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Why isn’t the government talking to people about climate?

This post is by Rebecca Willis, professor in energy and climate governance at Lancaster University and an expert lead for Climate Assembly UK. A version was published in Bright Blue’s Centre Right Winter 2022 edition ‘Favourable Climate’.

“Debating and making pledges is one thing. Are they going to act?” This comment, from a participant in the Net Zero Diaries initiative, sums up the mood of many. Net Zero Diaries, which we set up with the research agency BritainThinks last year, brings together a diverse and representative group of UK citizens to debate climate issues as they arise. It provides a perspective which, until recently, has been missing from the climate debate: the voice of ordinary people.

People are confused about what happens next
Let’s take stock. Levels of concern about climate change are very high, and consistent across different socioeconomic groups. Contrary to media portrayals, research by Climate Outreach shows that there is no left-right split, and certainly no culture war, over climate issues in the UK. But these high levels of concern are accompanied by a sense of confusion about what should happen next, and frustration about perceived government inaction, as our Net Zero Diarist expressed.

This confusion and frustration shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the past decades, governments in the UK and elsewhere have done very little to reach out to people, and to involve them in vital decisions about the future of our planet. As a result, people are worried. They see mounting climate impacts like wildfires and floods, they hear David Attenborough’s pleas, and yet they don’t see government leading a confident response. Boris Johnson has championed climate on the global stage, but has not initiated a public debate about what this means for our lives, going so far as to withdraw a paper on this by the government’s own Nudge Unit, which was mistakenly published alongside the Net Zero Strategy.

It’s not just government that’s reluctant to talk to people. I’ve worked in this area for many years, and I’ve seen first hand the tendency of climate experts to draw up what they see as the perfect roadmap or strategy for action. They often forget something crucial: in a democracy, quite rightly, experts don’t get the final say. An issue as crucial and far reaching as climate needs the consent, and active participation, of citizens.

The government needs to articulate a positive agenda
This, surely, is the urgent task for government now: to articulate a positive, practical agenda which sets out how government and citizens can work together to tackle the climate crisis. A task given more urgency by energy price rises, which elements of the Conservative party are wrongly blaming on green levies. Climate policies aren’t to blame for sky high prices, which are actually caused by global market pressures. But they could be a big part of the solution in the medium term. Well insulated houses cost less to heat; home grown renewables shelter us from global energy price volatility. Yet the government is currently on the back foot, reeling from the blows of the so called Net Zero Scrutiny Group, because it hasn’t articulated a positive vision. It stays silent until attacked.

Like most problems, this one contains the seeds of its solution. We haven’t talked to people enough about climate; it isn’t part of our political discourse. We should make it so. And we have a blueprint for this, thanks to the flourishing of citizens’ assemblies and juries over the past couple of years. Climate Assembly UK, which I advised, was commissioned by six select committees in parliament, and brought together 108 citizens who mirrored their country, in terms of age, gender, social background and attitude to climate change. In short, they were a miniature United Kingdom. Over a series of weekends, they listened to expert evidence, discussed their own views and experience, and then developed a set of recommendations to present back to the politicians. Many local areas, too, including Leeds, Oxford and Devon, have now run similar processes. They have shown that, when asked to contribute to decision making, and when provided with evidence and the time to talk through with their peers, people make very sensible recommendations, informed by their own lived experience, a far cry from the Punch and Judy politics of the culture wars.

Decisions are more trusted when people have been consulted
Citizens’ assemblies and juries can justifiably be criticised because they involve relatively small numbers of people. Those involved may develop a better understanding, but millions remain untouched. This can be overcome, though, if politicians champion the process. Imagine if ministers set out their proposals, and then said that they were acting on the advice not just of scientists and experts, but of ordinary people too. Research has shown that people trust decisions if it can be demonstrated that they are supported by ‘people like them’, in the same way that we trust juries in law courts. You might even say this is a form of populism.

Making decisions in this way is not an alternative to representative democracy, it is an enhancement of it. It provides politicians with the information they need to govern in the best interests of their electorate. It is a way of managing the social contract between citizens and state, allowing citizens to articulate what they need from government, and vice versa. A proper response to the Net Zero Scrutiny Group would be to lean into exactly that role: scrutiny. To encourage a broad societal debate about the ways in which climate impacts and solutions will affect our lives and futures. To be clear what opportunities there are in this agenda, including better homes, cleaner air and jobs in green industries; and, also, to be honest about the changes we’ll need to make, as a country and as individuals.

The message from citizens, that they want to see action on climate, is coming through loud and clear. It’s a shame that the government response, so far, has been quiet and confused.

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Rebecca is a researcher at Lancaster University and an associate of Green Alliance.

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