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We need our leaders to speak out on climate change, not stay silent

By Adam Corner on April 27, 2015

The less that political, community and business leaders talk about climate change, the more scope there is for scepticism to emerge

Something is missing from the British general election campaign. Climate change had its 3.5 seconds of fame during the seven-way leaders’ debate, but has barely been heard of since. Save for the occasional specialist hustings, and the odd supplementary manifesto, climate change – allegedly the defining challenge of the 21st century – is missing in action.

But strangely, the problem seems largely one of style rather than substance.

Putting the climate-sceptic UK Independence party to one side (the current Department for Energy and Climate Change would be abolished if they had their way), there are no shortage of climate policies in the parties’ manifesto pledges.

So while there appears to be a robust political consensus around the importance of climate change, it is a silent consensus – which from the point of view of public engagement, may as well not be a consensus at all.

One important factor (pdf) known to influence public opinion is whether elite groups (such as politicians and other public figures) give positive or negative cues on climate change. What our political leaders say about climate change matters – especially if they say nothing at all.

The silent consensus would be more understandable if the hard work of decarbonisation and catalysing public engagement had already been done. But in fact the opposite is true. The emissions targets and carbon budgets are in place, and the Climate Change Act is written into law. But the transition ahead hinges on a societal transformation, a transformation which isn’t going to catalyse itself.

Business support is quiet

Public support for decarbonising our energy system cannot just be shaken out of laws and regulations like the pennies tumbling out of a piggy bank.

For sure, a silent consensus is better than no consensus. The situation in the UK is not – thankfully – anything like the partisan pugilism in Australia or the US. And even beyond the political pragmatism (that recognises the importance if not the urgency of climate change), there is a stoic sort of climate-realism emerging in the private sector.

As James Murray, editor-in-chief of the influential website Business Green, puts it: “there is a quiet majority who, when pushed, accept climate change is something they will have to wrestle with in the future”.

So politicians get it, and businesses get it. But few of them shout about it. And the vacuum created by the election climate silence has consequences.

Studies show that people routinely overestimate the prevalence of climate sceptic views in society, and underestimate levels of support for things like renewable energy. Distorted social inferences like these are fuelled by the absence of positive dialogue on climate change.

In a new guide to talking about climate change to centre-right voters (published by my colleagues and me at the Climate Outreach & Information Network), we tackle exactly this problem. Scepticism about climate change on the right of politics is in part caused by the absence of meaningful narratives and stories that resonate with the values of conservatives.

A failure of leadership?

The less that political leaders talk about climate change, the less chance there is that these stories will flourish. And without an identify that spans the political spectrum, public debate about climate change will continue to be stilted and subdued.

In an article for the New Internationalist magazine, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace made an important point about the way that sensible – even inevitable – climate change policies are ridiculed by the UK media:

“When the tabloids published their inevitable feature articles on ‘the Green party’s most bonkers policies’, they included the commitment to phase out coal-fired power stations, as if the recommendation of mainstream opinion in the scientific community is of a piece with homeopathy and astrology.”

In short, there is a surreal but concerning double-think at play in the 2015 election: everyone agrees that climate change is a big deal, but serious policies to address it are considered an indulgence of the loopy-left. And a failure of leadership is to blame.

Recognising a similar problem in the US, the campaign group ecoAmerica launched an ambitious leadership training programme for prominent voices from faith communities, higher education, and the health sector. Their aim was not to turn existing leaders into eco-champions, but instead to bring their proven leadership skills to bear on climate change – encouraging hundreds of key community voices to talk about climate change in their own words, using values that speak to their own audiences and sectors.

As the election debates have shown, powerful leadership on climate change is not well served by quiet agreement. Nor is it a question of getting different leaders singing from the same song sheet. Some passionate disagreement – the antithesis of a silent consensus – would in many ways be preferable, and put climate change where it deserves to be: at the centre (not the periphery) of political debates.

This article was first published in the Guardian. 

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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