The centre-left, human-rights-aware liberals do not need convincing that climate change is a big deal. Conservative (with a small ‘c’) middle England may be harder to convince, and to keep from objecting to future legislation. Here are five suggestions for reaching out to them.

This story, unusually, starts with a poster in a toilet. I was at London’s Frontline Club on Monday, at an event dealing with U.S. foreign policy (an audience with Scott Malcomson promoting Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11 if you’re interested) and saw an out-of-date list of other events on at the venue which included “Should human rights be at the heart of climate change policy? This got me thinking, that inevitably such an event, while no doubt being informative, preaches very much to the converted, as does much of climate change thinking that focuses on human rights and the impact on the world’s poorest. The Guardian newspaper tends to be mocked as read by sandal-wearing, beardy types, so much so that I knew a temporarily unemployed (and decidedly both intelligent and liberal) middle-aged professional who ruled out reading its job section because “The Guardian is for people going nowhere”.

Reaching out to middle England – why it’s different

Sadly, talking about the world’s poorest, human rights, “the environment”, perhaps also peak oil and renewable energy seems to have no impact on a certain section of middle England. There are a number of possible barriers here

  • Belief in climate change
  • Belief that it will affect them and is not just an overhyped concern of the sandal-wearing (or perhaps closet sandal-wearing in the case of the Liberal Democrat leadership)
  • Belief that this is a policy issue worthy of wide interest and concern in the way that education or health is, not a niche concern for a minority of activists

Perhaps needless to say, concerns about fish stocks, colony collapse disorder in beekeeping and many other issues face the same kinds of barriers. The goal for communicators targeting this group should be to neutralise mainstream opposition to climate change legislation. Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown’s advisior on climate change and energy issues while he was in power, referred in a recent talk (at the LSE hosted by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy) to the “sphere of relative non-punishment” for government decisions. This is an area in which the public and media tacitly support a policy enough for the government to be able to follow it without any serious attacks.

Following “climategate” and other knocks to the credibility of climate change policy, there is a risk of important legislation sliding out of that category and gathering a vocal lobby of opponents capable of making it harder for the UK government to legislate. The Daily Mail presents such opposition regularly, and recent developments in the U.S. far right suggest a risk of this growing over here as well. This is also about the medium-term battle: so far climate change policy has been slight, low-profile and relatively painless. If the kind of emissions cuts envisioned by Stern and by the government’s legal obligation under the 2008 Climate Change Act (34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050) are to happen, all three of those characteristics may quickly change.

A second goal, of course, is to move the gentle believers into passionate activists, but that’s a question for another time.


1. – Conservation

Attenborough: Prepared to stand up for wind-farms

Conservationist feeling tends to come from a very different segment of the population to the typical liberal Guardian reader. I particularly remember this from the diaries of 1980s Conservative minister Alan Clark, who was irritated by a member of his staff talking about human rights (“his Guardianesque obsession”) rather than the British interest on a trade mission, but felt strongly about cruelty to animals and passionate enough about anti-fur legislation to consider resignation from the government when it was blocked by the Prime Minister.  Conservation groups like the RSPB tend to be singing from the same hymn sheet as Friends of the Earth (environmentalist) and Oxfam (development-focused) on this.

At present the middle England conservationist perspective risks being turned against climate change in general by windfarms. A more traditional form of environmentalism, focusing on leaving natural habits untouched and preserving landscapes is pitted against the strands of environmentalism that argue strongly for renewable energy wherever possible. As well as the RSPB’s support of windfarms, David Attenborough, as the popular face of conservation is a potentially powerful force against opposition, having spoken out in favour of a turbine in a local dispute a two years ago.

2. – Hard-nosed Economics

I have written in the past of the inportant influence of the Stern Review in presenting the economic case for climate change. Some have subsequently pointed to the differing conclusions of other economists like Tol and Nordhaus, but these criticisms are deftly dealt with in Stern’s more recent “Blueprint for a Safer Planet“, which allows Stern to demonstate the full range of his intelligence and understanding outside the confines of the more technical report. Experts disagree, of course, that is in many ways their jobs, but attempts to paint Stern as a lightweight or unduly biased by his political mandate should be dismissed as the nonsense they are, and details of argument and counter-argument can be found in this book.

Another aspect of the focus on economics is what I would describe as “industries of the future” rhetoric, drawing on the language and concerns of business and commerce.  and perhaps even fear of losing commercial ground to other countries, as in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times on on China’s growing investment in low-carbon technology. This was highly recommended by an article in The Guardian a little over a year ago, but on reflection this a good step but not the whole story – I strongly suspect that to a certain kind of worldview this kind of rhetoric is dismissed as overly-slick government (or at least “establishment”) rhetoric. Or just as “bullshit”. It tends to come out of the mouths of politicians in the Tony Blair mould (including, in this context,  Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg), all of whom risk seem a bit too polished and media savvy to be trusted when these kinds of optimistic claims are made.

3. – Steal the position of the “grumpy cynic”

Clarkson: Tells us a lot about middle England

Part of the ideological division on climate change may be categorised as the “Monbiot vs. Clarkson” problem. Guardian journalist George Monbiot can be classified as intellectual, globally engaged and interested in liberal concerns like aid, foreign policy and, of course, climate change. One of his most impressive features is his staggering grasp of detail. Jeremy Clarkson, best known as presenter of the BBC’s “Top Gear” on new cars tends to argue from the perspective of middle England, arguing for “common sense” rather than detailed grasp of the facts.

This attitude is described by two major reports on climate change communications, Warm Words and Warm Words II, by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) as “settlerdom”. To quote from their first report:

‘Settlers’ (so-called because they have sustenance driven needs associated with the home) tend to look backwards to yesterday, which was better, and tend to dislike anything new or different as they feel this threatens their identity, belonging, security and safety.

In this context, ‘settlerdom’ rejects and mocks the alarmist discourse – and with it climate change – not through any form of expert discourse or argument but through invoking ‘common sense’. This repertoire constructs itself (in other words, the speaker and implied audience) as ‘the sane majority’ in opposition to ‘the doom-mongers’ or ‘the global warming brigade’ who are ‘keeping us all awake’.

Increasingly, in my experience, that cynicism is shifting to a cynicism towards the sceptics. It is, as I have repeatedly argued, an unfair generalisation to dismiss all disagreement, however moderate and independent, as oil-company-funded lies. It may, however, be a useful generalisation to live with, if every time your grumpy cynic reads piece shedding doubt on climate change, they roll their eyes at them rather than at us. The idea that we’re all doomed due to government incompetence also seems to fit well with the traditional “settler” position. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, there seemed to be a sense of “the bloody government has let us down again”. This kind of attitude may be one that can be capitalised on.

4. – Include the moderate sceptics in the discussion

There is a tendency to vilify all climate change “sceptics” in the left-wing press. An article in The Guardian entitled “Coalition of denial” includes Bjø rn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson, even Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner in its list of enemies, contributing to the impression that climate change circles are intolerant and blood spitting. In reality all of the above make it clear that climate change demands government intervention and all propose different policy approaches to do this.

Lomborg: Not as sceptical as the critics claim

Despite this, Lomborg and Lawson in particular have become poster boys for climate change scepticism in the UK, much more so than hardline sceptics like  journalist Christopher Booker and Martin Durkin and the oil companies’ misinformation campaign that plays a big role in providing their information, whether they realise this or not. Lomborg has been accused of a “U-turn” on climate change in his most recent book “Smart Solutions to Climate Change” published earlier this month, arguing in it that climate change is a major problem facing the world. The idea that this is a changed position is obviously nonsense for those who have read his earlier work, which has long held that climate change is a major problem, just badly approached and less so than some claim. Both he and Nigel Lawson not only acknowledge that climate change exists (or at least probably exists in Lawson’s case) and both think it’s serious enough to merit policy action. Rather than demonising them, point out that while they disagree on the severity of climate change risks (an area in which there is wide discussion and disagreement in public and academic circles) they’re having the same conversation. The most high-profile sceptics can be treated as supporting the general conclusions of the consensus. I say “presented”, but this would not be illegitimate spin, it would be the reality of their arguments, detached from the rhetoric that typically surrounds them. Middle England is wary of a unified front of the environmentally friendly – the more we present consensus, the more it looks like there isn’t enough real debate. Such is the paradox of the modern media and its desire to present argument and debate. By acknowleding debate but pointing to areas of agreement, it establishes a baseline of shared understanding.

5. – Assume, assume, assume

This is perhaps the most successful and universally applied strategy to win over those dubious about climate change: assume the major conclusions to be certain. This is a powerful psychological tool, advocated strongly by the aforementioned Warm Words reports and practiced earlier this week when Ed Miliband told the Labour party conference of the need to act on climate change. No debate, no discussion of disagreement – it was presented, as it should be, like just one more policy issue that needs a solution.

The case could be made that this creates a dangerous orthodoxy, but this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Experts will continue to understand the detail and hold their nuanced positions irrespective of political speeches, newspaper columns or anything else aiming for a more popular audience. Climate change has never suffered from lack of informed debate, but frequently from ill-informed squabbling.

Concluding thoughts

There is a constantly fine balance between explaining seriousness of climate change and appearing alarmist. This demands that we keep our messages serious but not over-serious, and avoid flights of rhetorical fancy that alienate where they should inform and persuade.

It is essential to convince governments to take action on climate change and to provide a show of public support for legislation, but perhaps the most important thing for influencing the public mood is to keep climate change in that “sphere of relative non-punishment” to let policymakers get on with it.