The climate crisis has been almost absent from this election campaign, but it’s not left-leaning environmentalists who are best placed to break the political silence
Where is climate change in the election? Apart from occasional mentions by Green Party leader Natalie Bennett – who else? – our greatest collective threat has not appeared in any of the painfully stiff and staged political interviews.
Climate change is not so much the elephant in the room, it’s the elephant in the cellar, stuffed as far away as possible from the debate and ignored by the politicians and the pundits who follow their every feeble soundbite.
Both are taking their lead from a wider public silence. In no poll does climate change, or even the wider issue of ‘environment’, make it into the public’s top 10 electoral concerns. The Climate Coalition, which brings together over 100 civil society organisations, is challenging this silence, inviting activists to raise “the Climate Question” with their candidates.
When directly prompted to talk about climate change, though, most people will freely admit to deep concern. However there is also a deep and dangerous political split on this issue: whereas two-thirds of Labour Party voters believe that we are changing the climate, two-thirds of Conservative party voters believe that it is down to natural causes, or not happening at all.
In this painfully tight election, the main parties are playing a defensive strategy, avoiding issues that might create divisions within the critical centre-ground. Neither cares much about the concerns of left-leaning environmentalists. The more outspoken we become, the more convinced they will become that this issue is irrelevant to the frontline electoral battle.
And this is why, for all of who are concerned about this issue, the overarching campaign priority must be engaging and mobilising centre-right voters. Politicians need to be hearing about climate change from them – not us – on doorsteps, in hustings, and especially in their focus groups and polls.
But how do we reach them? Drawing on extensive academic research, the Oxford based charity, the Climate Outreach Information Network, argues that centre-right voters can only be engaged effectively around their own values.In its new Election Guide to Talking to the Centre Right it tells communicators to drop “the eco-talk” and the distancing language that frames climate change as a future problem, impacting other countries and species or a crisis of capitalism. Instead, it says, concentrate on the positive benefits of energy transition, the immediate threats to property, landscapes and health, and the longer-term opportunity to restore our national pride and identity.
There are also powerful arguments for centre-right candidates about why they should become more vocal. 69% of Tory voters want to see their party adopt a strong policy to tackle climate change – substantially more than say they are concerned about climate change itself!
Research from the US explains this seeming paradox by arguing that climate change could have an “aura effect”, improving the overall perception of a candidate or party as worthy of holding power. Testing during the last US presidential election found that “pro-climate” positions significantly increased support from independent/floating voters without losing support from conservatives.
And nowhere is this more important than for winning the support of young voters who want clear evidence that the political process is relevant to their interests. A fifth of first time voters rate environment as a major issue in their voting intentions. This concern crosses political boundaries and a quarter of young Conservative voters are “very concerned” about climate change – more than twice as many as middle-aged voters.
Climate change is never straightforward. It is based on scientific facts but transmitted though social stories.
People who remain unconvinced about the threat still see it as a proxy for trustworthiness and fitness to rule. People expect political action but do not demand it. And, below the public silence are deep currents of concern, especially among young people.
What is missing is the glue that holds this together – the narrative of combined national purpose that can bring this into the political arena. And this will require the mobilisation of the entire political spectrum.
This article was first published in the Guardian.