Do people really understand the Climate Change Act and what it means?

House of parliament insideIt was great to celebrate the birthday of the Climate Change Act last week, much admired and copied round the world since its inception ten years ago. The UK climate community deserves a moment of satisfaction that we brought about, and have sustained for a decade, a brilliant piece of legislation.

But now that the last slice of birthday cake has been eaten, it is worth pausing for a moment to ask: who, beyond climate Twitter, is celebrating this milestone? Who knows about the act and what it means for our lives? Who is really talking about the changes that will be needed to way we travel, heat our homes, make stuff, buy stuff, farm and eat? And about the policies, infrastructure and investment that will be needed to make these changes? We know that good climate action has many additional benefits, like improving health outcomes and reducing air pollution. But we also know that change needs active support from people, not least, to persuade politicians that it won’t cost them votes.

The climate community talks to itself
I have long been worried about the tendency of the climate policy community to talk to each other, and to talk about what could be technically possible, not what could be politically popular. I am not for a moment arguing that we should lessen our ambition, just that we should focus just as much on building a mandate for action, as we do on technical policy design. Doing what we think is right, and hoping people won’t notice, is not a sensible strategy. The protests on the streets of Paris show that people do notice, and object strongly, to policies that they do not perceive to be in their interests.

This concern, that as a community we have focused too much on policy design and not on building a political mandate, has been confirmed by my research with politicians over the past four years. In interviews with members of parliament, I found that a significant number had made the decision not to talk about climate change at all, even if they supported action. One, for example, decided to argue against a road widening scheme in his constituency, but used every argument except carbon, judging that this would backfire: “I would rather not say a word about climate change and stop the [local road] being ten lanes, than make a really good case about climate change and have a ten lane bloody superhighway next to us.”

Whilst others were more willing to speak out on climate, few felt under much pressure to act, and did not think that they would be rewarded for doing so, either by the electorate or by their peers. Although politicians generally have a good grasp of the likely impacts of climate change, they find it very difficult to make the link to their day-to-day job in parliament.

Even our cherished Climate Change Act is really only discussed by the small group of MPs who work on the issue daily. One ex-MP, who was in parliament when the legislation was being debated, told me that it wasn’t one of the “big issues” of that administration: “I remember it going on in the background.” Another described the MPs championing the act as “the obsessives”. While there was very little active opposition to the act, neither was there a great deal of active support.

We can’t just blame the politicians
Given this evidence, it is tempting to dismiss politicians as short-sighted, or lacking in political will. But should all the blame lie at their door? There is much more that the climate community could do, working with citizens and politicians alike, to show that there is growing support for climate action, and to build a stronger political mandate. I am really pleased that Green Alliance has launched a new Climate Leadership Programme, to support politicians and help build the case for action. This work will include deliberative fora, to allow citizens and MPs to debate and develop policy proposals together. Experience from similar processes elsewhere, like the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change in Ireland, shows the value of these gatherings.

There’s also a job to be done in widening participation across government. Shortly after the Climate Change Act was introduced, there were plans to embed responsibility for the targets in all government departments, and to have local carbon budgets managed by local areas too. These aspirations got lost in the fog of financial crises and elections at the end of the decade, but now is surely the time to revive them.

And, finally, a challenge to all those involved in advocating and designing policy measures, both inside and outside government. It is not enough just to show that a policy is necessary, efficient and effective. We also need to ask of every climate policy, “Will this engage people? Will it build a mandate for further action?” The next decade must surely be about developing climate strategies that involve and engage, rather than climate action by stealth, hoping no-one notices. When the Climate Change Act celebrates its next milestone birthday, I am hoping instead that there are many more people at the party, and that the birthday cake will need to be very big indeed.

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