This post is by Rhian Ebrey. It is based on her research as a masters student at the University of Leeds.
I think that, writing this following the biggest global climate strike ever, it’s safe to say I’m not alone in feeling a growing dread with each successive IPCC report predicting the urgency of the global climate crisis. And yet, this urgency does not appear to be shared by everyone. I feel helpless and frustrated as world leaders appear hesitant to commit to the necessary changes needed to save our future and the planet. But the growing awareness of shared alarm and frustration, embodied through Greta Thunberg’s refreshingly direct speech at the UN’s COP24 climate conference last year, has sparked a social revolution, with prominent grassroots movements, including Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strikes, growing around the world.
Are politicians listening?
But is any of this making a difference where it matters, in parliament and government? Are they listening to us? Dr Rebecca Willis has highlighted the challenges faced by MPs in addressing climate change in parliament, including their need to ‘fit in’, to form alliances among peers, a perceived lack of interest in climate change among the electorate and an inability to deliver a promise to solve it to their constituents. As a result, climate change has been very low on the UK parliamentary agenda.
However, the UK government has provided a response recently to the rise in public concern. Following declarations by the Labour Party and the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the UK parliament declared a ‘climate emergency’ in May 2019. The government has also since legislated for a net zero emissions target by 2050. Yet its full commitment to this target is questionable. At the same time as setting the goal, it announced a review of the legislation in five years to ensure Britain would not be economically disadvantaged through its climate strategy, should the target not be internationally adopted. This suggests economic growth is still being prioritised over climate change responsibilities.
Twitter is a bellwether for political attitudes to climate change
But has there been an actual change in attitudes in parliament towards climate action since Dr Willis did her research? I analysed the use of climate change related language by MPs on Twitter between 1 September 2018 and 17 June 2019. Twitter is acknowledged as a politically important platform for MPs, and, as such, could be used as a proxy for the political views and discussions happening in parliament.
The results were clear. Out of the 89 per cent of MPs with Twitter accounts, 32 per cent had referred to climate change in their tweets and 42 per cent had used urgent climate language (‘climate emergency’, ‘climate breakdown’, ‘climate catastrophe’ or ‘climate crisis’). The frequency of parliamentarians tweeting references to climate change rose from an average of one tweet a day in September 2018 to 7.8 tweets in May 2019, while the use of urgent climate language rose from an average of 0.1 tweets per day in September 2018 to 14.4 in May 2019.
However, while 61 per cent of Labour MPs with Twitter accounts used urgent language, only 16 per cent of Conservatives did. This suggests that perception of the climate crisis differs across the political spectrum.
Conservatives more often use alternative strategies to raise the issue
Yet, Dr Willis’ research also revealed that MPs may use alternative strategies to raise climate change in parliament. ‘Surrogate claims’ allow them to address climate change without directly referencing it. For example, supporting better transport services and citing the benefits of improving congestion. The government’s’ Clean Growth Strategy and net zero legislation are both current climate strategies but do not directly use the words ‘climate change’ in their titles. As such, searches for ‘clean growth’ and ‘net zero’ among MPs’ tweets reveal a greater engagement by Conservative MPs at this level: 43 per cent of Conservatives and 42 per cent of all MPs referenced these surrogate claims. This demonstrates that some cross-party discussions may be occurring around these climate action policies.
The cumulative number of tweets referring to climate change by MPs between 1 September 2018 and 17 June 2019
So both the number and frequency of MPs discussing climate change on Twitter has increased, but is the recent environmental activism having an impact? The analysis reveals that, although the UK-wide youth strike protests and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK parliament provoked the most significant reactions on Twitter, the overall level of engagement is actually low: only 25 per cent of MPs, predominately from left and central parties, referred to Greta in tweets.
Parliamentarians’ tweets referencing political climate change influencers
It appears that, while climate activism has only elicited an impact on the language of a minority of MPs on Twitter, there has been a clear rise in climate change as an issue on the agenda, even if different political persuasions refer to it differently. This research is just one possible signal that the taboo around climate change in parliament may finally have been broken. It remains to be seen whether further climate activism can promote greater government response and action.