Climate Majority

Climate change in the election and where the Lib Dems have gone wrong

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Politics on December 4th, 2019 by Leo – 1 Comment

About 10 years ago I was part of one of the most forgettable election campaigns of all time. A group of us targeted a bunch of swing constituencies aiming to get climate change on the local agenda. It wasn’t exactly a triumph.

Our efforts can definitively now be buried for good. Climate change has never been so high up the list of voters’ priorities: in the latest YouGov poll the environment is the joint third-highest issue the public say is facing the country. An Ipsos Mori question on which issues voters said would determine their vote also found climate and the environment was the fifth-top priority (in both it’s joint with the economy).

The surge in concern has opened new electoral battlegrounds but it’s not self-evident how they’re playing out. Two possible routes stand out.

Toxifying the Tories

One way climate change could play in voting decisions is for it to toxify the Tories. This is like what happened in 2017, when pro-Labour websites did a remarkably successful job of building the salience of previously obscure stories attacking the Tories on environmental issues, like their failure to pledge a ban on sales of ivory products.

But even last election there wasn’t much on climate change. In fact, the Tories have largely avoided being punished on climate change at elections. They probably have David Cameron to thank for that: his husky-hugging trip to the Arctic in 2006 and support for the Climate Change Bill meant, to casual viewers, there wasn’t much distinction between the major parties.

But since 2017 a lot of people have stopped viewing climate change just casually. The Tories can point to having strengthened the UK’s climate target, from an 80% cut to net-zero by 2050 (which means they’ve already enacted a law that’s stronger than Labour pledged in their 2017 manifesto) but there is plenty of space to criticise their record in delivering policies to meet the target, as Labour have already been doing.

Since the people most worried about climate change are more likely to be Remainers and 2017 Labour or Lib Dem voters – ie not the people Johnson is aiming for – the significance of any toxification of the Tories might be to squeeze Lib Dem votes. If the Tories look sufficiently unpalatable on climate, Labour can argue in Labour-Tory contests that a vote for the Lib Dems is too much of a risk.

Competing for climate voters

Is there any hope for the Lib Dems? Possibly, but they would need to start talking about climate change differently.

Rather than just being repelled by bad policies, voters could also be attracted to vote for parties with strong climate policies. If the voters care enough, the party with the strongest pledges should benefit – implying a race between Labour and the Lib Dems for more ambitious climate policy. This seems like the logic behind the various pledges to plant many trees to help absorb carbon.

But I’m not persuaded that this is actually happening very much. Labour and the Lib Dems might have the most ambitious climate policies they’ve ever had, but they’re not using them to fight each other. 

Looking at the Facebook ad library – which records political ads – none of the parties have spent more than a few hundred pounds on climate ads (to put that in context, the three main parties have between them spent a bit over £400k on Facebook in the last week). Same goes, as far as I can see for surrogate accounts like Labour Future. The climate debate on Channel 4 was also pretty consensual, without much effort between the parties to criticise one another’s policy.

Maybe this isn’t surprising when Labour and the Lib Dems have moved so far in so little time. They’ve perhaps caught themselves by surprise at where they are now. But it means that climate change still hasn’t become normal politics, in the way that Labour and the Lib Dems are happy to argue about Brexit, despite having pretty similar policies.

This is probably fine for Labour because it means the main distinction is with the Tories (though I’m still surprised they’re not doing more to attack the Tories on the climate). But it’s a problem for the Lib Dems. So long as the contrast is between the Tories and all the other parties, Labour can put the fear of Johnson into their want-away Remainers.

It may be too late for this election, but for the Lib Dems to benefit from the surge in concern about climate, they need to show how they would be better at halting the crisis than Labour would be. The argument the Lib Dems need is probably that only they have credible, deliverable policies that are appropriate to the challenge. Maybe also a hint that they would insist on the Tories being better on the climate in any coalition negotiations.

In short, the Lib Dems need to persuade 2017 Labour-voting Remainers (and some Lib Dems too) that, on climate change, it’s not just a question of the Tories versus the others. Until they do, the growing alarm about the climate crisis will mostly help Labour, and not them.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

Extinction Rebellion has won the first battle – now it must win the war

Posted in Climate Majority, Extinction Rebellion on October 30th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Extinction Rebellion has won the first battle – now it must win the war

Extinction Rebellion seems to have cracked using protests to transform public debate. But as it starts another major rebellion this week, it might find the challenge ahead is even greater.

Extinction Rebellion’s April protests were an enormous success. Together with the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and the school climate strikes, they created a surge in public concern about the environment. The climate emergency is now established in the top five most important issues facing the UK today, at around the same level as the economy. Since the April protests, the government has legislated for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and Labour is moving towards a much more ambitious target.

This article was published on the Guardian To continue reading for free, click here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

Polls reveal surge in concern in UK about climate change

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 10th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Polls reveal surge in concern in UK about climate change

Climate change has been unusually prominent in the UK media over recent weeks – and this is mirrored by a noticeable increase in climate “concern” in the polls.

From 15-25 April, climate change was high on the news agenda in response to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, a major BBC documentary presented by Sir David Attenborough and the visit to London by the Swedish school climate protestor Greta Thunberg.

Data presented by Carbon Brief and the University of Colorado both found that the media mentioned “climate change” more in April than it did in almost any previous month.

Several research agencies have conducted opinion polls of the UK public since the protests started and have now published their results. This means we can see what effect the events of April, and the resulting media coverage, has had on public opinion.

This article was published on Carbon Brief. To continue reading for free, click here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

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.

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)

Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on October 5th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

This article was published in the Guardian – intro below and you can read the full text here.

Three years after world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement, we’re about to better understand what that deal means for how we live our lives. On Monday, a major report from the UN’s climate science panel will set out what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5C, the key Paris target.

There are reasons to think the world is, finally, getting to grips with climate change. Carbon emissions are still rising but more slowly than before, and in many countries they’re falling. The UK has slashed its emissions to 19th-century levels, and we’re not alone – plenty of other countries, including the US, are making progress as well. Crucially, that’s happened without many people noticing, suggesting the world might be able to deal with the problem without having to persuade the public to change their polluting lifestyles.

But this is wishful thinking. Continue reading…


Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 12th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

This was originally published by The Ecologist.

11 years ago the EU introduced wide-ranging rules regulating the manufacture and supply of chemicals. The rules imposed significant costs on businesses and, it’s hoped, will save many lives. But they were passed with little media coverage and have become a fact of life with few people being aware of their existence.

Given it’s been possible to restrict businesses and address a threat to public health without public debate when it comes to chemicals, could the world do the same with climate change? If that threat can also be tackled with rules that few people hear about, perhaps public opinion doesn’t matter.

Day-to-day life

Sadly for technocrats, this is unlikely. The challenge ahead, to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and stop warming crossing dangerous thresholds, is enormous. Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution; the world will need to reverse that rise, cutting emissions at an unprecedented rate until humans stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere within the next few decades.

That means not only cleaning up industrial sectors that are distant from most people’s lives, like electricity, chemicals and shipping (whose obscurity is reflected in the fact its crucial climate conference, happening this week, is getting almost no mainstream media coverage), it also means cutting emissions from most people’s day-to-day lives, like the ways we travel and the food we eat. Without cutting emissions from sectors like agriculture and aviation, the world won’t stop dangerous warming. It’s unlikely to be possible to clean up these sectors without most people noticing and agreeing to the changes.

So public support for tackling climate change will be essential, yet it’s far from assured. The problem isn’t climate denial: few people think the whole thing is a hoax, even in the countries where denial is loudest. A majority of the public accept climate science and believe it’s a threat that needs to be tackled. The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with it – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions. Preventing dangerous warming may depend on public enthusiasm, but at the moment apathy is far more widespread.

This isn’t just a problem for the future – it matters right now. Take the UK: its emissions are falling fast but this progress has come without confronting the emission sources that would be less popular to cut. Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow would make the UK’s climate targets much harder to achieve, yet few politicians are prepared to acknowledge that cutting emissions probably means restricting flying. Similarly, the EU’s backing for TAP, a new pipeline that would bring huge volumes of Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, suggests the bloc is also taking decisions now that will make it much more difficult to cut emissions in the next few decades.

Distant threat

If most people are worried about climate change, why does this kind of polluting infrastructure keep getting built, and why is there so little pressure for the measures that will be needed to prevent dangerous warming?

Psychologists have identified a host of reasons most people avoid thinking about climate change. Among these are the way the problem seems distant – its impacts are mostly in other places, it will mostly happen in the future – and progresses slowly, and the fact it requires sacrifices now to avert problems later. The barriers the mind puts up to avoid worrying about climate change might make the problem seem hopeless: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes himself as “deeply pessimistic” about it.

But we must avoid confusing the inherent nature of climate change with the way it’s widely described and understood. For example, the fact the threat seems distant has more to do with the way its effects are described, notably the emphasis on ecosystems like the Arctic. The consequences for polar bears aren’t enough to motivate most people, and now climate change is hitting the people whose emissions need to fall – with storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012 made more likely by climate change – it’s no longer necessary to talk about it as a distant threat.

The same applies to the idea that climate change requires sacrifices for future benefits. It may well do, and, if that’s all that most people hear about it, there’s unlikely to be widespread enthusiasm. But there are plenty of ways in which tackling climate change can bring benefits beyond averting future problems, from cleaner air and new jobs, to better insulated homes and, perhaps, communities that jointly own wind farms and solar panels.

This is a matter of choice. Climate apathy could spell disaster for efforts to prevent dangerous warming but it isn’t inevitable. The fact it is so widespread is a result of various ways climate change has been, and continues to be, described. That can change. It will take a widespread shift in how the issue is talked about, but it’s still possible to turn apathy into action.

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


UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 26th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Worries about climate change have been slowly increasing in the UK for the last few years. This has continued in 2018, with the latest wave of the BEIS (previously DECC) climate and energy poll, out today, showing concern is at its highest level since the series began with 2012.

I’ve combined this with earlier polls that have asked the same question, going back to 2005, making the longest-running comparable series of data that I’m aware of on UK concern about climate change. (See here for links to the earlier polls.)

27% are now very concerned about climate change and 47% somewhat concerned, making a total of 74%. That’s the highest since 2010, if we look at the proportion who are very concerned, or equals the 2012 level if we look at total concern. On either measure it’s still behind the levels in 2005 and 2008.

July 2018 update: see here for why the 2005 poll may not be comparable.


This mirrors the trend of rising concern about climate change that we’ve generally seen in the US and Australia.

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


Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 23rd, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

I’m on this week’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, hosted by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, talking about what people think about climate change and what could influence public opinion.

The other guests were stellar: Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Agreement), Kim Holmen (head of the Norwegian Polar Institute) and Joss Garman (climate activist and policy thinker).

You can listen here.

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