Interview with Rebecca Willis about politicians and #climate change

On Thursday 28 February, Dr Rebecca Willis of Lancaster University is presenting her recent research at a Tyndall Manchester seminar. (details here). She has kindly agreed to an email interview – here it is, unedited.

1. In a nutshell, please recap the research you’ve done, including
what was the initial impetus for the research (from Lancaster? Green
Alliance?) and what was novel in both the methodology and the
presentation (e.g. the synthesised interviews, but other stuff).

My research investigates how politicians, as individuals, understand and respond to climate change. Back in 2009, I set up Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme, a personalised programme for politicians, where they learned from climate scientists and policy experts, and thought through how climate change affects their work as a politician. We worked with over 100 MPs, and the response was enthusiastic – but the programme left me with a big question. What do the politicians do with the knowledge once they walk out the door, and back into their working lives? I had a look at the research out there, and discovered that there is lots of work about climate politics, in the abstract; and lots of work on public attitudes to climate, but almost nothing about how politicians, as important individuals within the system, handle climate change. So I thought I should do the work myself.

The research uses different methods to reach a fine-grained, qualitative picture of how politicians understand a complex issue like climate change, in the context of their life and work. I used an academic technique called corpus analysis to analyse public speeches on climate in the House of Commons; then I did a focus group with NGO representatives who lobby politicians; and finally, a set of 23 interviews with current and former MPs. This was the first study of its kind, to my knowledge (which surprised me).

2. What reception has the research had so far (where have you
presented it etc) and what impact do you hope it might have?  (Which
audiences would it be good to reach/engage with).

Everyone’s interested in how politicians think – and so lots of people have wanted to hear about my work, which is a nice change for me, especially compared to my rather arcane work on energy governance which tends to send people to sleep. I have done talks and workshops for young climate activists in Scotland, Royal Society scientists, local residents in my home town of Kendal, and many others. It’s had so much interest that I have been persuaded to write it up as a simple, chatty book, due out early next year – watch this space. Many people are frustrated by politicians’ lack of action on climate, and while I am careful not to make excuses for them, my work does help to explain why it isn’t currently the political priority it should be. I hope that it also points the way to a better sort of climate politics – like the Green New Deal that is hitting the headlines in the US, for example. I would love to repeat the work over there.

3. Has anyone done this kind of work – about politicians’ awareness
of/concerns/action about climate change
a) in other countries
b) on local government politicians?

There have been a few studies, using standard quantitative interview techniques, with other politicians – particularly in Australia and the US, both known for complex and confrontational climate politics. But nothing like the detailed understanding that I have developed, setting politicians’ understandings of climate change within the framework of their lives, identities and careers. Since I started, I’ve had quite a few conversations with people wanting to do similar work, particularly with local councillors, so I’m hoping those results will be published soon, which will give us a more rounded account.

4.  You mention a series of things that could happen (feel free to
recap them)!  My question is – who do you see making this so – what
constellation(s) of actors (trades unions, community groups,
environment groups etc etc)

The difficult thing about my research is that it sends a clear message that the science alone is not enough to compel politicians to act. The hopeful thing is that it does open up a whole range of ways in which we can engage politicians in climate action, and that things can happen quickly. The incredible success of the Green New Deal in the US in bringing climate change to the centre of the political agenda is a case in point. I would particularly like to see broad alliances working together and putting their case to politicians – so Trade Unions, Churches, health alliances, and so on. Politicians don’t feel under much pressure to act on climate change – yet – but there’s lots that can be done to change that. And lastly, every time I talk about this work, I ask people to go and see their own Member of Parliament – it’s easy enough to go along to a surgery, and it sends a really clear signal that people want to see change. If you don’t know how to do this, have a look at the brilliant resources on Hope For The Future’s website.

5. Anything else you’d like to say

My research is summarised in this briefing for Green Alliance.

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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