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Power to the people? Populism, polarisation and public engagement

By Adam Corner on July 28, 2016

All over the world – in different ways and for different reasons – elites and ‘the establishment’ are under attack. The one word that links Donald Trump, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, and the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union is ‘populism’ – and it is a strangely slippery concept to pin down.

In our work at Climate Outreach, we place a lot of emphasis on shifting the public conversation about climate change out of the margins of society and into the mainstream. We want to catalyse a sustained public conversation on climate change. You could call this an attempt to ‘popularise’ the climate discourse.

But what does that really mean? Here, we offer some reflections on how work on public engagement with climate change can shed light on the increasingly polarised political era we find ourselves in, and why constructive conversations are needed now more than ever.

Populism and elite expertise

Things that are ‘popular’ are, in a democracy, generally seen as a good thing. But populism in a political sense means much more than this, typically involving the rejection of elite groups and their expertise, and the promotion of simplistic slogans and solutions in their place.

The rhetoric deployed in the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign in the Brexit referendum was populist because it dismissed the opinions of economic experts who warned against leaving the EU, and channelled anger about a complex cluster of economic and social problems towards one ‘enemy’.

At the other end of political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be re-elected as the leader of the UK Labour Party is populist because it views mainstream politicians and media outlets as untrustworthy and manipulative, and challenges the ‘elite’ judgment of MPs who do not recognise Corbyn’s legitimacy by leaning on the large numbers of Labour members who do.

The erosion of trust in elite groups such as economists, politicians and journalists over the past decade is easy to understand. From the bailout of the banks after the 2008 financial crash, to the exposure of ludicrous expense claims by many MPs, to the widespread practice of phone-hacking among tabloid journalists, it is difficult not to see a ‘populist’ kick-back against these unaccountable elites as exactly what they deserve.

But the problem with populist dismissals of expert credibility is that not all expertise is bad, and to reject it entirely carries risks of its own. The downgrading of expertise and the widespread distrust of factual information in the public mind has opened the door to a level of ‘post-truth’ political campaigning that is disconcerting, and at times disturbing.

So is the rise in populist political sentiment a necessary shift towards ‘power to the people’ or a dangerous drift into a more suspicious, cynical and divisive state of mind?

Facts don’t matter?

For better or for worse, the climate change discourse has been operating in a ‘post-truth’ space for a long time. But the challenges that campaigners have encountered in the climate domain offer lessons for understanding the polarisation and populism currently engulfing the political discourse.

Distrust of a scientific elite has been one of the cornerstones of sceptical narratives about climate change for many years. When private emails between scientists were leaked from the University of East Anglia’s server in 2008, climate sceptics claimed that they showed corrupt, unaccountable scientists cooking the books to fabricate the threat of climate change. Although the scientists involved were ultimately fully exonerated, initially even those who campaigned on climate change were clamouring to ‘kick down the lab doors’ and somehow democratise climate science.

Similar tensions surround the scientific consensus on climate change. For decades, campaigners have emphasised how certain scientists are that humans are changing the climate, with 97% the current best estimate. But there is a huge gap between the actual level of scientific consensus on climate change, and public perceptions of the extent to which scientists are in agreement. No matter how many nodding scientists climate campaigners line up, the message doesn’t seem to cut through.

It is well established that on their own, scientific facts do not drive concern and engagement with climate change. A big part of our work at Climate Outreach is a direct response to this challenging situation. People’s ideological positions and core values determine who they trust and listen to, and so it follows that climate change campaigns need to do more than simply repeat dire scientific warnings: they also need to tell a persuasive story.

But none of this means that campaigns need to bend the truth to be compelling. The basic logic behind all of our research work, designing and testing materials and resources for communicating climate change, is that facts are necessary but not sufficient. A powerful story that resonates with people’s values provides a platform for ‘the facts’ of climate change, not an alternative to them.

Stories may trump statistics, but populism needn’t imply deception: making something simpler, more accessible, and more persuasive is not in conflict with telling the truth.

The tyranny of the majority?

There’s another way in which our work on public engagement with climate change speaks to the increasingly polarised political discourse.

Because we believe that informed public engagement provides a platform on which robust climate policies can be built, we privilege and promote the value of ordinary, everyday voices, and advocate for a national conversation on climate change.

But what if – after we held a wide-ranging national conversation on climate change – people rejected the seriousness of the problem, dismissed the expertise of ‘elite’ scientists, and voted to ‘leave’ climate change for another few decades? Would we then row back on the Climate Change Act? Should topics as important, multi-faceted and far-reaching as climate change – or our membership of the European Union – be the subject of a popular ‘vote’ at all?

In fact, there may not be as much of a tension here as this question implies. One of the major criticisms of the EU referendum was that it reduced a complex topic to a binary choice. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the electorate shouldn’t be involved in complex decision-making, but that condensing complex questions to a yes/no answer is not really ‘public engagement’ at all.

Compare what comes from genuine deliberation with the sloganeering of rallies that reaffirm or exaggerate existing differences. In our ‘Narrative Workshops’ with members of the public, we invite people to talk about their values and hopes for the future, before using this as a platform for thinking about climate change. We consistently find that the process has a positive impact on people’s level of engagement with and concern about climate change.

The UN’s global conversation on the ‘World We Want’ contributed to the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals. In Wales, widespread public engagement around the future of the country has identified issues like well being, thriving local communities, and living within environmental means as key goals and aspirations. Ultimately, public engagement means listening to different perspectives, promoting an exchange of views, and embracing the complexity of people’s opinions rather than forcing them into a binary choice in a referendum or masking their nuances beneath catchy slogans.

How much more productive and useful would it have been if instead of an aggressive and divisive referendum on EU membership, the same budget had been spent on a nationally coordinated series of conversations that brought different perspectives together, rather than pitted them in spiteful opposition? Wasn’t the chance to really be ‘heard’ what people wanted in the first place?

Finding common ground

It might seem optimistic – naive even – to expect cooperation to be possible about deeply polarised issues like migration, or inequality. Don’t we know that most people only care about themselves? But as recent work by the Common Cause Foundation shows, misperceptions of others’ values and views are rife, and are clearly getting in the way of a more constructive public conversation.

In a survey of the UK population in 2015, a survey was conducted asking people about the values they held. A clear majority (74%) of respondents selected what the authors called ‘compassionate’ values, irrespective of their age, gender or political persuasion. But when asked to answer the same questions about their fellow citizens – that is, when asked to estimate the values that other people hold – 77% of respondents believed that other people held self-focused values. Put simply, while most of us value communal and compassionate values, we think other people are selfish in their outlook. And this misperception has consequences: people who wrongly infer that others are selfish are less likely to be active citizens themselves, perpetuating the perception that no-one else cares about investing in society.

At Climate Outreach we advocate for the importance of conversations about climate change not because we think climate change can be ‘solved’ by talking about it, but because not talking about climate change seriously undermines the policies, technologies, laws, regulations and agreements that can.

If there is any hope of finding common ground, and overcoming political polarisation on the crucial societal issues we face, it is surely through conversations, rather than slogans. This kind of populism is worth defending: democratising debates by sharing views rather than polarising them through antagonistic exchanges.

In these troubling times more than ever, we need constructive conversations about who we are, where we are going, and what we want the future to be like. For climate change, and for social cohesion, we need to keep talking.

Photo credit: Captain Roger Fenton

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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