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We’re telling the wrong story about climate policy

Dr Fredi Otto on why we need to find new ways of communicating the urgency of tackling climate change.

By Megan Kenyon

In a hurried speech broadcast in mid-September, a concerned looking Prime Minister explained it was time to tell the British people some hard truths. Rishi Sunak made a series of announcements that had already been splashed across the newspapers, and explained how a reduction of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions would mean “difficult choices”. He then proceeded to delay several of those difficult choices.

The picture Sunak painted was a dishonest one. He argued that ordinary, working people shouldn’t be expected to pay for emissions reductions in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. But the measures he announced – delaying the ban on petrol and diesel cars by five years and scrapping the energy efficiency targets for UK homeowners – did more to pass the buck on to hard-up residents than the government’s original policies ever did. And on 7 November, as part of the King’s Speech, Sunak’s government announced a new round of oil and gas licensing, which it argued will improve the UK’s energy security and make the UK’s ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 all the more unlikely.

Sunak was not the first to pose this kind of argument. And his announcement was symptomatic of the government’s own short-term thinking and lack of responsibility on this issue. Part of this is because the stories we have long told ourselves about climate change are the wrong ones. And that needs to change – fast – if the public is to mobilise sufficiently to tackle the crisis, as Dr Fredi Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, has told New Statesman Spotlight.

Recently, Otto featured alongside the comedian, Nish Kumar, in a combative new video from the new climate education campaign, Climate Science Breakthrough. In the video, Otto explains that the extreme weather events – aggressive storms, droughts and heatwaves – can be explained by climate change. Her scientific explanations are then “translated” by Kumar into funny, if occasionally foul-mouthed, statements. For example, Otto explains that rising temperatures have led to an increase in the frequency and the intensity of storms and hurricanes. Kumar’s translation is: “Weather used to be clouds. Now we’ve made it into a sort of Rottweiler on steroids that wants to chew everyone’s head off.” 

Otto told Spotlight that the reason why narratives, such as the one posed by Sunak, are so popular is because the “the story we tell about climate policies – what they do and who they’re for – is not the right one”. She said that in order to achieve better cut-through to the public – and to policymakers – climate scientists, activists and campaigners need to shift the narrative around climate change. Otto pointed out how, back in Sunak’s September announcement, the Prime Minister suggested that those on lower incomes “don’t want to do climate policies because they can’t afford them”. But in reality, the policies that Sunak cut back on are exactly the policies that would reduce the long-term cost of climate change for everyone.

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One such policy was the obligation for landlords to improve the energy efficiency standards of their properties to at least EPC band C. Such a standard still exists for social landlords – but those living in the private rented sector will see no such help. Sunak scrapped it in his speech on 20 September. But, as Otto told Spotlight, this policy would have saved private renters – who are often some of the poorest in society – around £300 a year in heating costs. “So actually, this climate policy would have benefited poorer people… but that’s not the story we’re told.”

The problem with the issue of climate change is it can often be viewed as an abstract, future problem. This can affect public action and attitudes towards global warming. Otto was clear that this needs to change to recognise the urgency. “We are still pretending the status quo is the best of all possible worlds,” she said, “which is very obviously not the case.” This means putting the impact that rising global temperatures will have on human lives right at the heart of its argument. Otto added that this includes debunking perceptions about those who are active on climate issues. “We have to be a lot better than that and say no, we don’t just care about climate change because of [animals], we care about climate change because it kills people here and now.”

Otto’s expertise is in extreme weather events and weather patterns. She pointed out that the drastic storms that have swept the UK – most recently, Storm Babet in October – pose an opportunity for climate education. “People care about the weather,” Otto said, “and therefore, it’s a perfect point to say, well actually, this is in part climate change hitting you and costing you.” She added that the case needs to be explicitly made that “if we stop burning these fossil fuels, then at least we would stop these things from getting worse. And adapting to the effects of climate change would have so many benefits.”

But why – if the outlook is so bleak – has it been so difficult to get policymakers to recognise how urgent this issue is? Otto suggested that influential actors with vested interests can often get in the way. “The fossil fuel industry and the car manufacturing industry are still extremely powerful and influential,” she explained. “They all have lobbies.” Scaling down the use of petrol and diesel cars – which was delayed by the Prime Minister – is not only essential for the climate, but for public health too. Pollution from cars and other vehicles leads to poor air quality, which in turn is responsible for 43,000 premature deaths a year and a higher number of cancer cases, strokes, heart attacks, dementia and asthma. “The lungs in our cities don’t have a lobby,” said Otto.

“I think we need a much broader buy-in from different communities,” Otto asserted. There also needs to be, she added, an expansion of media content which looks at climate change through comedy (such as the video she appeared in with Kumar), art and literature. That way, the gravity of human-caused-climate change will be better understood by a wider audience. “We just need to find ways of having a much broader fraction of society talking about this.”

[See also: Patrick Vallance’s seven rules for net zero]

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