MPs need better support to talk to their constituents about climate change, study finds

9 Feb 2018 12:37 PM

Many politicians want to see action on climate change but some admit they avoid mentioning it to their constituents because they do not think their views will be supported, according to new research based on interviews with MPs.

The study by Rebecca Willis at Lancaster University and think tank Green Alliance, says politicians face major challenges getting people engaged in what is often seen as a global issue rather than a local one. 

"Despite climate change being a major threat, there's a considerable gulf between what scientists say needs doing and what there’s public support for," says Rebecca Willis, a researcher in the Sociology Department.

"It's a problem because MPs aren’t feeling any pressure from their constituents to act on climate change.

"Yet programmes like Blue Planet II and the outcry over plastic show that people do care. 

"Politicians need help to engage with the electorate in positive ways locally that build awareness and motivate people to support climate policies."

A national plan for emission reduction was agreed at the 2015 Paris summit by 195 world leaders. This was in response to consensus from scientists that drastic action was necessary to avoid dangerous changes to the climate.

The aim of the ESRC-funded research was to explore how MPs reconcile their commitment to act on climate change with their role as representatives of the people. 
Researchers conducted interviews with more than a dozen serving and former MPs. Those who took part represented the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.   

All interviewees reported that climate change was seldom or never raised by the constituents they meet in their surgeries, on the doorstep when campaigning or in day-to-day encounters.

One interviewee said: "I've knocked on hundreds, literally thousands of doors, and had tens of thousands of conversations with voters… and I just don't have conversations about climate change."

Another said: "I can't remember the last time I was asked about climate change. It's very rare to be asked about it.”

The study found that it was not straightforward for MPs to convey a message on climate change in a meaningful way for their constituents.

"Justifying their actions and garnering support is problematic because climate change is a complex issue, and levels of public concern are low compared to other issues," says Ms Willis. 

The study identified four different arguments that politicians used to justify the need to act. These approaches included:

  • Cosmopolitan - discussing the need for a global response that goes beyond a local area.
  • Local prevention - talking about how preventing the worst effects of climate change is in the interests of a local area.
  • Co-benefits - showing how climate change is linked to achievable local actions, for example road improvements or saving money via community energy companies.
  • Surrogate - deliberately not mentioning climate change but instead backing schemes that cut environmental impacts, for example reduced congestion.

Politicians may use any of the above claims in different circumstances, according to Ms Willis. However, positive approaches that talk about the issues and relate them to local events are preferable, she says. 

"Attempting to bring about change without people noticing is self-defeating. It does nothing to build long-term awareness.

"Local strategies that improve resilience to flooding and which provide jobs for local people, in the renewable energy industry for example, give communities control."

The key message from the study is that MPs need better support in developing a comprehensive political response to climate change. Ms Willis says this includes scientists and campaign groups acknowledging that politicians have a complex role, and working with them to develop cases for action.

Further information

Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from the study 'Constructing a 'Representative Claim' for Action on Climate Change: Evidence from Interviews with Politicians' funded by the ESRC and carried out by Rebecca Willis in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. The paper has been published in Political Studies
  2. The project involved interviews with 14 male and female MPs in total, including six Conservative, six Labour and two Liberal Democrat. They included eight sitting and six former MPs including backbenchers, opposition frontbenchers and those who had served in government. All were recruited via an email invitation.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.