Extinction Rebellion’s protests were an unprecedented success. Three questions about what comes next.

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Extinction Rebellion, Politics on April 28th, 2019 by Leo – 6 Comments

Past climate change protests have had little direct effect on public debate, but Extinction Rebellion protests in London seem to have directly influenced politics, the media and the public. Its success raises questions about the climate debate and what happens next with the protest movement.

Extinction Rebellion protest at Waterloo Bridge, London. Credit: Ali Johnson

I have some historical data to help understand Extinction Rebellion’s success: my master’s dissertation analysed the impact of public protests, along with extreme weather events and international climate conferences and reports, on public opinion, political debate and media coverage. I found that extreme weather sometimes influences public opinion, while UN climate conferences and IPCC reports often trigger media coverage and parliamentary debates. But climate protests generally have little direct effect on any of these. The full 2014 dissertation is here and a summary of the results is here.

Extinction Rebellion is different

But while climate protests have done less than other climate-related events to directly influence public debate, the Extinction Rebellion protests have been different.

My previous research looked at public protests from 2006-2014 and found no examples of them leading to debates in parliament. In contrast, every UN conference or report I looked at, and half of the extreme weather events, were mentioned in parliament. But the Extinction Rebellion protests led to two separate parliamentary debates – putting them alongside only 6 of the 26 climate-related events I studied to have been extensively debated.

I also found that climate protests rarely get much media coverage. Again this contrasts with UN conferences and reports, which get lots of coverage, while some extreme weather events are widely linked with climate change in the media. But again these protests were different. As Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief has shown, the UK media has mentioned climate change more in April than it has at any other time in the last five years – including during the Paris climate conference.

Some of this coverage was also prompted by the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and Greta Thunberg’s visit to London, so we can’t say that the protests alone got more coverage than, say the Paris climate conference (I’m also not sure it’s fair to make a direct comparison over time as the volume of everything published each day by the UK media probably isn’t consistent). But they certainly got much more coverage than a climate protest normally does. While the graph above doesn’t look at what the coverage was, the tone has often been quite positive, with at least a large part of it engaging with the issues rather than just the disruption to London or the social background of the protesters.

My research found only one example of public concern about climate change directly increasing after a particular external event: major floods from December 2013 to February 2014 were followed by a spike in public worries.

We don’t yet know whether the protests – and the documentary and Thunberg’s visit – will influence public opinion, but it’s plausible. I can say this because there has been a rapid increase in the number of Google searches for climate change, taking it to the same level as it was at during the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen – the previous high. That said we’re still at only about half the level of interest we were at during a peak in attention to climate change in 2007 (and, interestingly, we can see a shift from the public using the term global warming to preferring climate change, over this time).

The first solid evidence about the impact on public opinion may come from YouGov’s issues tracker, which is due in the next two weeks (government BEIS data on public opinion may come before then, but fieldwork predated the protests).

Three questions about Extinction Rebellion’s success

First, what made these protests so successful? I don’t believe the same protests would have been so effective a few years ago. One factor may be that the media is now more interested in covering climate change as a threat and talking about public alarm – rather than on focusing on supposed doubts and public climate denial, which was more common a few years ago. This might be partly because the climate denial movement has run its course in the UK, as Richard Black documents in his book on the subject. It’s probably also because of the success of the IPCC’s report on the 1.5C temperature target, the development of science linking particular extreme events with climate change, and other scientific publications about the threats from climate change. This suggests that a similar model of protest could also work in other countries, where the media debate is similarly advanced.

Second, will future UK Extinction Rebellion protests work so well next time? This wasn’t Extinction Rebellion’s first protest, but it was by far the most effective. They were helped by the timing, with a quieter news period as Brexit was briefly off the agenda. But unless Extinction Rebellion make their next protests seem like something other than a re-run of this one, future media coverage might be more limited and might focus more on the inconvenience than on climate change.

Finally, does any of this matter? Media coverage, parliamentary debates and public awareness of protests don’t make carbon emissions any lower. But I think it’s useful because of what it means for the coming debate about emission cuts. To meet their Paris targets, countries like the UK have to start cutting emissions in ways that most people will notice – with things like replacing gas boilers, changing what we eat and how we move about. That will only be possible with both political leadership and public support, as I set out in my book. The way Extinction Rebellion have shifted the debate  won’t be enough on its own, but it may help.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

Has Extinction Rebellion changed public opinion? All Out Politics podcast, Sky News

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics on April 27th, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I was on this week’s All Out Politics podcast talking about the Extinction Rebellion protests with Adam Boulton, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Harry Carr and others. We also talked about Northern Ireland and Change UK.

You can listen to it here.

 

What’s going to happen in the European elections? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on April 11th, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look in detail at the prospects for EU parliamentary elections in the UK now that Brexit has been delayed up to a further 6 months.

 

 

What’s going on and what do the public think? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on March 21st, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

After a breathtaking week, Keiran Pedley and I sit down and look at the numbers. What do the public think about how Brexit is going, the prospect of no deal and where we go from here? Plus, if a General Election comes, who stands the best chance of winning?

 

How popular is The Independent Group? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters, Uncategorized on February 21st, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Polling Matters podcast returns, with Keiran Pedley (now of Ipsos MORI) and me discussing the latest polling on The Independent Group. Just how popular are they with the public?

 

Is a no deal Brexit now the most popular outcome with the public? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters, Uncategorized on January 23rd, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Is a no deal Brexit now the most popular outcome with the public? Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look at polling around a no-deal Brexit to see if commentators suggesting that it is the most popular outcome with the public are right.

Also covered on this week’s show is a new report by UK in a Changing Europe, which covers a host of topics on Brexit including support for a second referendum and how Brexit identity appears to be trumping party identity.

 

Deal or no deal? Plus are the Tories really ahead in the opinion polls? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on January 17th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Deal or no deal? Plus are the Tories really ahead in the opinion polls? Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast Keiran Pedley and I discuss the fallout from a hectic week in Westminster. We ask whether a General Election, 2nd referendum or ‘no deal Brexit’ have become more or less likely and explain why politicians claiming that the Tories are ahead in the polls are not telling the full story.

 

Why the world needs more climate fiction

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 18th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Why the world needs more climate fiction

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Visitor numbers at Bletchley Park, the home of UK wartime code-breaking, have soared in recent years. From fewer than 50,000 in 2005, ticket sales grew to 196,000 by 2014. The next year they suddenly jumped per cent, with an extra 84,000 people visiting the park.

Why the sharp rise in visitors? Word about Bletchley had been building for years but there was a specific reason visitors suddenly flocked to the museum after 2014. What had changed was the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, which dramatized Alan Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley. Visitors rushed to the park not because they had seen a documentary or read a book about it, but because they had been told a story.

The story the film tells is, of course, about how Turing and others cracked the Enigma code – but it’s not just about that. It’s also about how women and gay men struggled in the strictures of mid-Twentieth Century Britain and how the country mistreated a hero. Without those sides of the story, the film wouldn’t have had such wide appeal and the park probably wouldn’t have had so many visitors.

Stories about individuals are easy to dismiss as trivial but are essential for conveying bigger stories. Anne Frank’s diaries help us grasp the horror of the Holocaust; photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, drew global attention to the European refugee crisis in a way that 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean the previous year had not.

The roots of climate apathy

When it comes to climate change you might think the world has no need for human-interest stories. The record-breaking heat of this summer came after a year in which the US suffered its costliest hurricane season on record, much of South Asia was under water and Cape Town got within weeks of switching off the taps.

But there is little sign that these changes in the world’s weather are causing a surge in public worries. Long-term studies suggest concern about climate change has drifted up and down over the last 20 years. As I show in my book, climate apathy is widespread and resilient: most people understand climate change is real but don’t spend much time thinking about the subject.

A lack of science communication isn’t the problem. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, scientific confidence that humans are the cause of recent warming has gone from 66% to more than 95%. The latest report – at nearly 5,000 pages, the definitive statement of knowledge about the subject – had plenty of media coverage yet little measurable impact on public opinion.

Psychologists wouldn’t be surprised by this. To the human mind, climate change is distant, complex and slow-moving – a bad combination according to Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who described the brain as a “get out of the way machine”. It has evolved to deal with problems that are proximate, clear and rapidly changing and it prioritizes these over distant threats like climate change. However quickly the planet is changing in geological terms, it’s still slow in human terms.

Perhaps this reflects the limits, in terms of persuasion, of the factual description of climate science. To persuade more people that the world needs to urgently cut emissions means making climate science personal and that requires storytelling. This is why a new genre, climate fiction – cli-fi for short – has so much potential.

Climate fiction

Most people’s experience of cli-fi is limited to one or two blockbusters. The 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow is the best known: it may be the only work of cli-fi that editors assume audiences know. Other prominent ones include the post-apocalyptic book and film The Road – which doesn’t actually mention climate change though is often categorised as cli-fi.

But the famous works of cli-fi are perhaps the least important. They’re dramatic because they show a world that has been utterly transformed. But the world they show is so unrelatably different from everyday life that viewers might as well worry about a zombie apocalypse as about climate change. They’re unlikely to persuade many people that climate change is a threat they need to act to prevent.

nstead of this extreme transformation, cli-fi is most persuasive when it doesn’t try to do so much. Paradoxically, it’s the works that tell the smallest stories that may be the most important: those that focus on one change and explore what it means for the people living through it.

Among the most interesting, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, is narrow and simple. A woman gives birth, her home floods and she has to flee with her partner and baby. We hear no more about the rest of the country – let alone the rest of the world – than the woman does and the short book is dominated by the day-to-day of life with a growing baby as she seeks refuge. In its simplicity it conveys, more powerfully than any scientific report, what it would feel like to live through a climate change-induced flood.

Others don’t narrow their scope so much but still convey the emotion of global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora isn’t obviously cli-fi – it’s mostly set on a generation starship – but gives a compelling description of a particular loss that could come from climate change when a character sets herself to remaking beaches that have been swallowed by rising oceans. The reader could easily have been alienated with descriptions of a future Earth but beaches are familiar. As a translation of the dull term “sea-level rise”, a woman’s experience of restoring sandy beaches conveys their loss in a way that makes it painfully imaginable.

If any descriptions of climate change could trigger Gilbert’s get out of the way machine, it’s ones like these. The power of the most persuasive cli-fi is its relatability. Homes flooding and beaches drowning, experienced through the eyes of a character we’re behind, are easier to imagine and care about than any scientific report or desperate struggles after a world-shattering apocalypse.

Cli-fi is still little known – it’s still largely limited to books (no big-budget Netflix show yet) and most of those are published with little attention. For now the climate change story is mostly told through dry reports, whose facts may be terrifying but whose story is barely heard.

But there is one sign that things might be changing. A production company, SunnyMarch, last year acquired the rights to turn The End We Start From into a film. The name behind that production company is someone who knows about telling personal stories: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of The Imitation Game.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Could businesses hold the key to overcoming climate apathy?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 13th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Could businesses hold the key to overcoming climate apathy?

This was originally published by Business Green.

There’s an episode of the US TV show The West Wing where the President is looking for a reason to commute a murderer’s death sentence. He hears pleas from religious figures and prays for wisdom but, feeling God hasn’t answered him, is unable to find a way out. As the episode closes and time runs out, the President’s childhood priest chastises him: “He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention His son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?”

Those of us wanting faster climate action may be wondering what the world is still waiting to be sent. In the last 12 months California has seen the most destructive fires in its history, a heatwave set records across the northern hemisphere, a drought in Cape Town took the city to within weeks of switching off its public water supply, record-breaking rain and floods killed more than 200 in Japan, even more deadly floods struck Kerala, while the Carolinas were also hit by record flooding, from Hurricane Florence.

There are in fact some signs that climate change is starting to influence elections. Continued on Business Green (free read)

May fights on – so what now? Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on December 13th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on May fights on – so what now? Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look back at events in a frantic week at Westminster. They debate whether May was right to postpone the meaningful vote, whether a change in leader would have any impact on Brexit negotiations and the prospect of another referendum breaking the parliamentary deadlock.