How we talk about climate change

At a dinner on UK climate policy last night, there were – as always – several people around the table lamenting the fact that in generally messing up on how they communicate climate change to  a sceptical public, policymakers have in particular failed to make more of the ‘green collar jobs’ argument.  Climate change shouldn’t just be presented as a problem, the argument goes; doing that just makes people feel depressed.  No, we should present it as a huge opportunity: this, after all, is Britain’s chance to make money from the jobs of the future.

I must admit, I always think there’s something a bit disingenuous about these arguments. True, some countries will do very well out of particular export sectors that emerge from the need to reduce emissions: think of the Danes and offshore wind, for instance. But all countries are talking about green new deals etc., and logically, not all of them are going to win prizes (a point particularly germane in the UK, you might think, given we’re 25th out of 27 EU member states on renewable energy; only Malta and Luxembourg perform worse).

For most countries, the realistic best case scenario is that some new jobs will be created, while some old ones will be lost. True, Britain has a small fuel cells sector that might yet go places. But if you work in aviation or steel or cement or road haulage or coal mining or any of the other sectors with a less-than-rosy future in a low carbon world, you might worry about whether your kids should follow you into the same line of work. Just to focus on the jobs being created might make you feel good, but it’s hardly the whole picture. And this is before we even consider what happens to employment if – as you might reasonably suspect – the medium to long term effect of climate change is that we all have to (gasp!) consume a bit less.

So if you’re convinced that the only way to get people to take action on climate change is to persuade them that there will be vast benefits, then it’s unclear to me that green jobs is the best place to pitch your tent.  I think instead you need to show people the money: not just the few thousand of them who get green collar jobs, but all of them, through some mechanism such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, or a system of domestic tradable quotas (i.e. personal level emissions trading).

But I have to say, I’m not convinced that the ‘climate change is a huge opportunity’ argument has any clothes anyway.  The blockage we’re up against here is laziness, inertia and inconvenience on a large scale.  Reducing emissions is a big hassle. We know this, because even though study after study shows that it’s essentially cheaper than free for people to insulate their lofts, they still don’t.

But we’re not just talking insulating lofts. We’re talking about changing the entire energy system – how you heat your home, how you get to work, how your power is generated, how it’s distributed from there to you. It’s like the hassle involved with changing your bank, times a hundred and forty seven.  If someone told you that the quid pro quo for incurring that much hassle was the creation of 12,000 new engineering jobs in the north-east of England, you would look at them and say, “So?” 

The “opportunity” argument just doesn’t stack up against the tedious, time-consuming, expensive, unglamorous reality that will be the transition to a low carbon economy – and I think we’re doing ourselves no favours in sticking with it.

I think we need to look seriously at the last time Brits were persuaded to take on this much hassle – namely rationing, during and after World War Two – and ask how they were won over. It wasn’t about opportunity. The arguments that got them to put up with it were not about how much healthier they’d be on their new diets (true though this was). Instead, they were persuaded by a story about personal sacrifice that would make them part of a heroic shared undertaking in the face of an existential threat

And even then, they moaned like hell.

Our problem now is that Brits, like other OECD consumers, don’t perceive an existential threat – just as their grandparents probably didn’t either (‘Phoney War’, anyone?) until they saw enemy planes overhead and the incendiaries started to fall.

So the default setting is that we’re also stuck waiting for incendiaries to fall: shocks, in other words, that are large enough to scare people, because right now those are the only things that will prompt us to get out of our fundamental un-seriousness about climate change.

Even in the wake of such a shock, everything will depend on a few people being ready to move very, very fast to frame perceptions in the window of opportunity that will then open (suddenly, briefly), and channel that fear towards something useful rather than towards kneejerk or panic measures (like invading Iraq).  This – far more than green collar jobs – is an area that we need our best ‘navigators’ to be thinking about.

At the same time, as someone who works in international development, I feel sick about the idea that we have to wait for really severe weather impacts on the UK before we get serious about reducing emissions: because if you spend  any time crawling over the climate impact projections, then you understand pretty soon how really, truly awful things will get in mid to low latitudes – the poor places – before we start to feel even mild discomfort up in the temperate latitudes. 

Most people don’t understand this, though, because for the most part that’s not the part of climate change that we talk about. We fear it will seem… gauche to remind each other how many more people will be at risk of hunger as a result of our holiday to the other side of the world, our 20 oz steak, our BMW X5.

And so we stay stuck in a kind of numbness; we don’t understand what it is that we’re doing; and that’s why we’re left waiting for the shocks.

Nice one, us. Real classy.