Climate Majority

Newsweek’s climate change hypocrisy

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 11th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist

On the magazine’s cover is a heart-shaped drop of lush forests fringed with yellow sand that meets a sea so turquoise you can imagine spotting turtles and technicolour fish from space – or relaxing with a cocktail before slipping into the warm sea.

But Newsweek wants you to know that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Its special issue, now in the shops, warns that climate change threatens this island paradise, along with 99 other equally magnificent places.

It may seem admirable that a mass-market global magazine has dedicated a photo book to showing what climate change will mean for some of the world’s most beautiful places. As it says: ‘if climate change continues unchecked, many of the world’s wonders are in danger.’ But there’s a catch.

At the same time as declaring its concern about climate change, Newsweek encourages its readers to cook the planet. The magazine doesn’t just document the threatened wonders so readers can learn about them from a distance – it also describes its special edition as a ‘travel guide’.

The issue has been published before and Newsweek was previously more restrained in its promotion of air travel. In 2010 readers were encouraged only to ‘remember’ the threatened places before they disappear. But by 2014 – and again now – it suggested readers should ‘explore’ them.

In the fight to stop extreme climate change, flying is like a steadily growing tumour. For now, international flights only produce around 2 per cent of carbon emissions, but that’s set to change. While nearly every other sector is making plans to slash emissions, airlines are preparing to release more and more greenhouse gases. By 2050, flying could have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget – and its share will only increase as the world tries to cut emissions further.

So it’s naivety at best, hypocrisy at worst, for Newsweek to draw on its readers’ love of long-haul holidays to sell a magazine that laments the impact of climate change. But it would be unfair to single out Newsweek – this is a problem with almost all mainstream conversations about the issue.

Most mainstream politicians and media organizations no longer deny the reality of climate change. Yet on the question of what the world needs to do to deal with the threat there is almost complete silence. This is particularly the case when it comes to anything that might require sacrifices, like flying and eating meat. Who, outside the green movement, is prepared to admit that tackling climate change will be difficult?

And so we find ourselves in the bizarre position where a magazine can show off its virtue by encouraging its readers to fly to a drowning island.


‘Issue for the left’: how climate change can shake this tab

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 8th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This was originally published on Climate Home.

A new poll shows the view that climate change is mostly a left-wing concern is prevalent and problematic. It’s time to change the conversation.

“Climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left.” From some people that might have been a celebration of how progressives have united in the face of global warming. But US vice-president Mike Pence didn’t mean it as a compliment. For him, linking climate change and the left was a way of delaying action.

The idea that climate change is a left-wing plot should be easy to refute. Concern about rising emissions are visibly not restricted to anti-capitalists. This year alone, warnings about climate change have come from members of the not-left-wing community that include Walmart, US secretary of defence James Mattis, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

But Pence wasn’t shooting in the dark. A new opinion poll shows he was tapping into a widespread belief that people on the left are more worried about climate change. The poll, conducted by the research agency PSB for my book, The Climate Majority, and reported here for the first time, reflects a problem that could stop the world doing what’s needed to avoid dangerous warming.

The survey asked people in the US which type of person is most likely to be worried about various issues. Across the range, climate was the issue most identified with liberals, more than both inequality and housing. Respondents were more than twice as likely to say that liberals are most worried about climate change than that a person’s political views don’t make a difference. It was seen as the most partisan of all the issues tested: the perceived liberal skew of climate change was greater than the perceived conservative skew of immigration, national debt and defence.

This is a problem for efforts to avoid dangerous warming. As long as climate change is thought of as a partisan battleground, it will be hard to persuade enough people that it is a serious threat.

Mike Pence knows this. He was following the strategy that Republicans have used for more than 20 years, of casting doubt on the motives of people who warn about climate change. His immediate audience may be conservatives, but the people who really matter are those in the centre. His aim is to persuade them that climate change is a matter of debate between entrenched partisans, with the truth somewhere in the middle.

The delaying strategy has worked quite well so far. The difficulties of passing a climate deal through the US Congress delayed the arrival of an ambitious international climate deal for years. And while the US has cut its emissions recently – by around 9% in a decade – it started doing so later than many other rich countries and its emissions are still around their mid-1990s level.

But while polarisation has already slowed action, the greatest problems are still ahead. Past emission cuts have mostly come from relatively easy areas like improving efficiency and switching from coal to gas. Eventually these will be exhausted and further emissions cuts will have to come from areas closer to most people’s day-to-day lives like food and transport.

So long as climate change is seen to belong to the left many people will be tempted to think the threat is exaggerated and that such changes can’t really be necessary. In that case, how can the polarisation be ended?

First we should emphasise that worries about climate change aren’t in fact restricted to the left, whatever the perception might be. Respondents in the opinion poll were asked how they themselves see each issue, as well as how they think other people see them. And while liberals were indeed the most likely to be worried about climate change – 82% said they were – moderates were also widely concerned, with 73% saying they were worried about it.

So the challenge isn’t to persuade moderates to worry about climate change: they already do. Instead, the task is to stop them thinking that climate change worries people on the left more than it worries other people. That isn’t going to be achieved with more trench warfare between left and right – that only increases the appearance of partisanship.

Instead, we should change the subject. The question of how the world could deal with climate change is full of controversial possibilities, yet most of these controversies are ignored. Among these ignored debates are: whether the best way to reduce polluting activities like flying is to put up the price, meaning only richer people do them; whether communities should have the right to veto cheap renewable energy projects; whether land should be used to grow energy crops at the risk of increasing food prices; and whether the government has a duty to protect all communities from rising sea levels.

What these many controversies have in common is that they provide conflict about climate change without depending on disagreements about whether global warming is real or on only using voices from the left. The debates would show that people from across the political spectrum consider climate change a serious threat, while being contentious enough to interest non-specialists.

The beauty of this approach is it makes it impossible for Mike Pence and his colleagues to maintain their pretence that climate change is a left-wing issue. Instead of talking about whether the world should deal with the problem, the debate moves on to what it should do about it. People whose only argument is that climate change is a left-wing interest would have nothing to say on the debate. Either they engage with the new controversies or they become irrelevant.

Mike Pence and his allies are slowly losing the fight on climate change. Many of them have already had to abandon the claim that climate change is a hoax. But the issue is still seen as a left-right battleground, which persuades many in the centre that it matters much less than it does. A slow victory isn’t enough if the world is to cut emissions quickly enough to prevent disastrous warming. If we are to speed up action, we should try changing the subject.

New poll: climate change is seen as the most left-wing issue – full results

Posted in Climate Majority on July 31st, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

While researching for The Climate Majority I ran a poll with PSB to look at:

  1. Which issues are seen as being concerns of left- or right-wing people
  2. Whether that perception matches the reality

This post sets out the results of the poll. I also have a comment piece today in Climate Home, which discusses its findings.

We conducted two separate polls, in the UK and the US. The questions were essentially the same, except for small differences in language. Full data is available here.

The poll was based around eight of the most high-profile public policy issues. For each issue we asked:

  1. Regardless of your own political views, what kind of person do you think is generally most worried about the following issues?
  2. How worried are you personally about each of the following issues?

In both countries, climate change is one of the issues that worries the most people. Healthcare is comfortably top (the polls were conducted in November-December 2016, so before the latest US healthcare debates but also before Trump increased attention to climate change) but climate is in the next group, along with immigration and crime. It’s a bit higher in the list if we look only at how many people are very worried, but not much lower if we also look at those who are somewhat worried. Either way it sits along issues that are usually considered of national importance.

Focusing now on the US:

Climate change is widely seen as an interest of liberals in the US. Along with inequality, it stands out as being perceived as the issue about which concern is most restricted to liberals. It is also seen as the one with the greatest partisan skew: 46% think liberals are the people most worried about climate change, compared with 41% thinking conservatives are the people most worried about immigration.

Now onto the reality of who actually is worried about each of these issues.

It’s true that climate change (along with inequality) worries liberals more than other people. That’s particularly the case if we look at who’s very worried about each issue – though less if we look at who’s also somewhat worried about each. In terms of the gap between liberals and other groups, climate change is the most skewed… but there’s a crucial caveat to that:

Despite the skew, more moderates are very worried about climate change than are very worried about most other issues. Even if we also look at somewhat worried, it’s still a top concern of moderates – not just of liberals.

So, a reason the skew looks so big is because conservatives are mostly unworried about it. Liberals are more worried about the issues that are heavily associated with conservatives (defense, immigration and national debt) than conservatives are about supposedly liberal issues like climate change. This is arguably more a story about conservatives being notably uninterested in climate change than liberals being unusually interested.

So in the US, climate change is seen as a liberal issue but it’s actually one that liberals and moderates are widely worried about. It’s only conservatives who are generally not worried.

And now looking at the UK:

The most striking result is that polarisation in the UK is much less than in the US. While climate change is often seen as a left-wing issue and immigration as a right-wing issue (and so on) most issues are mostly seen as having no political skew. That is, in most cases a plurality think that people’s political views make no difference to whether they are worried about the issue.

And finally, on what people in the UK actually think about the issues, we’ve got a similar picture to the US, but one that’s less dramatic. Climate change is quite polarised, although a bit less than inequality is and less than climate change is in the US…

… but one reason it’s less polarised in the UK is that left-wing British people are less worried about climate change than US liberals (this isn’t because the poll defined US liberals more narrowly than the UK left – in fact it took 28% in the US as liberals and 18% in the UK as left-wing). Conservatives / right-wing people are similarly relaxed about climate change in both countries. The polarisation seems to be less in the UK because the British left are, generally, somewhat less worried rather than because the US right are so opposed to dealing with it (although that ignores a separate point that the US right includes people who are much more vituperative in their opposition to dealing with climate change than most of the UK right are).

My book, The Climate Majority, looks at the consequences of climate change being seen as a left-wing concern – how that limits action to cut emissions, and how those of us worried about the problem can overcome the polarisation.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism

Posted in Climate Majority on July 29th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

I’m really pleased to be able to announce that I have a book coming out.

It’s about how public opinion limits action on climate change and what can be done to overcome climate apathy.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism will be published by New Internationalist on 21 September. You will be able to buy it directly from the publisher, from Amazon or of course from your local bookshop.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

“The Climate Majority” is not about the climate deniers or the climate activists. It’s about apathy, about those who don’t talk about global warming – the billions of people who have heard plenty about climate change and acknowledge there’s a problem, but who are just not engaged enough to stimulate the change required to stop it. 

This is the first book to investigate climate apathy, to describe how it prevents action to stop climate change and to show how it can be beaten with an approach developed for political campaigns. Drawing on opinion polls, psychological research and examples of successful campaigns from across the globe the author asks ‘Who are the ‘swing’ voters?’ ‘What do they think and why?’ and ‘How can we talk about climate change in a way that will provoke action?’  

Preventing extreme climate change is one of the hardest tasks humans have ever faced. Rising nationalism and the US plan to withdraw from the Paris agreement are blows to progress. But only by influencing those who have, so far, remained outside the debate will we have a chance of building a climate majority to back the measures required to avoid disaster.  

It’s the product of more than two years of intensive researching and writing – but also of the many more years I’ve been running this site (including Climate Sock before it). I’m immensely grateful to everyone who’s read and commented on the site over the years and those who have told me they’ve found my writing to be useful. Without that feedback it’s unlikely that I would have persevered.