Within industrialised economies the debates about climate change have largely been focused in two groups; elites in key institutions (academics, politicians, policy makers, media) and environmental pressure groups. These debates have been dominated by an environmental or technocratic framing of the issues. As such, the issues have failed to connect in a real tangible sense with the vast majority of the general public for whom paying mortgages/rent, getting to work, bringing up children and looking after aged parents have a far greater immediacy. That’s not to say the public do not understand or care, but rather it is recognising that people have immediate concerns that take precedence over intangible or distant events.
Ultimately this public constituency is the one to which politicians are answerable and from which businesses draw their customers. This is not at all an issue of public awareness, as polls suggest that the public are aware in broad terms of the ongoing debate about climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions. Rather, it is about public acceptance which leads to public insistence that there is a need for new products and policies if human societies are to change their current lifestyles.
So how can public acceptance and insistence on change be made manifest? Three ways are suggested, first through reframing and mainstreaming the agenda to make it with resonate peoples’ lives, second through engaging people through different cultural and artistic forms, and thirdly through re-establishing trust in key institutions. First, dealing with the practical realities of people’s lives, climate change dimensions (including reductions in carbon emissions) should be mainstreamed alongside other major discussions and decisions undertaken by people, corporations and governments. Putting climate change, or carbon reduction, into a silo emphasises that it is an issue separate from other life choices, rather than a crucial part of those life choices.
The second way would be to facilitate a new connection between the public and climate change issues. The mistake is to believe this is a problem of public understanding and education. For most people the notion of climate change currently is that it is an intangible problem which might have to be faced sometime in the future. Cultural forms such as art, literature, music, drama, film/television and photography have long addressed the intangible to very great effect, and perhaps one way forward is to examine how different cultural forms can assist citizens to better connect with their natural environment. The aim should be to see the environment through a positive lens as well as the negative lens of disaster and catastrophe.
Finally, there needs to be trust in the credibility and integrity of the various institutions to which the public look for leadership and action. In the current dislocation between political establishments and citizens in many democratic countries, there is a vacuum which makes action difficult to achieve.
Steve Morgan is deputy director of the Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford