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Talking about Climate Change with politicians: An experiment in the UK.

How do politicians perceive climate change science? Why would politicians discuss about climate change and how does climate change affect them? How should researchers and academicians engage with politicians? Rebecca Willis, a researcher on politics of climate change in the UK at the Lancaster University, a convener for the Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme for MPs, and now a visiting researcher at Lund University, shares her experiences through a workshop organized at CEC.
Rebecca Willis workshop at CEC
Rebecca Willis joins CEC this week as a visiting researcher. Rebecca is based at Lancaster University and the think-tank Green Alliance. Photo: Aakash Dhingra

“In the UK, politicians who are 30 years or older won’t have had education in climate change science at school”, says Rebecca, “It is widely assumed that politicians don’t need any training, they adapt and know what they need to know. However, climate change is something that is going to have an effect in all policy areas, and politicians need to consider how it affects the issues they work on”. As part of Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme, Rebecca had been involved in training politicians on climate change science. Through this experimental method, they have had trained over 80 politicians from different parties along the whole political spectrum. She adds, “The aims were two-fold: first to give politicians a broad sense of climate change, its effects on the people they represent and second, to provide the tools and ability to understand the relevance and impacts on their political careers”.

This programme had been implemented in a unique and interactive way contrary to the traditional lecture based approach. The programme comprised of two parts (intro and policy response) lasting almost a day with a dinner discussion at the end. Rebecca explains, “We focus on how climate change links to issues which affect their local areas. We discuss issues such as economic development and local energy strategies and how they are affected by climate change, to engage politicians on those topics. This allowed us to show what it would mean for the people, the politicians represented”.

“The best way to work with such a programme”, she asserts, “is to create a safe space for the politicians, in small groups and with politicians from one party, where they would feel comfortable asking questions”. The programme involved working with a business school to structure the process of inquiry which resulted in a question and answer based knowledge-sharing rather than lecture based. Climate scientists and people from businesses were involved but their role limited only to answering questions. Rebecca explains, “This change of power dynamics was effective in politicians being active learners and engaging more with a topic. We switched the power dynamics to ensure engagement at different levels. For instance, after the intro sessions, the Committee on Climate Change, business and stakeholder groups discussed policy responses. Later at the dinner, senior members of the parties would be invited and the politicians shared their learning in an informal dinner discussion”. During the above process it was also ensured that the different stakeholders conformed to the interests of different parties, for instance, more business voices were pooled for the right wing parties.

In the whole process, Rebecca reflects on some of the findings and acknowledges that there are definitely knowledge gaps which need to be addressed. In addition, she argues that this is not the only problem, politicians need to have the motivation to act on such knowledge also. She provides insights into how politicians think and what motivates them to take up climate change. According to her, “Politicians have three choices, to be a climate skeptic, to agree and engage actively or someone that agrees with the silent majority”. However, it is seen that many are situated with the silent majority and need support and motivation to become actively engaged.

This motivation could come when the knowledge gained is made relevant to what matters to the politicians. “Politicians”, according to Rebecca, “are concerned with their parties’ aims, their quest for influence and the interests of people whom they represent. Thus climate change is one issue which is difficult to argue for due to its lack of saliency and representativeness. It’s much easier to argue for a local hospital which is more visible than climate change”. In addition, associations and coalitions are important to bring up climate change issues up on the table.

To translate the learnings for what it means for academicians while interacting with politics on climate issues, Rebecca introduces the idea of ‘Rules of Engagement’. These are five-fold and start with first, thinking like a politician and understanding their motivations to align research findings with their motivations. Second, engaging instead of translating academic inputs such that politicians actively think about the research findings. Third, finding ways of communication, through networks, associations and personal connections. Fourth, being opportunistic, which would imply initiating with politics even if research is under progress and finally, planning ahead, to build strategy and think of why and whom to engage.

Text: Aakash Dhingra, a student journalist at Lund University Sustainability Forum, and a LUMES master's student at Lund University.


Engaging politicians and policymakers

A UK researcher Rebecca Willis joined CEC during one week in September as a visiting researcher. She is based at Lancaster University and the think-tank Green Alliance

Rebecca Willis held a workshop on 20th September 2016, where several researchers from Lund University participated and followed a similar process as described in the article to build an engagement plan.

More information about Rebecca Willis and her work

Green Alliance

About CEC

The Centre for Environmental and Climate Research, CEC, is a combined physical and virtual centre at Lund University. CEC conducts research, education and communication on environmental sciences and climate research.

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