Last week, I was on the panel for an event to discuss tackling climate change scepticism. The brief was to discuss “the psychology and drivers of denial in order to discuss other ways of engaging hearts and minds around sustainable action”. Here’s a summary of what I said. First published on New Left Project.
1) All this talk of climate sceptics is a bit 2009. As Leo Hickman put it last month as he said farewell to the Guardian, the era of climate change denial is over. Instead of talking about climate sceptics, we need to target “climate policy sceptics”; those who argue climate change is happening but our policies will have little impact. I’d pretty much agree with that.
[Clarification: I don’t mean we should stifle debate on climate policy. At all. Sorry if it came over as such. I think it’s “target”, which was a bad choice of word considering the various battlescars many hold in this area. In many respects I’d call myself a climate policy sceptic. Depends on what policy. As ever, it’s not whether scepticism is good or bad, but where we choose focus such power. My point, perhaps badly articulated, was that we need to focus on policies for what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening. Calling out various vested interests’ attempts at inaction will be part of that, as will the occasional use of climate scepticism as a technique in this, but it’s only part of it]
2) It’s always been a bit of a distraction. The problem, especially in the UK, has long been less one of scepticism and more of a lack of prioritising the issue. Ask people if they believe in global warming and the answer is largely yes. But ask how much they worry about it, and the response is less heartening (see, for example, the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey)
We continually let other issues trump climate. It’s especially noticeable at the moment in coverage of fracking where the issue of climate change has been all too conspicuous by its absence, but the problem runs deep and wide. I think sometimes this is due to spin as various interests work actively to keep us avoiding the topic, but the truth is we let ourselves be spun-so. I don’t think this is a lack of belief/ understanding in climate change, although maybe it reflects some detachment from enormity of it and some lack of scepticism over how reliable some journalists and politicians are.
There is a way in which the abstraction of climate change can act as a distraction from the more immediate politics of energy. To take a slightly different example, at the Big Bang Fair last year I was shocked/ impressed by how BAE Systems managed to hide details of what their company makes (weapons) with activities based on abstract maths. Forget greenwash, this was a sort of science wash. I worry that battles over climate change offer a similar slight of hand.
3) Demonising sceptics unhelpfully externalises the problem. Consider, for example, something that’s often said about climate sceptics: that they are all funded by the fossil fuel industry. I think some are. But many aren’t too. A fair bit of scepticism is conducted by independent people who simply care about the issue. It’s a grassroots movement in places; arguably that is part of its power.
You know what is funded by big oil? Loads of universities. And museums. And a fair amount of newspaper and magazine advertising. All to different degrees and with different levels of editorial control, but the funding is there, and it carries forms of influence even if that’s complex. Rather than scapegoating a few individuals who annoy us on the internet, we might be best served starting by looking slightly closer to home. Maybe it’s all fuelled by a shadowy group of deniers; if so we also need to think about how often we all allow ourselves to act as the foot-soldiers for such inaction.
Climate change communications – at its crassest – sees itself as a necessary and magnificent push of all that is correct, pure and true about the future of our planet out there into the big messy world. And that big messy world must. Simply. Listen. The more nuanced approaches understand that we need to appreciate the need to listen to the audience. So we get told we must modify our messages for Tories or business leaders or hip young “optimism driven” professionals/ students, for example. But this still assumes that the problem is out there, not within. And I don’t think we’re ever going to change until we acknowledge problems within.
4) We don’t need a Brian Cox, Jamie Oliver or Jeremy Clarkson for Climate Change any more than we need one for nuclear power/ wind farms/ the peace movement/ women in science/ the left/ sociology/ anti-racism/ the NHS/ re-nationalisation of the rail network/ cycling/ to fight transphobia [insert your own cause].
We need to dissemble the cultures and political systems which assume social change only happens when a white man says it’s important, and find ways to empower people to inspire each other instead.
On a similar note, I find it troubling that so many climate communication people seem to want to focus on making green ideas palatable for Tories or the business sector, as opposed to helping to build the voices of more disenfranchised groups.
If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to remake structures of power and influence, not simply speak to them.