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How do elected councillors and their staff talk about climate change?

Talking about climate change is difficult – likely to induce a sense of helplessness, guilt, fear of future impacts, fear of personal change and all the rest of it - and taking practical action is often inconvenient. No less so in local government, which is in theory obligated to do something about the UK’s climate impact. So how do our elected councillors and their salaried staff deal with this situation?

Starting in 2010, I interviewed 39 councillors and officers in 7 different authorities in the South West, to find out whether attitudes to climate change made a difference to what action was taken to reduce climate impacts. Central government policy has certainly had a very profound impact on what is done at local level, but there were still significant differences between authorities, in how far they would discuss climate change mitigation and in the measures they would consider and implement. It was fascinating to see how one or two senior individuals, without perhaps changing individuals’ inner beliefs, could affect attitudes in an organization as a whole. I also learnt something about the changing acceptability of discourse on climate change.

Initially – in the ‘90’s and early 2000’s – global warming was not an easy topic to address in corporate environments, though some councils undertook pioneering action to mitigate climate change.1 During the mid 2000’s this changed with the introduction of financial incentives and funding for energy efficiency programmes, and subsequently for renewable generation. Conversation about these measures could then take place on the consensual ground of finances. With austerity and the abolition of these financial incentives the situation has changed again. Local authorities have lost 30 – 40% of their funding and are facing difficult decisions about cuts even to statutory services. The socially created silence about climate change2, if it ever left, is back with a vengeance.

Most of the respondents were selected for their involvement in areas such as energy use, economic development, recycling or planning, which impact upon authorities’ greenhouse emissions. A few doubted that climate change is happening .
“We hear a lot about global warming, and yet, everything is pretty much colder really.” - councillor
Some doubted that humans were causing climate change.
"It’s a natural cycle. It’s going to happen no matter what. I do believe that" - councillor
"I studied physical geography...Yes, it’s changing now quite rapidly, but it’s changed just as rapidly in the past, before man’s influence. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on what man’s involvement in that is"- councillor
Both these groups were in a minority; literal denial of climate change was small, but denial about the implications (as perhaps with many of us) was immense. This was reinforced by a high degree of ignorance or apparent vagueness, about timescales, likely scale and impact of warming and the presence of tipping points.

One councillor spoke candidly about the need for corporate action on mitigation, but became far more animated about preserving 18th century Flemish brickwork. This does not necessarily reveal absence of care, but Flemish brickwork can be eulogized in public without fear of crossing socially sanctioned boundaries. Anxiety is not a feeling which councillors are supposed to show. Better to bemoan ‘short termism’ in local government, as many did, adding that there is little chance of this changing in the present cash-strapped circumstances, and revealing a sense of powerlessness in relation to the whole issue.

Some viewed climate change policy as a ‘nice to have’, like the arts, but not important “if you are a … single mother in [X estate] feeding your family of three young children, your most important thing is that you clothe, feed and keep a home for that family. Far more important than working on sunshine or snow”.

Besides, climate change could be a good thing: ‘If you talk to most of the holiday makers who come down here in the summer, and if it went from 23 to 27 they’d be delighted’
Distancing could be achieved by flippancy: ‘I would think it’s incredibly difficult to, to say well if we continue doing this, in 3,000 years….. In 3,000 years the world may have disappeared and humans might be living on Mars. You know’, or simply by a swift change of subject.

By contrast, a representative from Dawlish was extremely clear. The railway which forms a barrier against the waves is guaranteed for 20 years only; if maintenance is abandoned, councillors know that the line will collapse, and as sea level rises the town centre will suffer inundation under increasingly frequent storm surges.

In an area with an elevated landscape and beautiful coastal scenery, one councillor replied instantly to a question about climate change, ‘I don’t agree with windfarms’. In this and similar districts the issue was not climate change, but wind turbines. Planning applications were heard with angry crowds present. Vocal opponents had impressed upon some councillors that too little was known about changes in the climate to infer anthropogenic causation. Other councillors, well aware of human causes of climate change, told me they would not be re-elected if they supported wind (though at least one independent did so and was re-elected).

Wind developers had, perhaps unwisely, recruited environmentalists as supporters, heightening the controversy and aligning it with a right-left divide. Oddly, a survey in one of these districts showed that a majority of residents supported wind energy but this fact was not apparent to councillors. The political climate therefore seemed to owe much to articulate well-resourced retirees and downsizers, incomers attracted by the coast and moorland landscape, and those in the tourist trade who feared wind development would impact their income, marshalling climate scepticism as an adjunct to their position.

In some of the interviews, people gave shifting rationales for lack of action, which suggested that positions on climate change are sometimes better characterised as strategies rather than settled beliefs, to avoid accusation (whether outer or inner) that they ought to be doing more. For example, one officer employed, as it were, a three line defence:

1) he doubted the findings of climate science: ‘everybody always says things are black
and white but they never are.’
2) Anyway the Chinese: ‘There’s no point in the West saving carbon emissions, if China and India are increasing by a bigger amount. What’s the point?’
3) Council members will likely veto major expenditure bids unless there is a strong financial return: there is no point in proposing projects on the basis of their carbon impacts.

Thus people were often ignorant of many of the scientific findings about climate change and how this might affect the South West, but in a way and to a degree which reflected their perceived material interests and/or scope for action. They ‘know and don’t know’ at the same time, a classic element in the description of denial3.

On the other hand there were many councillors and officers who worked urgently on emissions reduction in the councils’ own estate, or to encourage carbon reduction by businesses and households. Though such individuals were found in every authority studied, some corporate cultures were hostile to discussion of climate mitigation and there were many dead ends. In these councils, only financial incentives would ensure that carbon reduction was considered apart from efficiency savings. On the other hand, in favourable corporate environments, often larger and urban authorities, systematic carbon reduction strategies were brought in. Even where this happened however, responsibility was often placed in a single department (eg Environmental Health), and commitment to carbon reduction did not impact much on planning departments.

“Very often you’ve got, it’s a silo thing again, you’ve got a forward planning group drawing up core strategies and spending hours sweating over these things and then the people in development control just go on doing whatever they did, you know, it’s quite difficult.” Officer

Organizations as well as individuals can maintain splits where one part does not know what the other is doing, particularly where their financial interests are served by having as much new development as possible and the new National Planning Policy Framework (2013) offers few grounds, defensible when developers appeal, for councils to resist building of any kind.

Although most respondents agreed with the statement that ‘our organization can play a part in responding to climate change’, many, if not most, are deeply pessimistic that realistic mitigation efforts can occur. They know that national government does not prioritise the issue. They tend to pessimism on the chances of international co-operation on carbon reduction, and so resent the costs that these measures would entail.

David Ballard (2005) comments that changes to promote pro-environmental sustainable development require three conditions: Awareness, Association and Agency. His presumption that the preconditions needed to be fulfilled in that order was challenged during a six-month course for senior managers tasked to promote sustainability in their departments. He observed that only when they already had a real sense of agency, and had developed sufficient friendship and safety within the study group, were these managers open to taking in more fully the findings and implications of climate science. He concluded that agency is a prerequisite for successful action, and that it might not be possible even to take in full information about climate change unless both this sense of efficacy and the strong and supportive group were already in place.

In this local authority study, a sense of the possibility of real changes was a central characteristic of those willing to promote or carry out measures for climate mitigation. This sense of agency was also a distinguishing factor in people who rescued Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, compared with ‘bystanders’ who didn’t. Non-rescuers doubted their efficacy: ‘What could I do against so many?’ . Whereas rescuers suggested that what they had done was nothing special, anyone would have done the same. Underlying this, there is perhaps a sense of trust in the willingness of others to take action; trust is a central ingredient in the belief that one can make a difference. Hence the importance of perceptions of what other local authorities are doing (regulations of course provide the reassurance that others are not ‘free riding’ on the efforts of the diligent); and the salience of news on advances in renewable generation and carbon efficiency in other countries. It takes a specialist interest to find out, for example, that China is hitting its renewable energy targets two years early and its coal reduction targets four years early in 2016-17 ; India is investing more in renewable energy than the USA; Norway is planning to go carbon neutral by 2030 ...and so on.

One factor united respondents who were hopeful about climate mitigation and those who were not: they were all worried. Only 10% of those interviewed felt they were ‘contented and confident that those who are now young will inherit a good future’. Most were aware that young people today and future generations are getting a raw deal; that we are letting them down. But they rarely expressed these worries, and certainly not in council settings.

Those who were already acting to promote climate change mitigation seemed more ready to mention their fears and anxieties. Perhaps those who were actively engaged also had enough hope to be able to acknowledge the dangers and difficulties of climate change and the concern that humanity might not prevent catastrophe. This may be why savvy community activists often involve people in positive actions without (at first) trying to tell them the bad news.

My research and that of others shows that conversation matters. So does information about the efforts other people, other councils, and other countries are making to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and curtail greenhouse emissions, because it changes our estimate of the chances of acting together, and of success. Trust is a scarce resource; it can be built slowly and, as we see in the current political climate, can be eroded rapidly.

This article is based on a PhD thesis G. M. Westcott (2016) The role of subjective factors in local authorities' action on climate change in South West England. PhD, University of the West of England. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/28966

1However, a few local authorities achieved sufficient momentum to respond to the emerging scientific consensus. Keighley rolled out free loft insulation to all householders who would accept it (over 60%); Merton insisted on all developments generating renewably on site a proportion of the energy they would use. Woking invested in experiments with various renewable generation technologies through their own (financially rather successful) company with its private wire supply.

2See Paul Hoggett and Ro Randall’s paper on this site; also http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/climate-silence-goes-way-beyond-debate-moderators/?_r=3&mtrref=feedly.com&assetType=opinion&utm_source=Daily+Carbon+Briefing&utm_campaign=39e8be2079-cb_daily&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-39e8be2079-303422629

3Stanley Cohen, (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering, Cambridge