how they see themselves, and how they want others to see them. Like any other institution, parliament has its own cultures and norms, which politicians are measured against. Many told me that climate change was seen as an ‘outsider’ issue, not something discussed as part of the mainstream of politics. One, who campaigns actively on climate, said he was seen as a ‘freak’. Another was privately very concerned about the issue, but had made a deliberate choice not to shout about it. When making the case for better transport services in his constituency, he argued in terms of congestion and convenience, deliberately not mentioning carbon reduction. “I think if I had mentioned carbon emissions”, he told me, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, “Oh here he goes again”.

  1. How representative is it?

Second, politicians are, of course, elected representatives. What they choose to act on depends, in part, on how they see their representative role. None of the interviewees felt much pressure from their electorate to act on climate change. As one said, “I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, and had thousands of conversations with voters, and I just don’t have conversations on climate change.” Nevertheless, some found ways to connect climate to issues of importance to those they represent, through making the link to job creation or better transport systems, for example. But making a case for action on climate is more difficult than, say, campaigning for a local hospital; it is less obviously ‘representative’.

  1. It needs to be tangible

Third, and linked, politicians have limited time and resources, and they need to show results. As one told me, “Politicians like to have campaigns they can win…. And you can’t say ‘I’ve campaigned to stop climate change. And now climate change is fixed, and I’ve delivered for you.” As a result, many described how they tried to break down the complex issue of climate change into solutions and tangible, practical policies. The danger, though, is that, in doing this, they lose sight of the significance of the issue, or the need for more radical solutions. This chimes with previous research, which shows that politicians try to ‘tame’ climate change, to present it as a simpler, more manageable issue than it really is.

Together, these three factors go a long way toward explaining why politicians don’t find climate change straightforward to work on or talk about. That’s not to say that we simply should make excuses for them. But it does point to ways of working more effectively with politicians to build a case for climate action.

For example, it confirms the importance of bringing out the local dimension to climate change action, both to strengthen the link with the concerns of the electorate, and to offer tangible solutions. It demonstrates, as good campaigners and advocates know instinctively, that it is important to work with a broad range of interests, whether businesses, faith groups or young activists, so that climate change doesn’t get pigeonholed as a niche issue. But it also means that we need to ask serious questions about whether our political institutions are able to chew over, let alone swallow, a problem as long term and complex as climate change, or whether we need different models of governance. That’s the subject of a future blog from this research.

For more, see Rebecca Willis’s research article at Sage Journals

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