Mainstreaming climate change is going to take a bit more effort

By Pascale Palmer
April 28, 2010

I take my hat off to the patience of climate ministers from all three major parties and the Green Party. In the face of shouty questioning and interruption from Andrew Neil during a BBC Daily Politics Show: each kept their cool and attempted to get their points across.

During this exercise in the tabloidisation of debate (and I don’t mean that in an Orwellian pared-down-messages-accessible-to-all way), very few apposite questions were asked - and none with an international focus, with even fewer of the answers given time for the contextualisation of policies.

Frankly in the grand scheme, I don’t care whether Simon Hughes or Ed Miliband flew to their last holiday destination (which they didn’t, by the way). Nor do I think it’s useful for ministers to be attacked on estimated costs of dealing with elements of the furthest reaching crisis ever faced.

Of course, where tax payers’ money goes is important, but a big fat figure without the time to detail what it’s for and why it’s vital, just starts to look like an ominously vague use of massive public funds. I’m surprised Neil didn’t take the debate to its logical conclusion and ask the audience to shout “higher” and “lower” at pertinent interludes, just so he could let his game show genie totally out of the bottle.

The coup de grace, however, had to be in the quick-fire round, when Neil barked out that he wanted a yes or no answer to the million dollar question, ‘Should councils be allowed to spy on dustbins?’ Now, I don’t want to belittle how recent changes in local authority management and collection of waste have irked and inconvenienced a range of people; but we’re meant to be debating the big issues of environment here. That means policy that deals with global natural systems being pushed out of kilter, life on Earth changing irrevocably, weather extremes making a new notch for themselves at the end of the climate spectrum; it means crops failing, it means infrastructure and essential services being lost. It means people dying.

And all four of the MPs working on domestic and international climate policy, regardless of the political lens through which they view the issue, know this. And to varying degrees and in various directions, they want to be able to act upon it. It doesn’t matter where your own party allegiances lie, all four of the climate ministers have something valid to say. But the opportunity to enter a public debate at length and with engagement from a broad swathe of voters hasn’t yet been seen in this election campaign, and perhaps ever.

One, rare interesting question Neil and his politer side-kick Justin Rowlett threw at the assembled panel was why, if there is basic cross-party and general media consensus on climate change being one heck of a problem, haven’t they managed to bring the public to the same understanding. Each minister gave a stab at an answer, but again, not enough time to analyse systems of communication and how the messages have developed over the past few years, the realities of timescale on changing people’s minds and behaviour, and so on and so forth.

And therein lies the rub. Climate change as an ever-morphing subject is difficult to engage with - the myriad ways it impacts on the world and humans is still being discovered, and the global market knee-jerks to its threats are still being played out. Some of the media have grappled hard with how to pitch it – from imminent apocalypse to loft lagging. It somehow doesn’t lend itself easily to bite-sized chunks. It does, however, slip down better with a dash of scepticism and a side order of denial.

From this angle, Brown’s attempt to join forces with the Tories and LibDems on telling the media to get back to covering policies, not personalities, looks quite sensible. But one can’t help feeling that if the Prime Minister's performances had been better rated during the first two public debates, he might not have been so quick to push for change.

The question of public engagement on climate change is a good one and it’s an issue NGOs have been working hard to get righter for a number of years. But to mainstream an understanding of, and allegiance to, the issues, whether domestic or international, there has to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders – politicians, NGOs, business and media - to find solutions.

And maybe somewhere in the mix, a debate where the presenter tells off his own co-host, and barely lets the panel get a word in, might have a valuable place. But I doubt it.


Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer.

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