What is the relationship between state and citizen in a time of crisis?
This is not the blog I expected to write to launch my book. As I sit at my desk, on a Monday morning, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting home. My kids are adjusting to a much smaller world, without school or friends. My older teen is giving my younger teen a maths lesson, while I agonise about whether it’s safe to let them go to the park. In the space of a few weeks, everything has changed.
My book, published today, is about the climate crisis and democracy. Fundamentally, it’s about the relationship between state and citizen. And this is what’s foremost in my mind right now: what should we, as citizens, expect of the state? Above all, surely we want the state to keep us safe from crises, be they immediate, acute and obvious, like COVID-19; or slow to develop, but nonetheless threatening, like climate change. And what, in turn, should the state expect from citizens? An unquestioning obedience and trust in authority, or an openness to dialogue between politicians, experts, and people, a partnership in which both sides trust the other?
What is the political strategy needed?
These are the thoughts swirling round my head, as I adjust to a strange new reality. It is tempting to speculate about what the world will look like on the other side. It’s probably too early for that. But wherever we land, we will still need fast, radical carbon cuts, and a political strategy that will allow this to happen.
My research, and working life, has for many years been focused on the question of what this political strategy could look like. Over the past few years, I’ve worked with, and interviewed, politicians from all parties, from the newly elected to veteran ex-ministers. The most striking lesson from this is that many of the barriers to action on climate change are actually cultural, rather than technical or scientific.
Our existing political system needs to be understood as embedded within a society that has, for many hundreds of years, taken two things for granted: a stable climate, and plentiful fossil fuels. We have lived with these assumptions for so long, that to question them is very difficult. MPs who have spoken out told me that they had paid the price. One, who had been an active climate campaigner in parliament, said “I was known as being a freak”. Another said he didn’t want to be a “zealot”. Some went as far as deliberately avoiding any mention of climate, for fear that it would be an unhelpful label.
A silent standoff between politicians and the people
Politicians also feel constrained by the electorate. There was a striking consistency in my interviews: no MP felt that their voters were putting them under particular pressure to act. And while polls show that concern about climate change is increasing all the time, it is still not clear how this generalised concern might translate into support for particular climate strategies.
So politicians are unwilling to speak out about climate change, despite its huge significance for our future. But there’s a further danger here. If politicians don’t speak out, people don’t feel a sense of urgency. They are less likely to support climate action if they don’t see politicians offering up a strategy that is as serious as the problem it is designed to address. Climate politics becomes a silent stand-off, with neither politicians or people willing to make the first move.
But of course, this deeply unhelpful stand-off contains the seeds of a solution. If politicians have the confidence to lead, to see climate action as a social contract between citizens and state, this is likely to lead to greater support. A confident climate strategy has three crucial ingredients: first, absolute clarity about the problem we face; second, involvement of citizens to develop responses that engage and motivate people; and third, a plan that guides a radical transition over the coming decades.
Over the past few months, I have been part of the incredible experiment that is the Climate Assembly UK: a gathering of 110 citizens, selected to be representative of the country as a whole. They have heard evidence on climate, deliberated on possible solutions, and will shortly offer their recommendations to parliament. All my experience of these initiatives has shown me that, given the space to learn, think and discuss, citizens offer up a confident and often radical set of answers to a tricky question.
People can play their part
As we hunker down and get through the next few weeks and months, this is the thought that will endure, for me. These are uncertain times. The world is more troubled and less predictable than ever. And yet, I find that I can’t retreat into a narrative of loss and pessimism. Neither have I lost my faith in people to understand, accept and play their part in responding to crises, both immediate, acute health threats like COVID-19, and the slow burn of the climate crisis.
A proper political response on climate means acknowledging this deep uncertainty, and expecting people to respond thoughtfully and with dignity. It requires deeper engagement, and a better acknowledgement that climate change is not just a scientific or technical issue, but a deeply social one. It is about how people act collectively to shape society, within the confines of this increasingly changeable planet that is home to us all.
Too hot to handle: the democratic challenge of climate change by Rebecca Willis is published today by Bristol University Press