This post is by Deb Joffe, co-founder of Swindon Climate Action Network. She co-runs The Climate Brief, promoting climate change action among local politicians.
Local councillors from all parties have a strong appetite for discussion and action on climate change, but need to feel that the public support them, according to recent research. They also want reliable information about solutions they can implement.
This was evidenced in a recent study I conducted as part of my master’s degree. For the research, a briefing was arranged for eleven councillors from a Conservative-led local authority. They represented all colours of the political spectrum, five were Conservative, four Liberal Democrat and two were Labour. To ensure a productive discussion, the design of the session drew on evidence from behaviour change and climate communications research, highlighting factors which might inhibit discussion and action. These factors include psychological denial, social denial, a lack of scientific knowledge, absence of political leadership and the lack of tangible salience for politicians, ie where it does not appear to be a high priority for their constituents. It is known that these factors can interact and reinforce each other leading to silence and inaction on climate change.
Talking about the local implications
To attract the councillors to attend this meeting on top of their busy schedules, we stressed local implications of climate change and offered them the opportunity to engage face to face with an expert climate scientist in a non-judgemental space. This, in particular, was a big attraction for attendees. To overcome any barriers which might have led to denial of the problem or a sense of helplessness, we chose images and examples which emphasised local settings and concrete impacts.
The overwhelming feedback was that the councillors wanted more reliable information about the problems and the solutions, and more space for discussion within their roles as politicians. There was very little observable difference in view between the parties. Markedly, all of them felt a strong responsibility to represent the concerns of their residents, as they interpreted these through interactions ‘on the doorstep’ or through resident lobbying. The importance of this ‘representative claim’ has previously been noted among MPs with respect to climate change and it is a vivid concern in the current debate about Brexit.
Unfortunately, as MPs often find with their constituents, the strong perception among the councillors was that their residents did not see climate change as a priority. The lack of apparent concern among the public was seen as a major obstacle to action. There was little notion among the councillors that they could take a proactive role in leading and shaping public opinion. However, there is strong evidence that national politicians do shape public opinion through the cues they send, and it may be that local politicians could have a similar degree of influence.
Lessons for local politicians
Our study concluded that it is vital for councillors to build a dialogue with local people as the basis for further action on climate change. The techniques we used could provide a possible means to do this. We presented climate change to the councillors in ways the public can relate to and care about, using local settings for greater resonance. Since they see their responsibilities as being for issues which have a high impact on the people they represent, presenting climate change in this way could stimulate their sense of representative responsibility. The councillors themselves suggested frames that could be used, like the problem of high insurance premiums in a flood area.
It is also essential to present possible solutions and examples of practical actions that can be taken. Councillors expressed a strong need to understand the best options they could employ at the local authority level, to make a real difference on the ground.
Climate change is not the concern of any one political party and our study concluded that it is vital for councillors to build a dialogue with local people as the basis for further action on climate change and that they need tailored support to do so. Discussing it in terms of local impacts and solutions, with the advice of trusted experts, could be a more productive approach and help to push it up the political agenda.