Source: Policy Exchange
URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLPpOS2BpH0
Date: 01/05/2012
Event: Policy Exchange: Adam Corner on how to communicate climate change to right-leaning people
Credit: Policy Exchange

  • Dr Adam Corner: Research Associate in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University

Dr Adam Corner: Thanks, Guy, and thanks for the invitation to be part of this panel. As Guy said, I'm a researcher. I'm not a campaigner - I study public attitudes to climate change, and ways of increasing public engagement with climate change. And I thought I'd start by saying that communicating climate change is not just an issue that the right has to deal with. It's a difficult thing for people to deal with full stop, and we could actually be here tonight talking about why those who have had a more traditional communication role in climate change - so that probably wouldn't be the right, it would be environmental NGOs, who are the people that took ownership of this issue first and foremost - why they haven't done a good enough job in communicating about climate change. Because if they had, then we probably wouldn't be here now, still talking about how to engage greater numbers of people with this issue.

So there's been lots of talk about personal sacrifice, and maybe quite grandiose pleas about saving the planet. It obviously hasn't worked that well. It definitely hasn't worked with particular audiences, such as those on the right. But, nonetheless, there does seem to be a particular problem with communicating climate change on the right, in that, survey after survey - I mean, this is most stark in the States but you can see exactly the same kind of patterns here. Climate change scepticism, or increased levels of uncertainty about climate science, go hand in hand with conservative views, with right-leaning individuals, so that's - the question is why, and what can be done about that?

I think a major issue, to start off with, is that the language and the imagery and the storylines and the narratives - the very way that climate change is presented to people - seems to be infused with ideas of the left. So the answers to the problem of climate change seem like the kind of things that those on the right should be opposing, so - regulation and international agreements, government influence and interference in people's lives. But, whether on purpose or by accident, what seems to have happened is that instead of coming up with different answers to the problem, people have moved from that and gone backwards to say "Well, maybe there isn't such a problem in the first place", to dismiss or to underplay the extent of the problem that's there.

And this is a kind of process that all of us are susceptible to. So, in all of our reasoning, there's well-documented psychological processes that - we're, all of us, more likely to accept evidence that fits with our existing beliefs. You can see this all the time. You know this from your personal experience of people. But the scientific facts of climate change - and there are scientific facts in this, this is not just all about interpretation - haven't been presented in a way that meshes very well with a typical more right-wing ideology. That's not to say that we need some kind of voodoo manipulation of climate science facts. The science of climate change is the science of climate change, and it's not up for grabs in that way. But although climate change is a scientific entity, it's a scientific entity that we give meaning to, and we give shape to through our ideologies, because climate change is not really about some dry appraisal of the facts, and then some logical extension of what to do about it. All climate policy that's responded to climate change - the problem of climate change - is a choice about how you see the future, its values. It's how you want future society to look.

And there's no reason why a conservative, right-leaning ideology shouldn't fit with an acceptance of climate change, and moving forward and taking action on climate change. And I guess in some cases it has to, really. I mean, for one, maybe for the first time, we're starting to get an appreciation from science of limits to what the planet can cope with. There're not going to be exact numbers, but we're starting to understand some absolute limits to what can be done within the natural resource base that we have, and climate change is one example of that.

But also from the point of view of climate change being a kind of era-defining issue, if there isn't a conservative or right-leaning voice in that, when historians come to tell the story of these generations, the next generations, and all the day-to-day, week-to-week events that will take place on top of a background story of climate change and resource limitations, then it seems unfortunate that there isn't going to be a conservative, a coherent kind of conservative, right-leaning response in that, for people to identify with. It seems like right-leaning voters, thinkers, leaders need something in climate change to identify with, sources of information who are not perceived as being of the other side on the political spectrum. People who are credible and likeable but who accept the scientific consensus on climate change.

So I think there's a real challenge, and I'm very interested in hearing what people have to say today, and listening in to what your views are on this. But there's a real, practical challenge, to apply what we know about climate change communication, and there's a growing body of social science research, now, which is starting to give us some pieces of the puzzle of how to communicate climate change more effectively, kind of techniques that work and the kind of things that we should be focussing on. Plugging that into networks of right-leaning communicators who speak to right-leaning audiences all the time, and who understand how to represent all sorts of other issues to those kind of audiences, but maybe need to be furnished with the social science expertise of how to communicate climate change more effectively. And to find the values and the ways of framing that information that speak to a conservative audience.

And I think this is something that, as Guy said in his introduction, people are starting to think about now. Roger Scruton has started to do some of this with his ideas about local aesthetics and sense of pride in a local surrounding, but is struggling to fit climate change, as a slightly different type of issue, into his thesis. And also as a kind of philosophy-based approach, it perhaps doesn't give us anything very tangible to go on. So there seems like there's a real need to translate some of these ideas and thoughts that people have, on this issue, into more tangible communication principles, to actually go out and work with different conservative audiences.

I thought I'd actually just end with one last thing that maybe isn't quite on the topic of the discussion list today. But in case anyone was thinking "Why do we even need to do this at all? We're never going to talk every single person into thinking that climate change is a big issue, there's always going to be people who kick against it. And anyway, the big change comes from technologies and technological change", but of course every single technological change that you could introduce, or every political intervention, is going to be a real uphill struggle, unless there's that background level of public engagement with the issue. So every piece of home insulation, every new wind turbine, every smart meter in someone's house, is going to be a real struggle, unless the argument is made for the case behind it. So the argument has to be made for climate change, I think, and it has to be made from a right perspective, and that's the question is: how to do that? I'm genuinely very, very interested in hearing everyone's views on that.