Congratulations to Dr Adam Corner of the Climate Outreach Information Network for an insightful and timely report on A New Conversation with the Centre-Right about Climate Change.
I just came back from the lively launch event at the think tank, Policy Exchange, with Adam Corner, Zac Goldsmith MP, Head of Environment and Energy at Policy Exchange Guy Newey and Claire Jakobsson of Conservative Environment Network, chaired by James Murray.
Alas, the who, where and when questions are relatively easy, compared with the what and the why, while the question of what follows is altogether more challenging.
According the executive summary: "The central argument of this report is that there is no necessary contradiction between the values of the centre-right and the challenge of responding to climate change. But until now the issue has not been framed in a way that resonates with centre-right citizens."
That premise sounds about right to me. The claim is that the left has a relatively coherent position on climate change(it's by no means clear cut) and that many of the potentially effective forms of action(subsidies, regulation, taxation) fall out of their worldview with less strain than they do on the right. This is somewhat problematic for those who hold centre-right political views, but more deeply problematic for addressing the climate change challenge at hand with the requisite shared sense of purpose.
The report goes on to argue for four main narratives to connect with the centre-right; localism, energy security, the green economy and the good life; and key values including: pragmatism, scepticism and stewardship - all of course unpacked in detail in the report.
I enjoyed the event. There were a few nice moments, including Zac Goldsmith saying he recently sent David Cameron back his famous speech on climate change from 2008, asking him to read it again (because he seems to have forgotten about it...). I also liked Guy Newey's emphasis on the idea that "motives matter" - when talking about climate change the key question is always what lies behind this, what do you really want? On a related point, he highlighted the tendency to confuse and conflate climate scepticism(it's not happening) with policy scepticism (here's what we should do about it). I also appreciated that one of the questioners asked how we can, in the context of the financial crisis, stop action on climate change being "a fair weather issue" or "a nice to have".
A final comment from one of Adam Corner's colleagues, George Marshall made a deep impression: that when they work on climate change communication it is not difficult to make a connection at the level of diagnosis - people respond to the reality of the problem- but when you move to the level of prescription - what we should do about it- people become very sensitive to motives and messenger effects- fearing hidden agendas.
I am intrigued by what I have read of the report so far and keen to return to the issue, perhaps with some of Jonathan Haidt's work in mind and in connection to our own research on climate change that will be published soon. However, for now, a few meta-questions about the report and event are loitering in my mind.
1. Is the political spectrum a useful lens for an issue like climate change at all? The report is aware that this is not self-evident, and perhaps it is semantic to get hung up on this question given the underlying desire to reach millions of people, whichever category they belong to. Still, every time we use the political spectrum in this way it becomes more entrenched as some sort of social fact and less like a relatively old-fashioned cultural heuristic that may no longer be fit for purpose.
2. The link between environmentalism in general and climate change in particular needs to be challenged. I had the sense that it suits those on the right to place them together, while it generally suits the left to pull them apart. We need to at least reflect on the question: What if Climate Change is not an environmental issue?
3. More profoundly, given the fairly central but my no means exclusive emphasis on the green economy as a way to reach the right, What if green growth is just an illusion? i.e. has anybody developed a convincing macroeconomic model of continued economic growth that factors in population growth and the material basis of the economy that keeps us within environmental limits? Perhaps the main challenge to the centre-right on climate change is not from the centre-left, who broadly share the view that such green growth is possible. The deeper challenge is the radical but in my view profoundly sane view that argues that the continued pursuit of economic growth is a kind of madness, albeit a forgivable and understandable one.
My first impression is that the report represents an invaluable introduction to a critical communication challenge. However, I feel the goal of reaching the centre-right, while relatively challenging, arises in the context of a communication challenge that is anyhow so deep and multifaceted that this issue is merely a case in point, rather than a critical end in itself.
And yet, given that we are in this together, it's really important to be reminded that the end point cannot be universal agreement, but a growing capacity to disagree constructively and precisely, so that we are not waiting for an impossible consensus on a problem that will not wait for us.
As I wrote in a previous post on the same theme: Climate Change: Left, Right and Wrong
"Let’s stop pretending that those who share an understanding of the problem are natural allies, and start thinking more deeply about the values we share and the values that separate us. We will continue to disagree, but it would be great if we could begin to understand the nature and depth of the disagreement well enough to help each other deal intelligently with the shared problem at hand."
Today's report is a good step in that direction.