Saturday, January 9, 2010

What would it take to change minds about climate change?

In the light of polls such as that of The Times, I've asked why parties of the Right might tend to be more sceptical about climate change. And I've asked why parties of the Left might tend to believe in climate change.

What about those people who don't care much about politics? Those who might say, if asked about who they might vote for, "They're all as bad as each other", "If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it", or "Nah, not really bothered, mate"?

I think the psychology is actually fairly trivial here, for once.

My sense is that there's natural scepticism among such people about any new grand claim, especially one where there seems to be loud debate. The effects can also appear a long way in the future, and small in size at first glance. However, the costs of dealing with it are real, now and unwelcome.

So what would change minds here?

It'd be wonderful if it were calm rational assessment of the evidence. That's not going to happen. At least not among the people I'm talking about here who are untrained in scientific method.

Alternatively, it'd be great if what would change minds is listening careful to the arguments for and against, put by experts. However, many sceptics dispute the basic facts, let along the complex models and proxies; and both sides have an arsenal of rhetorical tricks to throw at their opponents, an arsenal that militates against listeners getting closer to the truth.

So in the absence of an inclination to investigate the science more deeply, what would change minds?

Here are some suggestions...

1. If those on one side of the argument started to appear like crackpots. The sceptics had this problem in the early days, now neutralised by the groundswell of right-wing columnists showing scepticism. The climate change believers, though, in desperation at the failure of COP15, are deploying wilder rhetoric, and thus may appear more crackpot-like. Influential columnists and newspapers changing their view (either way), would increase the chances of the other side being seen as crackpots.

2. If one side started to appear self-interested hypocrites. See, for example, the emails of the Climate Research Unit at UEA; Gordon Brown being seen as wanting an excuse to raise taxes; or David Cameron cycling while a car carries his shoes. The astroturfing of the oil companies, airlines and other threatened industries hasn't seemed to have impinged on public perception.

3. If something really bad happened that popular consciousness blamed on climate change or challenged climate change. Hurricane Katrina did this for many Americans. But scientists have been so careful to emphasise that one-off weather events really can't be used as evidence for long-term climate changes that perhaps an equivalent event wouldn't have the same effect in Britain. Nevertheless, there has been a huge number of people (Andrew Neil included) smugly trotting out idiocies such as "If the globe is warming up then where did all this snow come from, eh?" So perhaps a couple of long, parched summers or flooding in London might have the opposite effect.

4. Erm... there must be more... No?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What matters?

I've previously suggested that there's no point campaigning for reform of politics.

In particular, there's no point campaigning to tighten the rules on MPs' expenses. There's no point campaigning to increase openness and enhance accountability. And there's no point campaigning to reform the electoral system.

This is, somewhat perversely, despite the fact that reform is needed, and that proposals for reform need to be discussed. But these are not ultimately issues that will determine votes. I suggested that typical voters see these issues as secondary to their real concerns. And now I want to consider briefly what those real concerns might be.

I also suggested yesterday that political soap opera - the personalities, events, spin, gaffes, gossip, put-downs etc. that have high entertainment factor - might well be a higher factor in deciding the outcome of the election than we might like. Those are not the kind of concerns I'm talking about here. It's the so-called "issues".

No doubt there'll be a swathe of public opinion surveys about the main issues for the general election. However, it seems plausible that generally, the economy will be seen as the main issue, particularly how to safeguard public services and jobs while dealing with the deficit. [1, 2, 3] Immigration seems important to many voters, perhaps to a greater extent than reflected in the agendas of mainstream politicians and commentators. Defence, Europe and climate change are also deciding issues for many. Terrorism, health, education, crime, housing, Iraq, Afghanistan, pensions, MPs expenses, specific taxes, specific scandals, and the like might well crop up in the election campaign as it progresses. However I doubt they'll be deciding issues, except as part of a portfolio case against a particular party, a portfolio in which the economy appears.
Nevertheless, I'm largely with Anatole Kaletsky in The Times, in his argument that...
"... the vast majority of voters do not focus on the minutiae of economic policy debates ... but [on] broader issues of trust, judgment, character and ideology."
In practice, attempts by voters to assess trust, judgment, character and ideology might well make use of motifs from the political soap opera for evidence. Cameron and his bicycle; Brown and his abrupt manner; Clegg and his mythical 30 sexual partners.

Some observers might find this irritating: elections should be decided on more rational grounds than superficial trivia, they might say. But I would suggest that while an examination of the details of policy would be the ideal act of the responsible voter, where there is at least a real concern for the particular problems facing the country rather than solely an obsession with entertainment, this approach to decision-making is at least a start at engagement. Real engagement in the political arguments would of course be better, but even with the best efforts of politicians and journalists, the proportion of the electorate that votes continues to be poor and the basis for decisions unclear.

So I'm suggesting that, in a situation in which a significant part of the electorate continue to fail to engage in the arguments, the political soap opera actually matters, for valid reasons, so long as the voters don't lose sight of the challenges the country faces.

Oh dear. I think I've turned into an apologist for Malcolm Tucker.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A General Election blog post (boring boring boring)

Yes, another blog post to add to the vast numbers of blog posts, tweets, podcasts, news reports, statistical analyses and broadcast packages that will continue to spew forth from every corner of the political geekosphere before the UK general election this year.


Boring. Boring. Boring.

And yet... Evan Davis helpfully reminds us that a general election is not substantially about the jockeying, the punditry, or the personalities:
"... an election is not just a chance for the parties to have their say. It is best viewed as a national experience. A time for us all to take stock of the issues and to argue about how to deal with them."
This might sound idealistic, naive even; but even when there might be little to choose between the parties save policy nuance, political soap opera, positioning and clever spin, this - now - is the moment at which the country decides how to deal with the problems it faces.

The geeks, hacks and activists among us might enjoy all the jockeying, the punditry, and soap opera. We might think the politicians ill-equipped with answers and justifications. We might complain that the voters are unengaged with what they need to engage. We might note that elections are rarely decided on rational grounds, or that the parties are "all as bad as each other", or that parties never stick to their election manifestos when they get into government. And all the rest.


But Davis' point is that beyond all that, actually, there are things that we should be arguing about. Like how to deal with a deficit that will affect every member of society for years to come. Like (some might ask) what should be done about climate change, a question that if we get wrong could either reduce our economy even further or curse our descendants with a rather unpleasant world. Or a host of other issues that people might care about, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, MPs expenses, immigration, Europe, poverty, housing, taxation, the NHS, schools, crime, terrorism...

So somehow we need to move beyond the classic dichotomy between the few who simply relish the entertainment value of a general election and the many who are simply bored witless by it.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Why do parties of the Left believe in climate change?

A few weeks ago I asked why parties of the Right might tend to be more sceptical about climate change. The flipside of this, of course, is why parties of the Left might tend to believe in climate change.

As with that previous post, this is broad-brush stuff. There are some on the Left who are sceptical to a greater or lesser degree, and some who would might agree that climate change is happening but prefer to give priority to other problems, such as poverty or oppression. And "the Left" is often taken to include also sorts of positions, including those such as Liberals and Anarchists who might reject the Left-Right distinction as unhelpful.

But it is clear that many on the Left accept the scientific consensus on climate change, despite a high proportion of sceptics in the general population of many countries. So why is this?

So here are some suggestions...
  • Scientists are more likely to be on the Left than the Right. [I have no idea if this is true. I'd doubt level of education is a factor, but perhaps the well-educated on the Right are more likely to be from humanities backgrounds?]
  • Respect for science. The belief that if any authority should be respected, it should be authority derived from study and research, as opposed to authority derived from birth, wealth or power.
  • Antipathy to capitalism. The story of climate change fits well with a belief that many of the world's troubles stem from the rampant excesses of unrestrained capitalism, particular burning fossil fuels and destroying forests.
  • The need for international cooperation. Coordinated action at international level fits well with a belief that states can do good in a way that can transcend individual actions.
  • The focus on helping poorer nations. It is the poorer nations which will typically be most affected in the short-term by the effects of climate change, through flooding, inadequate infrastructure, dependence on subsistence farming, water shortages and disease.
Any other suggestions?