By Paul Treadaway
First things first – the UK and indeed the world wants action on the global environment and is well and truly up for the climate fight. Don’t take my word for it, instead look at the UN’s recent global climate poll released in January 2021 – 69% of those under 18 worldwide believe the world is currently in the midst of a ‘climate emergency’ while 58% of those over 60 agreed. The highest support for the term ‘climate emergency’ was found in our very own backyard in the UK, with an overwhelming 81% agreeing – the highest figure amongst countries surveyed.
Going green and quickly is the overwhelming aim of young people and increasingly our parents and grandparents. But if this is the case, why are major steps forward on climate change in the UK and on an international scale still lacking?
If you ask me, it all comes down to a simple concept. Perception.
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Climate action as the mainstream
If you want a large group of people to do something, you’ve got to present it to them as socially acceptable. An activity that most people will agree with and support and that can be viewed as ‘mainstream’.
Most people aren’t impassioned, politically or otherwise to extremes in life, but float somewhere in the middle of the sea of public opinion. If a situation requires radical action, as climate change does based on the currently available scientific data, then you’ve got to present that radical action as a mainstream prospect, something which people feel society as a whole accepts and is in favour of.
One of the successes of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord is that it did just this, ensuring that 196 nations across the globe committed to limiting the worldwide temperature increase to ideally 1.5 degrees celsius by the middle of the 21st century. This demonstrates that when transformative climate action is presented as a mainstream option, national and international communities can take major steps forward.
However, in the lead up to a crucial summit in the form of COP26, the prospect of further climate action in the UK has been ironically somewhat damaged.
Distraction instead of action
Insulate Britain’s disruptive campaign across sections of the M25 motorway has boosted the group’s profile no-end, with news coverage online, in print and on the air having been peppered with images and soundbites of their protests over the last two months or so. But in achieving the group’s ultimate aim, acting on the climate crisis by boosting the UK’s domestic energy efficiency and insulating homes across Britain on a scale seen never before, the data shows it has done rather more harm than good.
A October 2021 YouGov poll found that amongst the overall UK population, 73% viewed Insulate Britain’s protests as harming the group’s cause, with just 5% saying that they thought it aided action on climate change. More concerning than this however was how Insulate Britain’s activities were viewed by those who say ‘pollution, the environment and climate change is one of the top issues facing the country’, with YouGov finding that 55% of those who prioritised climate change in their lives thought the group’s protests had hindered progress regarding climate action.
Insulate Britain aren’t alone in their preference for provocative disruption as a means of protest, with the climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion having become well known for its notable events worldwide since its foundation in 2018.
The group; often known via the acronym ‘XR’ has staged eye catching protests in recent years, with some examples during the last 12 months including a scaling of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in October 2020 and road blockades in Berlin in August 2021. However, despite the media focus this rightly draws to climate action, XR’s approach often results in a very different kind of media attention that distracts from the core issues at hand.
During street protests in London in April 2019, despite thousands attending marches through the British capital, much of the attention from Extinction Rebellion’s event was sapped away by the press circus surrounding the actress Emma Thompson’s appearance at the event, with the Oscar winner having flown 5000 miles from the USA to participate.
This, unfortunately, rather undermined XR’s message of an accelerated transition away from carbon intense activity, with Thompson’s appearance becoming the focal point in coverage of the event, and Extinction Rebellion finding themselves drowning in a debate about political and social hypocrisy rather than the progression of climate policy.
Recent civil disobedience by the group at Farnborough Airport in Sussex last month; blocking entry to the airport and staging what appeared to be a tightly budgeted open air play, taking place with the backdrop of Insulate Britain’s M25-blocking campaign, contributed to an atmosphere of disorder during an existing fuel and food supply crisis. Instead of convincing people of the need for climate action, both group’s actions made it look like an overall sense of chaos is what they really wanted.
Are protests preventing policy?
While Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion’s aims reflect the policy change that is needed for a more stable environmental future, their methods discredit their goals amongst wider society. By aggravating the British public and subjecting themselves to consequentially harsh media scrutiny, both Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion frighten political leaders from taking an honest tone with the British public on the realities of the policy shift we need to enact to win the climate fight.
During the government’s unveiling of their enhanced environmental proposals prior to the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow next month, the Department for Business quickly published and then deleted policy proposals to incentivise the adoption of a plant based diet among Brits as a way to aid systemic change in society and progress Britain’s national response to the climate crisis.
A department spokesperson later stated “We have no plans to dictate consumer behaviour in this way”, revealing the government’s fear that to be seen to be proposing radical climate focused policies would be to associate themselves with the controversial behaviour and actions of groups such as Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, who argue that fundamental changes in public behaviour are vital to achieving progress on the issue of climate change.
This is despite the fact that a October 2021 WWF and Demos survey showed around 90% of the British public would be in favour of a frequent flyer tax; taxing those who take more than a certain number of flights per year at an increased rate, significantly reducing emissions from aviation. This is a direct example of policy shaping and changing public behaviour and one that has widespread public support, a radical proposal presented as a mainstream option whilst being endorsed by Green organisations such as the New Economics Foundation.
Initiatives such as carbon pricing also have popular support on their side in the UK, with 2 in 3 people stating in a Opinium poll conducted in February 2021 that they would be in favour of carbon pricing in areas such as energy, food supply and transport. This is a policy that has already been pursued in countries as Canada, France and Mexico, generating a new stream of tax revenue that not only encourages companies and individuals to limit their carbon footprint but also gifts governments additional resources to invest in areas such as the continuing development of affordable green energy.
Pragmatic policy steps such as a frequent flyer tax and carbon pricing can and should be taken now by the UK government if we want to win the climate fight, reflecting public opinion and the scientific necessity of climate action.
Its all down to perception
The protests of groups such as Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion are getting us to ask the right questions, but they are also associating radical climate action with disruption and civil disobedience. This in turn discourages the government from taking the bold policy decisions needed on climate change on the off chance that they are not perceived as mainstream ‘enough’.
To achieve lasting and consequential change climate action needs to be presented as a ‘socially acceptable’ mainstream idea. Without this, the breakthroughs in climate policy that are required by the times we live in will not be possible, not because they are unfeasible or unpractical, but because our leaders; those exclusive few with the tangible power to implement policy, are frightened they are ideas from the fringe.
Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion have valid concerns and admirable aims, but their methods stop our political leaders and policy makers from taking the pragmatic steps that will make climate action a reality. We can win the climate fight, but despite their intentions Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion are making that victory less likely – and it’s all down to perception.
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