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What does climate change mean to Conservatives?

For many on the centre-right of politics, it means global agreements, regulations and restrictions on businesses, and the government telling people how to use energy in their homes.  This is not a vision likely to inspire anyone – but especially not Conservatives. The language and imagery of climate change is infused with the ideas of the left – so it’s no wonder that climate change can feel like a hard sell to centre-right audiences.

At the same time, scepticism about the reality or seriousness of climate change is strongest on the right of politics. This is especially true in the US and Australia, but it is also true in the UK. British citizens who vote Conservative are more likely to doubt the seriousness of climate change and to express uncertainty about whether human activity is causing it.

A large number of studies have now demonstrated that simply explaining the science of climate change over and over again is not the way to overcome scepticism about climate change. The problem is not that people don’t know enough about the science, or have a deficit of knowledge that needs to be filled.

A big part of what drives climate change scepticism is opposition to climate change policies. Because the politics of environmental issues like climate change are contested, so the facts of climate science are filtered through people’s existing beliefs. They are accepted or rejected based on their congruence with an individual’s values and political ideology.

Those with conservative political views are more likely to be opposed to many of the proposed policy solutions to climate change – regulation of industry, government campaigns to change behaviour, or taxation – and so work backwards to downplay or reject the seriousness of the underlying problem. For those on the left, these policy solutions are generally more acceptable, and so denial of the underlying problem is unlikely.

While the science around whether human activity is changing the climate is unequivocal, the closely related question “what should we do about it?” is deeply contested. And this is as it should be – scientific descriptions of the risks posed by climate change cannot tell us how we should respond to them. This is a decision for society, of which the underlying science is only a part.

Debate and disagreement about climate policy is not only inevitable but desirable in a democracy with pluralistic values. But there is an urgent need for climate change communicators to reach out across the political divide and find ways of engaging political conservatives. And our new report released today, A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change is an attempt to do just this.

The report is a direct response to a roundtable meeting of some of the UK’s leading experts on communicating climate change to centre-right audiences, convened at the end of 2012. Meeting participants including Zac Goldsmith MP and Greg Barker MP expressed their recommendations for how to engage centre-right citizens more effectively around climate change. We then conducted a thorough review of existing research, and identified four narratives for communicating about climate change with centre-right voters.

The first focuses on localism – making connections between the conservation of our green and pleasant land, and the risks that climate change poses to it. The second narrative uses the idea of energy security as an alternative frame for communicating climate change: investing now to create sustainable, secure jobs and a reliable energy supply.

The third narrative centres on a new type of environmentalism – one that is optimistic not guilt-ridden, hard-headed not hair-shirted, and that embraces rather than opposes progress. Finally, the concept of the ‘Good Life’ – that happiness is about the health and wellbeing of our communities, not simply financial wealth – is also a potential frame for introducing the idea of climate change to conservative audiences.

Our central argument is a simple one: There is no inherent reason why climate change and the centre-right should be incompatible. However, there is a vacuum where a coherent and compelling conservative narrative on climate change should be. This report points to the ways of framing the issue that are more likely to resonate with the values of centre-right audiences – lifting climate change out of its left-wing ghetto, and into the mainstream.

Adam Corner is manager of the Talking Climate project at the Climate Outreach and Information Network and a research associate in the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology.

Follow Adam on Twitter.

Listen to Bright Blue blog editor Jonathan Algar in conversation with Adam, James Murray (Editor-in-Chief, Business Green) & Zac Goldsmith MP at Policy Exchange:

{soundcloud}https://soundcloud.com/jonathanalgar/a-new-conversation{/soundcloud}


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Photo Credit: Policy Exchange, 2013 (Creative Commons)