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.


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
Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics