Public figures concerned about climate issues often focus their efforts on convincing us of the importance and severity of the issue. However, polling data show that public opinion is already aligned closely with the expert consensus that the Climate Crisis is worthy of the closest attention from society. 67% of British people want action on climate change, and 45% are more concerned about climate change than the COVID19 pandemic.
The UK government has so far failed to lead the way towards societal change adequate for securing a positive climate future. The mass media, the presumptive master of the public discourse on the subject, also fails to facilitate changes as effectively as it might. Passing over the opportunity to construct narratives that acknowledge the proximity of the climate issue and its central relevance to all areas of private and public life. Instead, shotgun reporting creates the impression of anomalous unconnected tragic events that happen to other people, far enough away to be conveniently ignored.
By coordinating the growing public appetite for climate action with consistent support from the media and enthusiastic policy making from the government, the future of the climate can yet be a positive one.
The forces of Status Quo
As discussed above, the British people believe that working towards a sustainable future is the right thing to do, but this doesn't mean that they always make the most sustainable choices.
Living sustainably requires us to make sacrifices in the short term that feel inconvenient. Sacrifice can be worth it if the reward is big enough, but the benefits of a green lifestyle don't always feel that big. Long term benefits, and improvements to the lives of people in other parts of the world, can be difficult to intuitively appreciate. Consequently, sustainable choices are unattractive as they feel like burdens that offer little pay off.
Sacrifice can be worth it if the reward is big enough, but the benefits of a green lifestyle don't always feel that big.
There seems to be a disjuncture between the strong rhetoric of many global governments on climate change and the limited substantive actions they are willing to undertake. Close inspection of the vast arrays of ‘green policies’ shows that their impact is not great enough to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, not to mention those proposed by the climate science community. This should not be so surprising as those with political power are incentivised to make decisions that secure re-election, rather than the well-being of future generations. They offer just enough to quench the environmental guilt of their voters, whilst not allowing the future of the planet to overshadow more traditional political talking points.
[Policy makers] offer just enough to quench the environmental guilt of their voters, whilst not allowing the future of the planet to overshadow more traditional political talking points.
Public discussion of the climate crisis takes place in the news media bringing together a vast array of stakeholders and helping to cross the communication barriers that exist between them. However, the act of translation between their respective jargons is imperfect. Creating content accessible to a wide range of consumers requires simplifications that exclude important insight an nuance. Additionally, profit motives lead to the journalistic norms of false balance and sensationalism that inflate the importance of niche points of view and dramatic events. Under this structure, there is little incentive towards journalism that is genuinely informative and educational in ways that will support well directed societal change.
Disrupting the System
If we, as the public, are to play our role in creating a sustainable society then we must begin to pursue the meaningful change that is called for by our beliefs. The psychological barriers to lifestyle change can be overcome by creating community buy-in to more sustainable practices at many different levels. I will be more likely to switch the lights off when I leave the room when I have just seen my housemate do so. We are more likely to boycott environmentally negligent corporations if we can sign up to a nationally coordinated campaign that will ensure our message gets through. As people become connected to others working towards the same goal they will be able to claim a stake in the progress that the group achieves. These are much more tangible than the infinitesimal contributions of an individual, making the costs incurred by individuals feel more worthwhile, and sustainable life choices more attractive. The first step can be simply to begin to take note of, and give yourself credit for, the larger scale progress that you have been a part of. Realising the impacts we are already having will motivate us to maintain and increase those sustainable life choices.
As people become connected to others working towards the same goal they will be able to claim a stake in the progress that the group achieves
Governments must begin to look past the next election cycle towards climate goals that have the support of the public. Effectively navigating the climate crisis is fundamentally incompatible with myopic policy making. It has to stop now. We can accelerate this by voting carefully and campaigning for others to do so, communicating directly with our MPs, and engaging in environmental consumerism that will grab the attention of most economically focused policy makers. Politicians must move the goal of protecting society from its most pressing risks to the top of their agenda permanently, or be made to. There simply isn’t time to play politics any more.
The creation of an informative media narrative is an essential part of aligning public and political attitudes with the required climate mitigation measures. Firstly, the strength of the evidence behind human caused climate change and the magnitude of its threat must be communicated effectively. Secondly, the inter-relatedness of “green” issues with all other aspects of society must be clearly laid out. Thirdly, the media must return to its fundamental purpose; to inform, to educate, and to facilitate productive discourse. News outlets aren’t entertainment to accompany cups of tea, they are resources to help people live as better citizens. It’s time that they began to live up to that billing.
The path to a sustainable society
We the public, our government, and the media coexist in a web of interaction, reinforcement, and feedback. The government responds to public opinion which is both communicated and influenced by the media. The media responds to the content demands of the public and the agenda of the government. The issues that the public focuses on are dictated by the government agenda and what the media chooses to publicise. Any attempt to change the discourse in its topic or style risks being overlooked by the mainstream and the associated loss of enfranchisement of the actor. As a result all three are incentivised to operate in alignment with the status quo.
[The Public, Media, and Government] are incentivised to operate in alignment with the status quo
Overcoming the inertia opposing changes in the discourse requires a large group of actors to coordinate a change in the same direction at the same time. As the voting public, we must be the ones to lead the charge on this challenge because the incentives preventing the other institutions breaking ranks are too strong. A radical government may be removed from office before it gets the chance to gather support, and an innovative media outlet may go out of business or lose credibility before its new ideas and norms become accepted. Members of the public however have much less to lose. Many already compromise on their voting choices, or their media outlet, settling for what is on offer rather than insisting that all of their values are met. So a sudden change in their behaviour, by boycotting an news outlet or supporting a fringe political movement, involves far smaller costs and less risk. An individual acting in this way is unlikely to be noticed by the system, but with sufficient numbers a movement that refused to support political parties and media outlets that did not engage appropriately with the climate change issue would be a formidable interest group.
Once public support is sufficiently coordinated, the risk to a political party or media outlet engaging with the same radical ideas is greatly reduced. The public movement provides them with a ready made voting/ consumer base that would facilitate a transition towards new principles aligned with achieving a positive climate future. Confident in its public backing on green issues, a government would be free to work towards a sustainable society knowing this would not compromise re-election chances. The polarisation characteristic of climate discourse would be dampened by the growing realisation of the strength of the consensus within the public on climate issues. This same interest group would also create consumer pressure on the media outlets to report on activists, experts, and government activities in a way that captured the public's attention whilst communicating an adequate and accurate understanding of the issues at hand.
Confident in its public backing on green issues, a government would be free to work towards a sustainable society knowing this would not compromise reelection chances
After the first round of radical changes, positive feedback would ensure that these reforms solidified. As governments and the media begin to engage with the climate crisis more productively, the public will become increasingly more aware and vigilant towards the issue, further emboldening the government and media to act.
Now that we have seen that the required changes are possible, the next important questions to answer are: “how big does the social movement need to be to jump start the whole process?”, and, “how can that be achieved?”. These are big questions but the social movements of the past suggest that the vital ingredients are large scale coordination and willingness to take on personal costs. Both are achievable, but not without finding a way to make the climate crisis resonate with people. We must begin to really feel like a sustainable future is both possible and desirable, and by spreading this belief we can mobilise the energy and commitment required to make it happen.
By Louder than the Storm Political Lead, MacGregor Cox