Public awareness and difficult decisions: what can we learn from George and Joey?

Patrick Pringle, UKCIP

In his budget speech earlier this week, one phrase leapt out. In announcing a tax on sugary drinks Chancellor George Osborne said: “I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children’s generation: ‘I’m sorry – we knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing’.” Great, I thought to myself, a politician acknowledging the need for bold moves now in order to help future generations. A recognition of the need for actions that will bear fruit long after we have forgotten why Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame was pulling donuts in a car not too far from the Chancellor’s window as he drafted his budget. Indeed long after we have forgotten all about both George and Joey. But why does climate change feel so similar, yet so different?

As with the health implications of too much sugar, the science is pretty much settled on the fact that our global carbon diet is unsustainable. And like climate change, unhealthy eating will have inter-generational implications and require actions now to avoid costs later. Yet climate change seems to be treated quite differently. Firstly, it seems the Government are more comfortable to talk of ‘difficult decisions’ and costs when it comes to Dr Pepper and his friends, but more reticent when in comes to climate change. This approach is reinforced by broader climate policy language of low cost options, ‘win-wins’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’. It is well researched that preaching fear on climate change can lead to paralysis, but are we avoiding an honest dialogue with the public by over-sweetening the debate on action? Is it time to make the case for keeping global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees C, warts and all, rather than showing so little faith in the publics’ ability to comprehend and support action?

Such a dialogue requires the public to be properly informed, which brings me to my second point. The effects of climate change are already being felt yet efforts to engage the public are left to the media or to an expectation that they will wade through dense policy documents. Surely the Government should play a key role in informing it’s own citizens? The last year, the Committee on Climate Change stated that “the available evidence suggests that public awareness of how climate-related risks are changing is patchy” (page 115) yet the Government rejected (page 23) their recommendation that responsibility for public awareness of climate risks should be assigned to a single Government Department. So when the electorate hear of yet another record being broken (Just days ago, NASA reported that February exceeded historical average temperatures by more than any month in history, a whopping 1.35 degrees C above the norm, albeit supercharged by El Niño) they are left to their own devices to interpret what this means for the UK, their communities, their streets and their homes. This failure to engage and inform the public regarding climate change impacts was evident during the 2013–14 floods; talk of dredging filled the airwaves yet the silence on the risks of future flood events due to climate change was deafening. The reality of the argument that awareness-raising is everyone’s responsibility is that it rapidly becomes no one’s responsibility.

The Government’s recent statement on the need to enshrine the Paris commitment to net zero emissions in UK law appears a positive step. Energy minister Andrea Leadsom told Parliament that “The question is not whether but how we do it.” I would have thought more critical are “how and when”. If we are serious about 1.5 degrees C, the nature and timing of the changes required will need the support from the electorate to make them happen. Which means engaging and informing us in a serious and considered way. It will also require strong leadership, and the language of ‘tough decisions’ and inter-generational responsibilities, not just of ‘win-wins’ and low costs. The sort of language we’ve heard on sugary drinks earlier this week.

If he reflects on his budget statement and on climate change, the Chancellor may want to consider a quote from his new Friend Joey Tribianni: “It’s not what you said, but the way you said it.”


Posted: 17 March 2016