“It’s Important Not to Be a Climate Change Zealot”: Understanding How Politicians Think & Act on Climate Change

By Rebecca Willis

There’s no shortage of accounts of the immense challenges that climate change poses to political and social systems. There is John Urry’s masterful analysis of our society’s dependence on a fossil economyTony Giddens’ breathless run-through of the implications of climate for modern political systems, and Nick Stern’s painstaking efforts to analyse the impact of climate change using the language and techniques of economics, to name but a few. More recently, a clutch of new political commentators have been making their presence felt: climate scientists who, feeling that the politicians have failed them, are coming up with their own suggestions for ‘planetary stewardship’. Such is the severity of the threat, they argue, that a new system of ‘earth system governance’ must be drawn up, to keep within the ‘planetary boundaries’ that enable life on earth. These plans certainly do not lack ambition, though they are disturbingly quiet about things which matter to many of us: power, equity and democracy, as Andy Stirling makes clear in this blog exchange.

As these debates show, it is easy to get swept away by the literal and conceptual enormity of the climate question, adrift in a sea of conceptual complexity and systemic interdependencies. And yet, if you will excuse me pushing the metaphor to breaking point, looking out over a vast expanse of sea, you might not notice the people (or, indeed, the fish) who are swimming, struggling or sinking. That was the starting point for my research, recently published in the Sociological Review, investigating how politicians, as one significant group of people, understand and respond to climate change. How does climate make people feel? How are reactions to climate change mediated by social settings, and expectations for work and life? And how does climate change, in turn, alter outlooks and beliefs?

There is some brilliant sociology on this already. I love Kari Norgaard’s beautifully observed ethnographic account of the ‘social denial’ of climate change a Norwegian Village. In their paper ‘Hippies on the Third Floor’, Christopher Wright and colleagues win prizes for the wittily accurate title, and explain what it feels like to champion environmental causes in a corporate environment, when people might not like what you have to say. I wanted to do the same for politicians, to find out if they were sinking or swimming in that sea of climate complexity. I wanted to know how it felt for them to champion climate change, what effect they thought it might have on their career or reputation, whether and how they talk to their constituents about it. In doing this, my aim was not to replace structural or systemic accounts, but to supplement them by acknowledging the agency and situation of individuals within those systems.

When I started my interviews with politicians, I was surprised by my subjects’ frankness. Reassured by the promise of anonymity, they talked about their professional and personal struggles, and how this affected the way in which they approach the issue of climate change. In the full paper, I tell their stories. Fourteen interviews are presented as four ‘composite narratives’ with each narrative based on three or four interviewees. Each interviewee was different, of course, but their reflections revealed some common themes.

First, the theme of identity came out strongly. Like any other institution, parliament has its own cultures and norms, which politicians are measured against. (Nirmal Puwar’s fascinating study of female and ethnic minority MPs describes this brilliantly). Many politicians told me that climate change was seen as an ‘outsider’ issue, not something discussed as part of the mainstream of politics. One, who campaigns actively on climate, said he was seen as a ‘freak’. Another was privately very concerned, but had made a deliberate choice not to shout about it. When making the case for better transport services in his constituency, he argued in terms of congestion and convenience, deliberately not mentioning carbon reduction. “I think if I had mentioned carbon emissions”, he told me, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, “Oh here he goes again”. 

Second, politicians are, of course, elected representatives. What they choose to act on depends, in part, on how they see their representative role. None of the interviewees felt much pressure from their electorate to act on climate. As one said, “I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, and had thousands of conversations with voters, and I just don’t have conversations on climate change.” Nevertheless, some found ways to connect climate to issues of importance to those they represent, through making the link to job creation or better transport systems, for example. Michael Saward’s theory of the ‘representative claim’ describes this well. Saward’s theoretical innovation is to see representation not as a static fact, but as a dynamic relationship between representatives and represented: a negotiated claim. Thus politicians can work to craft a ‘representative claim’ that action on climate change is in the interests of those they represent. This is more difficult, though, than, say, campaigning for a local hospital.

Third, politicians, like the rest of us, are constrained by the practicalities of day-to-day working life. A key insight from science and technology studies is the way in which everyday practices, whether in a laboratory or in Parliament, have a strong influence over the definitions of aims or ambitions. Politicians have limited time and resources, and they need to show results. As one told me, “Politicians like to have campaigns they can win…. And you can’t say ‘I’ve campaigned to stop climate change. And now climate change is fixed, and I’ve delivered for you.” As a result, many described how they tried to break a complex issue into solutions and tangible, practical policies. The danger, though, is that, in doing this, they lose sight of the significance of the issue, or the need for more radical solutions. This chimes with my previous research, analysing political speech on climate change, which shows that politicians try to ‘tame’ the climate, to present it as a simpler, more manageable issue than it really is.

What can be learned from this research? Above all, there is a practical benefit: these insights into the way that politicians work and strategise are useful for anyone who wants to encourage politicians to take action on climate change. I’m really pleased that NGOs including Green Alliance (who are partners in the research) and The Climate Coalition have been using my findings in their advocacy, strategy discussions and staff training. Focussing on tangible outcomes; emphasising links to local issues and concerns, to help MPs make a ‘representative claim’ on climate change; working with a broad range of interest groups so that climate is not pigeonholed as a niche or radical issue: the research shows that all these strategies help to build a political case for action.

Though the research focussed firmly on individuals, it was not surprising that many of the discussions I had returned to the systemic issues. Are our political institutions able to tackle such a long-term, complex problem?  Democratic politics, and indeed human society, has relied for many years on a remarkable period of stability in earth systems – a stability now under threat. A full political response would require discussion of this very fact, that a stable climate is a prerequisite for political and social systems. That’s a tricky issue for any politician to handle. 

Rebecca Willis is an independent researcher. Her work focuses on environmental politics and policymaking. She tweest at @BankfieldBecky.

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