Four (other) climate change books to read

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 2nd, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I was asked to write a short piece on the climate change books on my shelf, for Big Issue North. It’s not online, but here it is, reproduced with permission:

 

Want to stop Brexit? This is the question to watch.

Posted in Europe, Politics, Polling Matters on November 26th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

Was Brexit the right decision? (image: getty)

On Polling Matters last week I mentioned something about Brexit polling that’s been on my mind for a while, but which I haven’t written anywhere. It’s this:

Polling questions on a second referendum get quite a bit of attention. They find there’s not much desire for one – typically 30-35% support the idea. The same applies for blunter questions on stopping Brexit, which find even less support.

This is often used as evidence that Brexit is unstoppable. I think that’s the wrong conclusion.

Relatively few prominent commentators currently say Brexit can be stopped. This is surely a major reason roughly 50% of 2016 Remainers have given up on the idea.

But opinion on this kind of thing can change quickly. Not long before Theresa May called the snap election 55% of Tory voters said there shouldn’t be an early vote. Just after she announced it, 64% of them said it was the right decision. This is a subject where politicians and commentators lead public opinion.

That’s not to say majority support for a second referendum is just a few taps of the keyboard away. It does need to tap into a genuine shift in the public mood – but the question we should be looking at is whether Brexit is seen as the right or wrong decision.

Opinion on that has apparently shifted towards “wrong decision”, but only very slightly. The most recent YouGov poll gives it a 4-point lead – 52% vs 48% when you exclude don’t knows – which isn’t enough to say the public mood has shifted decisively.

If that “right/wrong decision” question shifts further – perhaps to 60% saying it was the wrong decision – there will be much more justification for commentators to argue the public want another say. At that point I’d expect opinion on a second referendum to shift quickly.

That’s why, if you’re interested in knowing whether the public could ever support overturning Brexit, I suggest focusing much more on the “right/wrong decision” question and much less on the ones that actually ask about stopping it.

I talked about this, and the state of the polls since the election, with Keiran and Matt Singh, on Polling Matters:

Want Americans to support something? Get Trump to oppose it

Posted in U.S. on November 19th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Credit: Michael Vadon

Campaigners spend years trying to change public opinion. They organize rallies, publish reports, set up photo ops, and cross their fingers it’ll make a difference.

It turns out there’s a simpler way: get Donald Trump to oppose whatever you want.

On issue after issue, the best thing to have happened to progressives looking for public support is for Trump to have come out against them.

From climate change to foreign trade and from equal marriage to the death penalty, whatever Trump thinks, the US public are concluding the opposite. He is making America liberal again.

Stopping climate change, which Trump has said is a Chinese hoax: more Americans are greatly worried about it than at any point in the last 30 years.

Abolishing the death penalty, which Trump recently called to be used in a terrorist case: support is at its lowest level since 1972.

Keeping Obamacare, which Trump has repeatedly tried to abolish and sabotage: more people support it than oppose it for the first time.

Welcoming immigration, which Trump wants to restrict: the view immigrants help the economy is at a record high.

Liberalising foreign trade, which Trump is undoing: record numbers now see foreign trade as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Allowing equal marriage, which Trump has suggested he might block: support is at a record level.

Being wary of Russia, which Trump doesn’t seem to be: a (joint) record number now have an unfavourable view of Russia.

Encouraging women to be managers: Trump is very male and, famously, the boss. Americans are increasingly doubtful of that combination.

Honestly, I don’t really think this is all because of Trump. Let’s give Paul Ryan some credit too.

And, yes, most of them have been trending in that direction for years, part of long-term social shifts. The recent movements look like jumps in the way they were, generally, already heading.

But, still, there’s nothing like a historically unpopular president, with strong opinions and a loud voice, to make millions of people reconsider their own views.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, is published by New Internationalist.

The UK government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

Posted in Climate Majority, Transport on October 23rd, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by openDemocracy

Arguments about a new Heathrow runway may have receded to a distant rumble, but it’s an increasingly important question, with the government now planning to drop rules intended to make a new runway compatible with climate limits.

In the effort to limit climate change, a new Heathrow runway is a big deal. It would produce around 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 8% of all the emissions the UK can release in 2050 if it is to meet the Climate Change Act. Even if more efficient planes could cut that slightly, it’s a vast amount for one strip of tarmac.

Even so, debate about the new runway is just part of a bigger argument. It’s nearly inevitable that meeting the UK’s climate targets would only be possible with restrictions on flying, regardless of what happens at Heathrow. But the government has quietly proposed a new aviation strategy that suggests it isn’t prepared to do that.

Suspension of disbelief

It’s mathematically possible for the UK to build a third runway at Heathrow and still meet its emissions target – but you have to suspend your disbelief to imagine it actually happening and the government now appears to have given up on the fantasy.

When the Airports Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, it knew it had to say something about climate change. So it came up with an answer that ticked the climate box, but which was hard to take seriously. Its cunning plan was for Heathrow to expand and then for every other UK airport to be prevented from doing the same. Even that wasn’t enough – to meet its climate limits, the UK would still have to leave some of its airport capacity unused. The Commission’s idea for how to do that was an implausible plan to ramp up ticket prices by eye-watering amounts, with the aim of discouraging poorer people from flying.

These were never realistic suggestions and, in its proposed new strategy, the government has given up the pretence that they would happen. Instead, it has set out a plan where “consumers are the focus of the sector and… their expectations continue to be met”. Since the government expects demand “to increase significantly between now and 2050”, its prioritisation of consumers over the climate means it is planning for more airport capacity “beyond the additional runway” – whipping away the justification of Heathrow expansion before the bulldozers are even warmed up.

This is a plan for the UK to miss its climate targets. It would mean aviation expanding well beyond what the government’s climate advisors say is possible within emissions limits. The result would be other sectors having to cut their emissions more than they are already due to, something the advisors say may not be possible. The only hope may be electric planes, but these still seem far off – if they are possible at all – for anything other than the smallest of aircraft.

Public support

Alarmingly, the government might well get away with this inconsistency – because its position is what most people want. A new survey has shown there is little public appetite for restrictions on flying for the sake of the climate.

The poll, part of the respected British Social Attitudes survey, found the UK public are intensely relaxed about the climate costs of flying. Only 35% disagree that people should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they like, even if it harms the environment. That’s a fall from a peak of 49% saying the same in 2008. And, when it comes to their own travel, just 21% say they would be willing to fly less to reduce the impact of climate change.

It’s striking that the survey also found that the highest-ever proportion now understand climate change is real and caused by human activities. So the lack of worries about the impact of flying don’t seem to be a result of doubts about the reality of the problem.

Instead, the survey reflects the fact that most people realise climate change is a threat, but haven’t had to confront what it will take to deal with the problem. This isn’t a surprise when many climate campaigners have focused on the easy and uplifting emission-cutting changes, like the switch to renewable power and efficient appliances, that make our air cleaner or reduce household bills.

Confronting the problem

Those uplifting changes are still necessary and it’s right to inspire people with evidence of how cutting emissions can make their lives better, but we can’t keep putting off the unwelcome conversations. The longer we do so, the harder it will be to win support for the difficult measures that will be needed.

As I argue in my book, The Climate Majority, flying isn’t the only one of these unwelcome issues, but it may be the first that countries like the UK will have to confront. Decisions that the government makes in the next few years could leave the UK with expensive infrastructure that could put the climate target out of reach.

The new aviation strategy reflects the obvious – but previously denied – fact that a new Heathrow runway would make it much harder to limit emissions. Yet public opinion is moving away from being willing to deal with the problem, just when wide support is most needed.

It’s possible that a new runway at Heathrow will be stopped by local protests that have little to do with climate change. But, whatever happens with that strip of tarmac, the UK’s climate target will be in trouble unless more people realise their desire to stop global warming is in conflict with the government’s plans – and the popular wish – for ever more flights.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Extract from The Climate Majority: the 10 people talking about climate change

Posted in Climate Majority on October 20th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by Business Green

Picture a small living room, crowded with 10 people and noisy with bad-tempered argument. As you watch, you realise not everyone is taking part in the argument – in fact less than half of the crowd are talking. One pair, sitting together, is arguing, not with each other, but with another two people, who are firing back retorts to everything the first pair say. And watching the debate, with expressions ranging from bewilderment to boredom, are the remaining six, who so far haven’t said anything (one of them has given up paying attention and is browsing on her phone).

In the debate about climate change those quiet six people in the middle are often forgotten – but they should have our full attention. If they were to join sides with either of the vocal pairs, the new group would have a comfortable majority. Yet it is obvious that the bystanders are not going to be well disposed to the arguing sides so long as the people doing the talking are ignoring them.

While climate deniers furiously denounce what they see as a conspiracy between scientists, the UN, and Al Gore to make us all pay more taxes to a tyrannical world government, the people whose opinions matter most don’t care that much either way. They are not angry at climate scientists, they don’t think climate change is a hoax, they don’t post comments on websites insisting that carbon dioxide is, in fact, good for us. They just don’t think about it very much.

But their climate apathy stops the world talking about what it will take to avoid extreme warming. As long as so many people aren’t particularly bothered about climate change, there is little appetite for conversations about the difficult measures that are needed to deal with it. Instead, mainstream discussions about the issue mostly stick to uncontroversial proclamations that the world must work together to tackle the problem, or they focus only on the easy measures that will never be enough.

We need to have those difficult conversations. To have a good chance of keeping warming to a reasonably safe level, the world needs to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to zero well within a generation. In fact, overall emissions will almost certainly have to be negative – more greenhouse gases will have to be absorbed each year than released. This is a phenomenal challenge and the progress of the past few years in stopping the annual increase in emissions is trivial in comparison.

Meeting that challenge will be impossible without widespread public support. It’s true that some of the measures to cut emissions come at little cost and bring benefits unrelated to climate change. For these, public opinion is unlikely to be an obstacle. But some other measures, like switching entirely to clean electricity, would impose costs on the public, even if those costs would eventually be outweighed by savings and don’t require most people to do much. And a third set of measures presents the greatest challenge. Cutting emissions from activities like flying and meat-eating is likely to put a direct burden on the public and, apart from reducing climate change, will bring few benefits to balance those costs.

As long as apathy about climate change is widespread, these difficult emission-cutting measures will be endlessly delayed. General public agreement that climate change deserves attention means most governments think there is an electoral advantage to being seen to be dealing with it. This helps explain why so many leaders were willing to sign the Paris Agreement – and why those who openly dismiss the threat of climate change are rare.

But signing up to targets is not the same as achieving them. When meeting the targets depends on voters accepting costs in their everyday lives – through higher bills to fund clean energy, increased taxes on more-polluting vehicles or restrictions on flying or meat consumption – politicians will put off the hard decisions. If only a small proportion care passionately about tackling climate change, the cost to politicians of making decisions that eventually lead to missed emissions targets will be less than the cost of the ire they may face from voters who have been forced to accept sacrifices.

So we must understand how we can hasten the demise of climate apathy. My new book sets out some of the answers, focusing on those quiet six people in the living room, who accept that climate change is real and a problem, but don’t pay much attention to it and aren’t yet willing to make sacrifices in the name of cutting emissions. Until climate apathy is overcome, it will be as if the world is driving with the brakes on as it tries to escape the disaster that is rapidly closing in. Turning apathy into support for serious measures to cut emissions would give everyone a much better chance of reaching safety.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Why don’t we just stop climate change?

Posted in Climate Majority on October 17th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This was originally published by Big Issue North

Last year was the hottest on record. The year before had been the hottest on record too – and the one before that as well. This year looks set to be, if not yet another record breaker, at least one of the top two.

This is climate change and we are now living with the effects of those rising temperatures. The devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma was made worse by seas that were hotter because of climate change. Global warming made the 2014 floods in southern England more likely too. The same goes for storms, heatwaves and droughts the world over.

Now that billions of people are suffering the reality of climate change, will the world finally deal with the problem?

The good news is the world has indeed started doing something about it. For the first time in the modern age, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession but because of decisions to cut pollution.

But it’s not good enough that global emissions have stopped increasing – they need to fall fast. In fact, to avoid climate change getting much worse than it is already, the world must eliminate emissions entirely within a generation. If I was in a car racing towards the edge of a cliff I would be glad if the driver stopped accelerating, but I would still be desperate for them to step on the brake.

So far the world has stopped emissions from rising without having to do anything too difficult. Most people are happy about changes that also clean up their polluted air, like closing coal power stations, or rules that make their fridges and washing machines more efficient.

But pressing the brake will be harder. Soon we will have to confront the polluting lifestyles that most people don’t want to give up, particularly flying and eating meat. Emissions from those are growing at a time when the world should be cleaning up.

Unless we deal with flying and meat eating the world’s inhabitants will be condemned to much worse climate change than we face today. Yet it would be a brave politician who suggested that voters should cut back on the things they enjoy. So the world keeps racing towards the cliff edge.

This will only change if politicians believe the public are ready to make sacrifices to stop extreme climate change. But at the moment, most people aren’t. Millions of people in the UK, in fact, the majority of people, recognise that climate change is an immense problem – but they don’t think about it much. They want the threat to be dealt with, but they don’t see it as an issue that affects them or one they need to change their lives to address.

There is a way to fix this. The answer lies with the people who realise what extreme climate change would be like, and are ready to cut their own emissions. For now those people are in a minority, but if they persuaded their friends and family that it’s worth making the effort to stop climate change getting even worse, the balance would swing.

Those of us who are worried about global warming have both scientific evidence and the power of stories on our side. Neither facts nor emotion alone are enough – we need to get better at using both if we are to change the minds of the millions who are apathetic about climate change. Until we do, we will just be fiddling while the world burns.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Sustainababble podcast – interview about The Climate Majority

Posted in Climate Majority on October 14th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I was interviewed about my book for the Sustainababble podcast recently. You can listen to the result here (and see them calling me a mega brain, which is nice).

It was a good conversation – they asked interesting and difficult questions, including about possible objections to my argument. Probably most relevant to people thinking about climate change campaigning or who work in the field.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Stop worrying about climate deniers – we won’t escape extreme warming unless we deal with climate apathy

Posted in Climate Majority on September 30th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Climate Majority is out now. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Desmog.

We should stop talking so much about climate denial. That might seem a surprising message from the author of a book on public opinion about climate change, but I’m convinced it’s the right answer for those of us who want more action to cut emissions.

Look at the news and climate denial seems to be everywhere. It’s common in the media, as Newsweek readers and UK radio listeners have recently been reminded, while its grip on the White House seems stronger than ever.

But among the public, denial is quite rare. As I show in my book, The Climate Majority, in comparison with the proportion that think climate change won’t be a threat, Americans are more likely to think 9/11 was a US government plot, more Brits think Princess Diana was assassinated, not killed accidentally, and Canadians are more likely to say Bigfoot is real. Those are fringe conspiracy theories, and it’s right they’re treated as such.

Climate Apathy

And yet we still get distracted by climate denial, when our real target should be climate apathy. Many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. If that apathy isn’t tackled, the world will face dangerous warming.

As the world looks at the emissions it needs to cut, some parts of the job are easier than others. Most progress so far has come from closing and cancelling coal power plants. Doing that hasn’t really had to draw on public support. It’s distant from most people’s lives and is the kind of thing that governments – or markets – can do without paying all that much attention to what the public think.

But it won’t be long before the world exhausts easier changes like that. When that happens the remaining emissions cuts will have to come from activities that directly affect many people’s day-to-day lives. Two of the most challenging are flying and eating meat. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

In areas like these, public opinion will be crucial, yet it’s unlikely that widespread support would be forthcoming so long as so many people are apathetic. The Climate Majority looks at the causes of apathy and what can overcome it.

Explaining Apathy

Human psychology is part of the explanation. Several factors make climate change poorly suited to capturing most people’s attention – like the physical distance and time lag between activity, emissions and effect, and the slowness and complexity of the process.

That might make climate apathy seem inevitable, but I don’t believe it is. The ways that climate change is often talked about reinforce apathy, ignoring the lessons from studies of psychology and political campaigning. This includes the failure to show most people – particularly those in rich and high-emitting countries – what extreme climate change would mean for their own lives, and the reliance on abstract small numbers that are not well understood (for example, on average, the UKpublic think the threshold for dangerous warming is 8°C/14°F rather than 1.5°C-2°C).

On top of this there’s the political polarisation of climate change. It’s widely seen as an issue that concerns liberals more than moderates and conservatives, particularly in the US. This puts off those who don’t identify with the left and so they don’t see climate change as something that people like themselves are interested in.

There are no magic words that will make everyone care about climate change but, as I outline in the book, there are ways of dealing with these causes of apathy. We can get much better at showing how the consequences of extreme warming would affect the people we’re talking to, and we can address the perception that it’s solely an issue of the left.

Bring on the Controversies

But what of the deniers? While they’re not the focus of the book we can’t just ignore them, nor should we deny the success they’ve had in delaying action. Their goal is to cast doubt on the reality of climate change to slow action and, while they’re now losing, they haven’t given up.

Part of the answer is to keep pulling off the veil to show what’s really going on – exposing the money trails, hypocrisy and vested interests, so fossil fuel-funded lobbyists can’t keep influencing decisions from the shadows.

But another part of the answer is to show that the climate deniers are far less interesting than they seem. They get media coverage because they provide controversy for stories about climate change, but they’ve only got one argument to make. There are many other interesting and contentious issues about how we deal with climate change, about which the deniers have nothing to say – for example, on questions about how the burden of cutting emissions should be shared.

If we want to win over the apathetic, we should bring on these controversies, not shy away from them. Resolving the emission-cutting challenges to come can only be done in plain sight – it’s time we started embracing that.

 

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Why public opinion about climate change is important

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on September 20th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Climate Majority is published tomorrow. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Birkbeck.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

 

Extract from The Climate Majority – why climate apathy matters

Posted in Climate Majority on September 19th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Business Green have published an exclusive extract from my book. You can read it here.

And, if you like the sound of it, you can buy the book here.