Why no climate culture war in the UK?
And how can campaigners avoid one?
The last few months have seen a spate of interventions from right-leaning newspapers and MPs seeking to block action on climate change.
The strategy is fairly clear from their language: to position climate policy as a costly burden, one inflicted by “policy making elites” perched in metropolitan citadels upon an unsuspecting public-at-large. A new front in the UK’s ‘culture war’ following Brexit.
In the run up to COP especially, this is unsettling the climate sector. Since many within it come from progressive backgrounds, they are conditioned by bitter experience to think of the forces rallied against them as evil geniuses destined for victory.
What’s interesting, though, is that on this, they are not.
As it stands, attitudes to climate change in the UK are not really polarised at all – and there’s little sign of that changing anytime soon.
This is a very different picture to the US or even Australia. It’s worth examining why, not least because it might tell us something about how opinion can be further inoculated from bitterness and division in fights to come.
What is a ‘culture war issue?’
To briefly define terms since ‘culture war’ gets thrown around a lot, sometimes erroneously.
What I mean by a ‘culture war issue’ is an issue which polarises public opinion along cultural axes – i.e culturally conservative values vs liberal – rather than economic or some other. In standard UK polling cross-breaks, this typically shows up in differing attitudes across age and education. Brexit is a classic example, as are attitudes to the death penalty, say. Attitudes to Meghan Markle are going that way.
These typically become more polarising when highly engaged elites on either side bait each other in ways that keep the issue on the media agenda*.
Evidence from the UK
As we can see, none of this really applies to the UK climate scene right now.
Voters of all stripes increasingly prioritise climate - it recently reached No 2 in Ipsos’ polling of public concerns, above the economy - and back government action. There is some asymmetry in issue salience (prioritisation) on educational lines, which is a potential vulnerability, but not much.
In fact, on these numbers at least, older voters are more likely to mention climate as a top 3 issue (perhaps because Ipsos ask open-ended rather than prompting).
Polling in the midst of climate sceptics ‘cost of net zero’ PR blitz also showed them getting trounced on home turf.
Why we’re not polarised: 5 possible explanations and what can we learn from them
For my money, there’s five factors here, two policy and three more political. To start with the former:
1. Britain is no longer a ‘fossil fuel power’. Compared to the US, Australia or even Germany, the UK has far fewer oil, coal or gas jobs in electorally important parts of the country. Bluntly speaking, fewer voters have large amounts of financial ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to the clean energy transition. Boris Johnson got in trouble for how crudely he drew attention to this, but it remains true that an inadvertent part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is to smooth out the politics of climate a bit. Even if an accident of fate, it’s an advantage that won’t change anytime soon.
2. Diffuse costs. It’s not accurate to say that the substance of climate policy hasn’t kicked in yet. For instance, as Joss Garman writes, the UK is undergoing a remarkable transformation in electricity generation. But it is true that any costs associated with such policies have been relatively modest, and as importantly, difficult to spot or trace back. Mostly because they’re baked into bigger more messier price tags that fluctuate regularly (e.g. the cost of buying a house, an electricity bill, energy wholesale prices), rather than stand-alone. That’s rendered the argument about costs much more abstract, reducing the scope for backlash.
It’s obviously important the government try and continue this, and, to appropriate Obama, “don’t do stupid shit”. That is: ensure that where costs are unavoidable, they’re broad based rather than easy to paint as a targeted assault on voters who live outside of cities. Meat eating and cars (in areas where there’s no decent public transport) fairly regularly come out of focus groups as vulnerabilities here.
All of which is challenging to square with net zero targets, but by no means impossible. As the Tony Blair Institute outline, the scope of lifestyle change required is often over-stated. Short-term subsidy (e.g. on heat pumps, EVs) to reduce costs also lessens the pain significantly. This comes with a price tag, of course, but is more an argument about political prioritisation than possibility.
3. The Conservative Party, or ‘elite cues’. The Conservative party is not the Republican party and that matters. As we saw with the recent reversal in support of the NI rise, partisan cues are important. When voters see politicians from parties they like or dislike take a position, it can shift them.
But there’s always been a large constituency of elite Conservative opinion that cares about the environment and climate change action. The likes of Carrie Symonds, Ben Houchen, Simon Clarke, among others. This has two important effects: it prevents a situation where the only people on the airwaves promoting pro-climate messages are left-wing, and it means some element of peer group pressure among moderates tempted to break ranks.
The prescription for us as a sector here is fairly clear: find and build relationships with these elites and their organisations (e.g. CEN, Onward) and hold them tight. Listen to them, work with them. Do anything for them that they think will further their cause within the party.
4. Trusted messengers. People are not sick of all experts all of the time. And climate has messengers that voters overwhelmingly trust, notably scientists and naturalists. David Attenborough is probably the most trusted man in the country. Greta Thunberg is also not yet as polarising as you might think. Boring but clever sounding scientists dominate major news bulletins on climate.
If there is one weakness here it’s probably the over-reliance on Attenborough, who is 95. A good thing to do would be to try and ‘platform’ the next generation of naturalists in particular. Interestingly, Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan have quite high levels of trust, presumably because they have decent profile and, like Attenborough, they are seen as less partisan.
5. Greater real world impact of climate change! I’ll end with the most obvious but the most important factor. In the last few years, the impacts of climate change have stopped being an abstract debate and become real. Floods, fires, heat waves and other extreme weather events have all become more common across the world. People are not stupid: they can see this and attribute it to climate change, it worries them. As below, the swing in public concern since 2016 has been extraordinary.
This higher level of concern is very likely what is driving higher issue salience, which in turn drives higher level of policy support, opening up political space and competition. Indeed, when you run regressions one of the best predictors of someone supporting any climate policy is if they choose climate as a top 3 issue.
This dynamic is steadier in a political environment where climate is already less partisan, but it’s even happened to some degree in the US too.
This may seem obvious, but I think it’s a dynamic that isn’t very well absorbed by us as campaigners sometimes.
If issue salience is a tide that lifts all policy boats, and climate impacts drive salience, the best course of action is straight-forward: continue to amplify the real-world impacts of climate change. Alarmism works when there’s a lot to be alarmed about.
The messages which consistently perform best in UK message-testing all concern impacts, not solutions: extreme weather; the impacts on the next generation; the impact of climate change on nature. Narratives about jobs and economic transformation are useful for elites, but they perform comparatively less well with the public because they’re too abstract.
One of the most useful things that could therefore be done is a properly resourced, pro-active campaign – with paid and unpaid media – to consistently bang the drum around the impacts of climate change in imaginative and creative ways, to continue to drive up its salience, while showing that it’s not too late to be fixed.
This is the single best way to continue to inoculate opinion from polarisation and solidify support for solutions (obviously it’s not a blank cheque, but it helps). We shouldn’t assume that world events alone will do this for us; much else competes for people’s attention.
More than that: we should do the basic job of connecting a problem people now understand (climate) to things they don’t, like boilers.
One of the reasons No. 10 is boxed in by climate sceptics’ opposition to electric heat pumps is so few in the public or media understand the basic fact that ‘gas boilers cause climate change, and that is bad’.
This vacuum exists because nobody has done this basic outriding. This should be the job of NGOs as much as analysis and spending demands.
There’s many reasons this doesn’t happen. Many NGOs aren’t properly configured to do that sort of campaigning, unlike in the US. Some of it is political calculation, a little the influence of over-complicated comms theories. Some of it because ‘awareness raising’ is seen as dichotomous with building support for policy, rather than mutually reinforcing.
But a healthy chunk is because this sort of campaigning – talking about the problem in broad ways – tends to bore us a bit.
We much prefer policy specific campaigns. We much prefer talking about the Green New Deal or global climate justice, or emphasise the wonderful opportunities of climate change. So do our donors. Because talking relentlessly about the problem bores or depresses us, we assume it bores or depresses swing voters, but it doesn’t – because they think and hear about climate much less than we do.
This, then, is our real vulnerability as the fight over climate policy heats up: that our higher levels of engagement lead us to strategies and messages that aren’t the most efficient for keeping support for climate action high and pushing it even higher.
All of which is not to be too down-beat. A huge amount of brilliant work has gone into pushing climate up the public and political agenda by some amazing people. It’s simply that if we don’t want to squander this inheritance in the battles to come, we need to properly learn from it. If we do, climate culture warriors will be picking a fight they can’t win.
*For more general advice on avoiding certain culture war traps, this by the excellent Kirsty McNeil and Roger Harding is worth a read.