What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?

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Email: j.f.talib@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Imagine you’re creating a problem that we don’t understand. A problem where the majority of people just go, “meh, not important, I don’t really get it”.

What would it look like?

It would be complex, uncertain, something in the future and possibly an issue that was geographically distant.

Now those factors should you remind of climate change, and on 5th October 2016 the South-East Royal Meteorological Society local centre hosted a meeting where a panel of experts were presented with the question, “What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?”

The panel included professionals from a range of backgrounds including Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, leading expert in meteorology and climate, and first director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London. Dr Rachel McCloy a well-respected figure in behavioural science with experience in policy making in the former Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury. Finally, Paul Simons a prominent journalist for the Times known for the depth of scientific understanding in his articles.

Images taken during the RMetS South East local centre meeting (06/10/16). Left image: Panelists (from left to right) including Dr Rachel McCloy, Sir Brian Hoskins and Paul Simons.

Sir Brian Hoskins opened the discussion with the challenge that we have a responsibility to “encourage” rather than “make” the public take climate change seriously, and recognised the progress in politics including targets announced in COP21, Paris and the UK Climate Change Act 2008. However, it was also recognised that climate change may not be prioritised high enough in political agendas, and the question was raised on whether governments take their environmental global responsibility seriously enough?

Discussion then moved onto personal actions each one of us can take to increase the public response. Repeating the “doom and gloom” message over climate change can become boring and repetitive, and we need to bring a positive message to tackling this global issue. We also need to recognise the responsibility of the individual in a global context and introduce small steps that can be taken to reduce our environmental impact.

One key message from Brian’s talk, and the meeting as whole, was that it’s currently hard for a member of the public to understand what climate change actually means to their daily lives. What impact will a 2°C global temperature rise actually cause? Researchers, the media and policymakers need to relate the science of global warming to our everyday lives, whether that’s through health, nutrition, the working environment, or air quality to name a few.

Our second speaker, Dr Rachel McCloy, introduced psychological behavioural frameworks that are introduced by climate change and how they impact the progression towards successful mitigation. For example, emotional reactions towards climate change can include dread and injustice, and this combined with typical adjectives used to describe the environmental changes including “natural” and “uncontrollable”, can lead to an increased likelihood of no effort being taken at all against climate change.

A component of Rachel’s talk I found particularly interesting was the impact of over-congratulating individuals and societies for taking “baby steps”. When we congratulate or applaud an action too much it reduces the likelihood of an even better action taking place. Therefore, as a society, we need to keep looking at the next step to mitigating against climate change. If we think about this in the present day, could we agree that we congratulated the agreements met in COP21 Paris too much, and as a result the likelihood of ratification and progress being made has been dropped. We as a community need to hold each other to account even when those “baby steps” have been made.

And finally, Paul, a leading science journalist for The Times, brought to the discussion how the media can be used to encourage climate change to be taken seriously. Everything in the media is a story and when a phenomena such climate change impacts health, water or even transportation it can gain a public interest. To increase the media’s attention to climate change, greater emphasis is needed on how environmental changes will impact our daily lives. Paul also reminded us that the public have begun to associate extreme weather events to climate change, whether proven to be a result of anthropogenic action or not. A recent example that comes to my mind is the recent European thunderstorms that occurred last summer. The media should be used to successfully “shape opinions” and it is up to us to grasp the opportunities that they have to offer.

After an intriguing set of three short talks to answer the question “What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?”, discussion was opened to the audience. Questions included: What is the importance of education to solving climate change? How much advocacy work should a climate scientist get involved in? The meeting as a whole stimulated a continued discussion on how climate change can be communicated effectively to “encourage” the public and politicians to take climate change seriously.

I would like to thank all three panellists for a set of thought-provoking and challenging talks. Thank you to the Royal Meteorological Society for supporting the local centre event, and to find out more about meetings taking place in your region check out https://www.rmets.org/events/forthcoming-meetings.

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