May 3, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Communicating climate change on the right (report)
This is a guest blog by Warren Pearce who will be starting work on the Making Science Public project in October this year. Warren reports on an event organised by the Policy Exchange: A greener shade of blue? Communicating climate change on the right. The blog was originally published here.
‘A grit in the oyster’
There was a lot to be said for Tuesday’s Policy Exchange event, “Communicating Climate Change on the Right”, not least that it got a very wide variety of people in one room: green NGOs, sociologists, policy wonks, MPs, journalists, psychologists, climate scientists, investors and a delegation from climate sceptics/deniers (delete according to preference) GWPF. One of the speakers they listened to was Peter Lilley, who described himself as the “grit in the oyster” of the discussion. Lilley was one of only five MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act in 2008 so I will focus on his contribution here, particularly as I presume he is the kind of person the event organisers had in mind.
The greenhouse effect
Lilley used some familiar rhetorical flourishes to express his position. He began by emphasising his scientific background and that he accepted the existence of the greenhouse effect, thus framing his subsequent speech as quite moderate and ‘rational’. However, Lilley later went on to, at best, misinterpret recent global temperature data, stating that there has been no increase in the last 15 years. Lilley attempted to establish his scientific credibility through some general views on the greenhouse effect before employing a somewhat dubious reading of the data in order to resist the case for cutting emissions.
Unsurprisingly, many of the people in the room cried foul at this. Fair enough – one could imagine a scientist providing a convincing rebuttal of Lilley’s presentation. Indeed, Chris Rapley from the Met Office did just that in the Q&A session (after objecting to the appropriation of the word ‘sceptic’ by Lilley et al as he felt they were not being sceptical in the scientific sense). What I take from this is that *scientific* evidence is not sufficient to win a *political* argument. While Lilley did say at one point that “Conservatives are rational”, couching his objection to the Climate Change Act in terms of cost-benefit analysis, perhaps a more telling line was that “climate change isn’t a problem of communication, it is one of conviction and belief”.
Climate narratives on the left and right
Speaking before Lilley, psychologist Adam Corner posited that “the climate narrative was infused with the language of the left”. Debates often focus on increasing regulation and/or taxation, international agreements and, at the extremes, conspiracy theories of world government. If one has an innate opposition to such policy options then it becomes less likely that evidence, scientific or otherwise, will make much impression on such core beliefs. Of course “scientific evidence” is often used by different groups of people at different times – so while a green NGO may stress the importance of scientific evidence within climate policy, it may be rather more sceptical of evidence from similar sources in the GM crop debate.
One could conclude from this that there are various tribes of people whose different core values are going to determine the weight they give to different ‘evidence’ that comes their way. Rather than as a counsel of despair, I think this opens up a question that the event sought to pose, but didn’t quite get round to addressing on the night: could a more localist ‘bottom up’ approach be compatible with climate change policy? As Corner highlighted, many on the Right see climate change as an issue of the Left. I would actually go further than this and say that even many who accept the general arguments about the need for action, it is an issue too far removed from their core priorities.
Alternative narratives and different routes
So the key to communicating climate change may be not to talk about climate change at all. Fuel security, cutting fuel poverty, fuel efficiency, households using microgeneration to escape the grip of the Big Six. These are all ideas which may speak to the Right’s concerns more than ‘climate change’. They should not be seen as a direct substitute – pursuing these aims is very likely to lead to a cut in carbon emissions, but does not amount to the same thing as prioritising the latter. However, as the Hartwell Paper argued in the aftermath of Copenhagen, a more circuitous route to cutting emissions may actually prove more fruitful than one which seems direct, but is in danger of running into the sand.
FURTHER READING FROM THE EVENT
Good perspectives from Damian Carrington (one of the speakers) and Carbon Brief’s Ros Donald
LSE’s Bob Ward linked to this overview of recent temperature trends, rebutting Lilley’s assertion that warming has stopped
The Economist also published a chart showing trends in CO2 concentration, surface temperatures and ocean temperatures.
Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics
It is interesting that Warren makes no mention of the first speaker, Tim Yeo. I wonder why.
Yeo made a number of interesting points.
He said he was not particularly sceptical, and had become increasingly convinced by the evidence over the last 20 years. He discussed reasons for growing scepticism, including ‘climate change fatigue’ and the economic crisis. He also said that scepticism was exacerbated by
“quite ridiculous and very ill-advised exaggerated claims by a number of scientists who should have known better”.
“I get so cross when I hear greens say this is about the future of the planet. It’s nothing of the kind.”
Thanks for the comment – Lilley made the most impression on me (maybe as I’ve heard Yeo speak before) but happy to address his points now. Of course, ‘fatigue’ maybe a factor in terms of public interest, especially as it’s an issue that deals with elongated timescales. Brings to mind Downs’ classic paper on the issue attention cycle (pdf) http://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/teaching/…/Downs_Public_Interest_1972.pdf.
My hypothesis would be that any exaggerated claims made in the debate have stemmed from overestimating the importance of scientific evidence in political argument. A sort of “If only we shout a bit louder about the science, we will convince people!” mentality. Not only does this increase the risk of exaggerating your case, it’s also based on a false premise – scientific evidence is one of many ingredients in political argument, not the only one.
I think this was the nub of Yeo’s argument (and chimes with the Hartwell Paper). When he spoke about ‘no regrets’ policies which had co-benefits other than ‘reducing CO2 emissions’ (energy efficiency, fuel security etc), it was just another way of saying that you need more than just the science to win support for a policy.
Regarding his point about the ‘future of the planet’, I guess this is an expression of the Gaia argument, that the planet will continue without human life. I think most people would agree with that. Perhaps ‘planet’ or ‘Earth’ is used by campaigners as a metaphor for ‘human life’, ‘society’. Why ‘save the planet’ or ‘save the Earth’ should be more resonant than ‘save the humans’ is an interesting question in itself…
Thanks Warren. Personally I found Yeo the most interesting as I hadn’t heard him before and we are so used to hearing arguments from one ‘side’ or the other that it’s refreshing to hear a view that’s less polarised. Re Gaia, interesting comments from Lovelock on the BBC yesterday, also seemingly taking a more balanced view.
Do you or Brigitte know any recent papers on the ‘fatigue’ / ‘crying wolf’ factor, specifically on the climate question?
Thanks for your reply. Yes, Lovelock was certainly interesting on the radio. As for climate fatigue/crying wolf there was something in Science in 2009 and Scientific American in 2008 I think. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5955/926.short
You might also want to look at a previous blog we wrote:
Hope that helps!
Not ‘crying wolf’ per se but this by Feinberg & Willer on the effect of ‘dire warnings’ and real-world beliefs http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/1/34.short
Also, Revkin has written a number of blog posts around this issue. This one featuring Richard Betts from Met Office http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/a-call-to-rein-in-climate-hype-cold-or-hot/
IPPR’s ‘Warm Words’ report still worth a look, synopsis here http://www.ippr.org/press-releases/111/2500/climate-porn-turning-off-public-from-action
Finally, on polarisation of the argument in the media, there is this from Boykoff & Boykoff http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378003000669 (Public Understanding of Science journal has a few articles on this theme)
With hindsight – who is more acurately representing the science? the claim that Lilley misinterpreted the data does not stand up… (unless we are to crystal ball gaze into the future, ie temps have slowed/plateaued to date, future is yet to happen)
but as we now have the BBC’s Roger Harrabin sayingthe Met Office new decadal forecast shows no warming for a projected 20 yrs.. why were they crying foul at Lilley..
Of course it may start warming again in the future. but he alone was reporting the data. ie the rate in the last 15 yrs is statistcally zero..
and 4 years ago, Paul Hudson (BBC) reminds us about the slowdown observed then.
“In November 2009 I wrote about this levelling off in global temperatures, using research available at the time on the Met Office website.
In it, the Met Office explained that the levelling off of global temperatures that we were experiencing can be expected at time periods of a decade or less, because of the computer models internal climate variability.
But intriguingly, the research ruled out zero trends for time periods of 15 years or more.
The new projection, if correct, would mean there will have been little additional warming for two decades despite rising greenhouse gases.
It’s bound to raise questions about the robustness and reliability of computer simulations that governments around the world are using in order to determine policies aimed at combating global warming.
The Met Office says natural cycles have caused the recent slowdown in warming, including perhaps changes in the suns activity, and ocean currents. ”
We’ll get back to you after today (11 Feb)! (it’s now 6.30 am with a dusting of snow)
We’ll probably have a guest blog sometime soon on modelling.
Cheers, Brigitte and Warren
Barry, from memory my comment was based on the reaction to Lilley’s comment from some of the climate scientists in the room. Poor choice of words on my part, not least as it implies that ‘the science’ is a homogeneous bulk, rather than containing a range of opinions. And, of course, one may argue whether it’s more appropriate to focus on UK or global temperature trends (or neither!) when deciding on policy.