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How do politicians understand and respond to climate change?
12th October 2018

With the IPCC’s latest report showing the urgent need for action on climate change, attention has turned once again to that tricky issue of ‘political will’. In the words of Christiana Figueres, previously head of the UN’s climate body, there is “an acute need for speed, radical collaboration, and more visionary political leadership”.

But what do the politicians themselves think? What does the deceptively simple phrase ‘political will’ mean to elected representatives, who are called on to act?

This is a question I have been studying since 2014, in a collaborative research project with Lancaster University and Green Alliance. There’s a summary report about to be published, and rumours of a book – but in the mean time, here’s a quick run through the project and its results.

The research included analysis of parliamentary speeches, a focus group with NGO representatives, and interviews with 23 current and former Members of Parliament (MPs).

The study found that, whilst most politicians understand the need for action on climate change, it is not straightforward for them to make the case for it. There are three main reasons for this.

First, climate change is seen as an ‘outsider’ issue, not something discussed as part of the political mainstream of politics.This article, published in the Sociological Review, explores how politicians navigate their role and their working environment, and how climate action fits in.

Second, politicians feel under very little pressure to act on climate change. They report limited interest from their constituents, and need to find ways to make climate action relevant to the daily lives and concerns of the electorate. This article, published in the journal Political Studies, describes how they find ways to connect.

Third, there are practical, procedural and even psychological difficulties in responding to climate change, as large scale, long term challenges do not fit well with the daily practice of politics. This paper, published in Environmental Politics, discusses this, and more will be published on this shortly.

The project uses these insights to suggest ways of developing a renewed political mandate for climate action in the UK, published in a briefing paper for Green Alliance. To summarise:

  • The targets enshrined in the Climate Change Act need to be strengthened, with responsibility shared across government departments and local areas.
  • Greater use of deliberative processes, such as Citizens’ Assemblies, could allow politicians, citizens and experts to meet on equal terms, to assess evidence and agree how targets could be met in ways that improve social and economic outcomes.
  • There is a need to design policies which themselves build engagement and public support, rather than assuming passive consent from the electorate.
  • Institutional changes, such as those now adopted in Wales, could allow greater consideration of the future in political decision making.

As a result of this research, I was appointed an Expert Lead for Climate Assembly UK, the Citizens’ Assembly established by the UK Parliament. The Assembly will report its findings later this year.

Publications from the project:

Willis R (2018) Building the political mandate for climate action. Green Alliance policy insight. This is a short and accessible summary of research findings.

Willis R (2017) How Members of Parliament understand and respond to climate change. The Sociological Review 66(3): 475–491.

Willis R (2017) Taming the Climate? Corpus analysis of politicians’ speech on climate change.Environmental Politics26(2): 212–231.

Willis R (2018) Constructing a ‘representative claim’ for action on climate change: Evidence from interviews with politicians.Political Studies advance online publication, January.

Willis R (2018)  The use of composite narratives to present interview findings Qualitative Research advance online publication, July.

Willis R (2019) The role of national politicians in global climate governance, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, advance online publication, November.

Presentations from the project:

About author

Rebecca Willis

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