The ‘penny-drop moment’: Building political leadership for radical emission reduction
18th December 2013


This is a shortened version of my presentation to the Tyndall Centre’s Radical Emissions Reduction conference, December 2013. There’s a video of the full talk here.

Crossword fanatics call it the ‘penny-drop moment’, or PDM: the moment when a series of jumbled clues falls into place, and the whole picture becomes clear. I’ve seen it happen. At the end of a long question-and-answer session between new MPs and a climate scientist, something clicks. The politicians realise that the development of modern societies, economies, and arguably democracy itself, has only been possible because of a stable climate – and that we can’t take the climate for granted any more. There’s a tangible change of mood as this reality sinks in, and the MPs grasp the significance of climate change for the future of politics, and, indeed, their own political careers.

I saw the ‘penny drop moment’ for myself during several workshops for new MPs run by Green Alliance, as part of its Climate Leadership Programme. Since 2009, Green Alliance has worked with over 60 prospective and existing Members of Parliament, to develop MPs’ understanding of climate change and what it means for them. The programme combines dialogue between politicians, scientists and policy experts, with a process of experiential learning in MPs’ constituencies.

Green Alliance’s work aims to take politicians to the ‘penny drop moment’ and beyond, consolidating their scientific understanding of the issue and working with them to think through what climate change means for their role as local leaders and national representatives.

This presentation explores some lessons learned from Green Alliance’s programme, and ask how best to build political leadership for climate change.

Lessons include:

The personal is political. Politicians’ outlooks are shaped by their education, work and personal circumstances. If climate change has not figured as a salient issue in their lived experience, it is harder for them to engage with the issue emotionally or intellectually. The Climate Leadership Programme works with MPs in their constituency, and puts them in contact with people who are affected by, and understand, the issues.

Political philosophies have been blind to climate change. The two major political traditions in the UK do not yet have a sense of how climate change alters political outlooks and assumptions. For conservatives, a focus on free markets and personal responsibility sits awkwardly with climate politics, which requires a long-term, collectivist response. On the Left, the focus has been on social equity and fairness, and environmental concern can be viewed with suspicion, as a ‘luxury’ to be worried about only once basic needs are met. Green Alliance has been working with political thinkers in all major parties, to explore with them what climate means for political philosophies and outlooks.

Ask not what we can do for the environment… To the extent that political traditions have taken environmental considerations on board, the language has tended to be that of ‘protecting the environment’ or ‘preserving nature’: an appeal to altruism. Climate change turns this on its head. We can no longer assume a broadly benign natural environment as a backdrop to politics. Instead, maintaining a stable climate must become a central focus of politics itself. In other words, ask not what we can do for the environment, but what the environment can do for us.

It’s not just a job for the specialists. Each party has a knowledgeable group of climate and energy specialists, who work hard to raise the profile of these issues. However, radical emission reduction is not just about energy policy. It is about land use, transport, agriculture, taxes, social inclusion, education and international development. So political leadership has to come from a much broader base – in other words, from those who don’t see themselves as environmental specialists. Green Alliance supports the specialists, of course, but works hard with all MPs to draw out the implications for their own personal areas of expertise.

To lead or to follow? Particularly in times of austerity, climate change may not be perceived by the electorate to be to be a central political concern, and so politicians may be wary of championing an issue that does not seem to have their constituents’ support. However, the relationship between a politicians and their constituents, and indeed between a political party and its supporters, is complex. It is not about leading or following, but about creating the political space for discussion. There is a need to work with political leaders to create the conditions for the cultural and behavioural shifts that we need.

Flatpacks and blueprints: Much work has been done on mapping potential emissions reduction pathways, and developing a blueprint of the technical and economic resources required to shift to a low-carbon future. These visions are necessary but not sufficient. They are like the instructions for a flatpack wardrobe, when all you have is the instructions, not the constituent parts, or even a picture of the finished product. Pity the politicians who are given these instructions. It’s their job to persuade people they want a wardrobe, when there are plenty of people saying that furniture isn’t necessary; then they have to assemble and motivate a team to help construct it; and they have to make sure the final thing is, indeed, a wardrobe. It’s not enough just to provide instructions. Radical policies require political leadership, and politicians need support to manage such a complex transition. The ‘penny drop moment’ is only the beginning.

About author

Rebecca Willis

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