David Vigar

Priority #1 – Mobilise public support for change

 The biggest obstacle faced by industrialised governments in creating a green economy was identified by Ed Miliband soon after he became the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary:    

 “Political change comes from leadership and popular mobilisation. And you need both of them.  All the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, had popular mobilisation. Make Poverty History was a mass movement that was necessary to get the agreement. In terms of climate change, it’s even more difficult…”[1]

 There are practical obstacles – funding technology transfer, accelerating CO2 capture, verifying progress in halting deforestation, assimilating the evolving science of feedbacks into policy. But these are soluble, given resources and effort. Barack Obama has shown how political will can melt barriers. The challenge is to generate a popular movement of such force that it unlocks political willpower on a global scale. 

The public aren’t ignorant of climate change. Recent US polls, for example, show two-thirds of Americans believe it is a problem. But only a third believe that it is very serious or caused by human activity.[2] So the problem is understood, but its scale has not been grasped. 

People are urged to ‘do their bit’ for the environment – switch appliances off stand-by and offset plane trips. But on a deeper level, do they understand how today’s decisions will determine their children’s future? If action is not taken, billions worldwide face crop failures, drought, flooding and disease. While northern democracies may escape major physical impacts, potential consequences include international tension, conflicts over resources, mass migration and, ultimately, the fear that humanity has sealed its own fate. On the other hand, early action and success in building a low-carbon economy promises a new era of sustainability, growth, progress and co-operation.

In a world where people are used to everyday life being dramatised through media and movies, it is perverse to underplay the depth of the crisis facing the planet.  It needs to be communicated with all the resources of the digital age. Cautious voices will warn of ‘scaremongering’ – but they always do. Similar voices advised against the UK’s AIDS campaign of the 1980s, for example. Yet it led to a huge fall in sexually transmitted diseases.

In an area where analogies to war are often invoked, UK leaders might consider how Winston Churchill would have approached climate change. Would he have minimised the threat? Or would he have used total candor to inspire people to action?

Swine flu has shown that governments are capable of communicating with the public over an issue that affects people’s health in the short-term.  Why not communicate with equal clarity over an issue that will determine the long-term future of humanity?

 David Vigar, climate change adviser to the business think tank Tomorrow’s Company

[1] The Guardian 8 December 2008

[2] Rasmussen Reports  April 2009 http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/environment/energy_update

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