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There’s no political pressure to act on climate. So how are MPs responding?
15th February 2018

Scientists are clear that urgent action is needed on climate. At the Paris Summit in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit rises in global temperatures. And yet climate change barely troubles domestic politics. Since then, I’ve interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament, and one message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, “Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.”

This is a pretty fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?

Let me pause here and anticipate a response from you, as a reader of this blog. You may well want to argue that there is, in fact, pressure for action. You are right – up to a point. Politicians identify a particular group of voters who pile the pressure on. These voters, they tell me, are almost entirely affluent, educated city dwellers. They are vocal, but they are a small minority – one to which, I would guess, you and most readers of this blog probably belong. That leaves a lot of voters, a large majority, for whom climate change is a non-issue (there’s more evidence about this in this useful paper). What’s a politician to do, then, if they know that climate action is urgently needed, but there’s precious little support?

Developing ‘representative claims’
The good news is that very few politicians see their job as mere aggregators of voters’ views. They are representatives, not delegates. They are influenced, but not controlled, by what their electorate tells them. Many are skilled in making a case for issues they think are important, even if they are not top of mind for voters. In my research, I found that they used four different ways of making a case for climate action.

Before describing these, I want to administer a small dose of academic insight, which really helped me to make sense of the complexities. The political theorist Michael Saward has written persuasively that representation shouldn’t be seen as a static fact: that an MP represents a constituency just by virtue of being elected. Winning an election is necessary but not sufficient. Instead, representation should be seen as a process of claims-making, in which the politician makes claims which are then accepted, rejected or ignored by the electorate. In short, representation is a dialogue. When an MP campaigns against a hospital closure, they are, in effect, saying “I am campaigning for local health services and this makes me a worthy representative of this area”.  Saward calls this a ‘representative claim’.

It is easy to see how politicians can make a case for supporting local hospitals. But how might this work for climate change? My interviews uncovered four different sorts of representative claim on climate.

A cosmopolitan claim
The first puts forward a global problem to which a global solution is proposed: a cosmopolitan claim. Politicians argue that it is in the interests of the global community to take action. As one interviewee told me, “a lot of the impacts of climate change are going to hit other places before they hit here. [My constituency] is not likely to be one of the first places to be hit particularly badly. So what? I just happen to be here.”

This claim has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. Yet it has limited appeal, as another explained, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space… We have these sort of massive big things about what will happen in other parts of the world… and they’re like, “yeah, ok, whatever”.” In short, this claim is often ignored.

A local prevention claim
Another strategy is to tailor the claim explicitly to a local setting, saying that action is necessary to prevent local impacts like flooding. One MP representing a flood-prone area told me that he used floods as a way of talking about wider climate impacts. This claim has the advantage that it links a global issue directly to the local area, and allows a politician to talk in terms of the interests of local people. As with the cosmopolitan claim, though, it does not link directly to a case for local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A co-benefits claim
The most common strategy that interviewees reported was linking climate change to practical, achievable local actions, particularly economic measures, such as encouraging renewable energy generation, or improving transport infrastructure. This has the obvious advantage of relevance to the local area. Of course, many environmental advocates also use co-benefits arguments. A look back through this blog would throw up many examples. As one MP told me, “I’m happy to use an economic argument if that means that more people will come on side… I change the language to be much, much less extreme.” The disadvantage of such a claim, though, is that it may reduce the opportunity to discuss the full implications of climate change, focusing instead on small steps at a local level.

A surrogate claim
A significant minority of MPs in my sample use an intriguing strategy, which I call the ‘surrogate claim’. This approach involves promoting local benefits, like public transport, or reduced congestion, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change. In this case, although the politician is privately thinking of a particular strategy in terms of its climate benefits, they deliberately do not mention this, because they think it would backfire. One judged that, if he had mentioned carbon emissions in arguing for a sustainable transport scheme, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’”.

Overall, my research has demonstrated clearly that it is not straightforward for a politician to make a case for why, as an elected representative, he or she should support action on climate change. As a complex, mediated, global issue, the links with everyday lives of voters are not self-evident. As one interviewee memorably said, “you don’t say someone came to my surgery with climate change coming out of their ears”.

Lessons for climate advocacy
The research has some important messages for those of us who want to see greater political attention paid to climate change. Politicians don’t have to make their claims alone. Demonstrating wide support, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted. Second, whilst it is tempting to use a surrogate claim to get the right policies in place, such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the wider case for climate action. Last, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support. Who will it appeal to? Does it help to make the wider case for action?

Apply this thinking, and different solutions emerge: like renewable energy owned by local organisations, rather than national scale generation; more resources and more responsibility given to support local areas to achieve carbon reductions; climate considerations embedded into regional and city-level innovation programmes; people-centred transport strategies that engage with the reasons for travel demand; and meaningful consultation on policies, engaging with people directly, and allowing people, politicians and others to deliberate together, and discuss shared solutions. Above all, it is only by making a bold, positive case for climate policies that we will build a political, as well as a scientific, case for action on climate.

This post is based on a research article published in the journal Political Studies. The research is part of a collaborative project between Lancaster University and Green Alliance, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Download the full paper.

About author

Rebecca Willis

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