Creating a credible alternative: communicating climate change on the Right

  • 02 May 2012, 15:00
  • Ros Donald

The majority of people who express climate skepticism in the UK hold conservative political views. Is this based on their assessment of the science, or do Conservatives feel pushed into skepticism because they aren't offered a credible alternative to the a climate narrative that is largely left wing?

This was the issue exercising a panel at free market thinktank Policy Exchange last night, which discussed how Conservatives could create their own climate change stories, bringing constituencies that feel disenfranchised by particular green policies into the heart of the debate about the UK's low carbon future. Well, three quarters of the panel did anyway. The  panel's fourth speaker, MP Peter Lilley, highlighted the difficulties of engaging with climate skeptics on policy questions that rely on the acceptance of mainstream climate science. While he raised some interesting policy points, it became clear that he wasn't willing to move his focus away from objecting to mainstream climate science. He's entitled - but it meant the debate got a bit bogged down in places.

Adam Corner, a researcher who specialises in the psychology of the climate debate, said there has been a failure to communicate the scientific facts on climate change in a way that chimes with the right. Conservative opposition to mainstream climate science represents a "practical challenge"  - those who want to bring Conservatives into a constructive climate policy debate msut plug into existing networks on the right, he argued. One example he highlighted was the way Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is starting to consider action on climate change in terms of local aesthetics, traditionalism and bottom-up mobilisation. Just because people oppose wind farms, Corner said, it doesn't mean they're climate skeptics. 

Are there ways to make climate chime with Conservatives? Could, for example, the promise of a competitive advantage, less wasted energy and an independent fuel supply bring the right on side? Conservative MP Tim Yeo thinks so: "People on the right are rational" he told the audience, so they understand it makes sense to hedge against the threat of climate change. He pointed out that the majority of businesses are planning ahead for the effects of climate change because they understand the economic imperative to do so. 

Yeo also noted that it isn't necessary for people to accept mainstream climate science to get behind "no regrets" policies like making housing stock more energy efficient or reducing the UK's dependence on oil and gas imports. Yeo is a big supporter of the Green Deal - the government's loan scheme designed to cut the upfront domestic cost of efficiency measures - although he said he doesn't support the prospect of making such measures compulsory when people have other work done on the house. Fair enough, but audience members pointed out - as we did at the time - the idea that, as he put it, homeowners would be forced to spend thousands bears more relation to the Daily Mail's characterisation of the so-called 'conservatory tax' than any ideas dreamed up in Whitehall. 

The Guardian's head of environment, Damian Carrington, picked up on the 'conservatory tax' as an emblem of the way Conservative doubts about climate policy are portrayed. He pointed out that in practice, rebellion by the right against state imposition of green measures doesn't always reflect reality on the ground. He used the example of the Conservative council that has been "imposing" energy efficiency measures on householders when they have work done on the house for five years without any complaints. Carrington was less convinced people can get on board with green policies even if they don't accept the premise of climate change, asking how the economics of decarbonisation can work if people don't see greenhouse gas emissions as a negative externality. 

Climate skeptic Conservative MP Peter Lilley, who was among five dissenters when the UK Climate Change Act was passed in 2008, made an interesting addition to the panel. Lilley is a climate skeptic, and either took the debate off course by offering up skeptic arguments about the science of climate change, or demonstrated that objections to climate policy aren't just about climate policy, depending on your point of view.

Lilley said he opposed the climate change act on the grounds that the government's cost-benefit analysis did not persuade him the "most expensive legislation since the welfare state" was justified. Then there were the schemes to encourage take-up of renewables: Lilley argued solar subsidies, for example, take "money out of peoples' pockets" and put it into those of people who are already wealthy, because they're the ones with the right properties for the technology. In service to his cost-benefit argument he suggested that green measures had put up household bills by 11 per cent - although we haven't seen this figure before, so it would be interesting to know where it came from. 

Cost is an important factor in assessing the case for climate policies, indeed much of the political and media debate revolves around discussing costs. Lilley didn't stop there, though - he chose to add popular skeptic arguments such as the assertion that global warming has stopped to his case, ultimately arguing that the climate case isn't suffering from a "lack of conviction", but from a "lack of evidence". 

Corner told us after the session, "It's a shame that so many on the right move so seamlessly from a critique of climate policies (which is fair enough) to a dismissal of the problem. Instead, they should be coming up with different policies." Reflecting on the debate, he said it lends credence to the oft-repeated view that the UK's energy supply is a good starting point for getting the conversation moving.

We also asked Guy Newey who chaired the event what he thought. He said the debate highlighted the fact that disputes about emissions policy can get dragged into arguments about the science - which poses a challenge for all communicators, adding "I hope the event demonstrated how important policy choices are in gaining acceptance of climate action." 

Hopefully it's not the end of the discussion. As one attendee remarked, a single seminar can't begin to cover this conversation.

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