How politicians respond to climate change

How politicians respond to climate change

Rebecca Willis

The latest summary of climate science, revealed in the recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), makes for sobering reading. To prevent dangerous warming beyond a 1.5C temperature increase, the report calls for rapid, far-reaching reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, from energy, transport, agriculture and industry.

As I read the coverage, there was one often-used phrase that leapt out of the page at me: “political will”. Leading climate economist Nicholas Stern was one of many to voice this. As he wrote, “while it is clear that it is still technically feasible to limit warming to 1.5C, we will not succeed without strong political will and leadership.”

In short, the experts are all agreed: over to you, politicians.

What, then, does this look like from the politician’s point of view? What does ‘political will’, that deceptively simple phrase, mean to the elected representatives themselves?

These questions have been at the centre of my ESRC-funded research for Lancaster University and Green Alliance. Over the past three years, I have analysed thousands of words of parliamentary speech, interviewed twenty-three current and former Members of the UK Parliament (MPs), and talked to climate advocates who work with politicians, to find out how they understand climate change, and respond to the challenges it presents.

The study has shown clearly that, whilst most politicians understand the need for urgent action on climate change, it is not straightforward for them to make the case for it. There are three main reasons for this: first, they see climate as an ‘outsider’ issue, not something discussed as part of the political mainstream. Second, they feel under very little pressure from their electorate to act on climate change. Third, climate change, as a complex, global issue, does not fit well within the daily practice of life in parliament. Below, I look at each of these in turn.

Questions of identity
Even though I had worked with politicians for many years, I was surprised by the clear opinion voiced by many interviewees, that vocal support for climate action would mark them as an outsider. But, as sociologists of identity have long argued, social settings like parliament have their own cultures and norms, which individuals are measured against. One former MP, who had been an active climate campaigner in Parliament, said “I was known as being a freak”. Another noted that climate change was rarely raised in debates about the economy. I asked what might happen if he spoke out on climate issues in debates about the budget. He replied, “They’d just think you were a bit ‘niche’, is the way I’d put it. I say ‘niche’ in quotes, like a bit of a lunatic fringe.”

Whereas some MPs embraced this outsider status, others felt that it would affect their career prospects. A significant minority reported that they deliberately avoided talking about climate change, even though they privately understood the significance of the issue. One, for example, said that he had argued against a local road widening scheme, which he thought would increase carbon emissions, but he made his case without mentioning climate impacts. In short, MPs’ decisions about climate action are conditioned by how they see themselves, their career ambitions and the institutional norms of parliament. I discuss this in greater detail in this paper for the Sociological Review.

Voters are silent on climate
A second clear message was that politicians are not asked by voters to act on climate change. As one said, “I’ve knocked hundreds, literally thousands of doors, and had tens of thousands of conversations with voters… and I just don’t have conversations about climate change”.

There is a small exception to this. Many MPs identified a particular group of voters, mostly affluent, educated city dwellers, who are vocal advocates of climate action. But for the overwhelming majority of people, climate change is a non-issue, as other research, also demonstrates.

So if politicians saw their job as simply responding to issues raised by their constituents, they would not focus on climate change. But they do not see themselves as mere aggregators of voters’ views. They are influenced, but not controlled, by what their electorate tells them. The political theorist Michael Saward puts forward the idea of the ‘representative claim’ to describe how politicians engage with their voters. He argues that representation should be seen as a process of claims-making, in which the politician makes claims which then need to be accepted by the electorate. In short, representation is a dialogue.

For example, some politicians put forward what could be called a ‘cosmopolitan claim’. They argue that it is in the interests of the global community to take action. As one told me, “a lot of the impacts of climate change are going to hit other places before they hit here. [My constituency] is not likely to be one of the first places to be hit particularly badly. So what? I just happen to be here.” This claim has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. Yet it has limited appeal, as another explained, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space… We have these sort of massive big things about what will happen in other parts of the world… and they’re like, “yeah, ok, whatever”.” In short, this claim is often ignored.

Other politicians reported different claims-making strategies, such as a ‘co-benefits’ claim, linking climate action to practical, achievable local outcomes, like better public transport or jobs in renewable energy; or a ‘local prevention’ claim, which highlights local impacts of climate change, like flooding or storms. This paper for Political Studies discusses the issue of representation, arguing that understanding of this process of claims-making is crucial to supporting politicians in speaking out on climate change.

Planetary scale or parliamentary scale?
Last, while politicians generally accept the scientific consensus, they show a reluctance to open up discussion on the far-reaching significance of climate change for human society. My analysis of parliamentary speech showed that MPs tend to use scientific evidence selectively, with the risks of abrupt or irreversible change ignored. They focus on immediate, technical solutions, rather than considering the full implications of climate change for politics and society. As one said, speaking about himself and his parliamentary colleagues, “it’s almost like they don’t want to think about that. I’d say that’s even true of people who think we need to grip it, it’s like it’s such a frightening thought that it’s easier to just assume and believe, be optimistic.”

This tendency is exacerbated by the pressure of day to day life as an MP, something which all interviewees stressed. Many highlighted the practical and procedural difficulties of responding to climate change, and the lack of fit between large-scale, earth system challenges, and the daily practice of politics.

Where does this leave us?
Together, these three factors go a long way toward explaining why politicians don’t find climate change straightforward to work on or talk about. That’s not to say that we simply should make excuses for them. But it does point to ways of working more effectively with politicians to build a case for climate action.

For example, it confirms the importance of bringing out the local dimension to climate change action, both to strengthen the link with the concerns of the electorate, and to offer tangible solutions. It demonstrates that it is important to work with a broad range of interests, whether businesses, faith groups or young activists, so that climate change doesn’t get pigeonholed as a niche issue.

Above all, this work shows that mounting scientific evidence on climate change, like the recent IPCC report, does not automatically lead to action. Rather than simply criticising politicians for lack of ‘political will’, we need to work with them to create the conditions for much wider political and public engagement in the transition to a low-carbon society.


Rebecca Willis is a research associate at Lancaster University. This article is based on the key findings of an ESRC-funded collaborative research project led by Lancaster University and Green Alliance.

IMAGE Credit: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor