Climate Change Debate

Climate Change Debate

from: Alex Evans and David Steven, 2007
The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation,
Climate change: the state of the debate


Go to an international climate change summit, or meet with policymakers in a national environment ministry, and the language you will hear – and almost certainly be employing yourself – revolves around terms like ‘emissions intensity’, ‘policies and measures’, ‘cap and trade’, ‘Clean Development Mechanism’. What’s usually missing is a robust account of how human behaviour, identity, values and aspirations fit in – of the stories that people tell themselves and each other, which will ultimately determine what they hear when someone says the phrase ‘climate change’ to them, and what they will do about it.

True, there is some polling data on how various groups think climate change is happening, whether they believe that humans are causing it, whether they believe that it’s more important not to take long haul flights or not to leave their televisions on stand-by. But there is almost no data that can tell us why people give the answers that they do to such questions.

This discussion paper is intended to catalyse a deeper discussion about why climate change has become a big political issue; what’s driving awareness of it among diverse publics; whether climate change will stay high on the agenda; and how future perceptions of the issue might evolve. It does not try to set out definitive answers to these questions, for the simple reason that no one currently has such answers. Instead, it explores questions of who influences whom in the global conversation about climate change.

The paper begins with a brief survey of the history of public perceptions of climate change since 1900, arguing that these perceptions have much deeper roots than is often realised: Time magazine ran a cover story on the idea of a warming world as long ago as 1939, for instance. The history section also stresses that perceptions of climate change have always been subject to peaks of interest followed by subsequent declines, and a constant ebb-and-flow of public attention. Above all, the history of climate change debate shows that perceptions of the issue are by no means driven only – or even primarily – by facts, evidence and rational argument: images, narratives, relationships and values matter at least as much.

Section two of the paper looks at a sample of recent polling data in an attempt to discover whether perceptions of climate change really did reach a ‘tipping point’ during 2006, as many media commentators believe. While opinion polls do appear to show a global public consensus that climate change is real, urgent and driven at least in part by human activity, the perceptions of what needs to be done – and by whom – are much less clear-cut. As well as examining polling data, section two explores the findings of qualitative research methods, which suggest that instead of attempting to understand ‘public opinion’ about climate change, it is essential to realise that there are diverse publics involved in the issue – all with different ‘prisms’ or ‘frames’ through which evidence, facts, arguments and discussions are filtered.

The paper concludes that while climate change may have reached a tipping point of sorts in 2006 as far as perceptions of the problem are concerned, the same definitely cannot be said for perceptions of the solution. So far, we lack answers to fundamental questions such as which solutions will be favoured; who will back them and who will resist them; how much they will cost; and what benefits they are likely to deliver. As we argue, the direction of the climate change debate will depend on how deep public concern is, and on whether what people ‘want’ (either consciously, or as expressed by their behaviour) in different countries diverges or converges.

So before any actor – whether government, investor or advocate – can seek to influence the climate change debate effectively, it is essential to understand the drivers of that debate. For deal makers, knowledge and information about the politics of climate change is itself a global public good: the lack of clarity favours those who would prefer inaction. Here, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides a model. Just as the IPCC has informed and then stabilised the ‘problem debate’, so we now need a similar knowledge bank on the perception and politics that make up and drive the solutions debate.

We also conclude that governments and businesses face huge political and financial risks as they navigate the climate debate. At present, their actions are based on vague, and mostly intuitive, views of what is driving change. Many professionals assume they know more than they do, or that climate change is basically a scientific and technical problem. This view is mistaken and now is an especially good time to correct it. The push for a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol is now beginning in earnest. This will stress existing beliefs, force apart current coalitions, and create the circumstances for new ones to be born. That’s why it’s now time to understand, study and track the state of the climate change debate.i

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i This paper draws on Steven, David, The FCO, in Talbot, Colin and Baker, Matt eds, The Alternative Comprehensive Spending Review. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007; Evans, Alex and Steven, David, Fixing the UK’s Foreign Policy Apparatus, 2007, available at; Evans, Alex and Steven, David, The New Public Diplomacy: towards a theory of influence for 21st century foreign policy, forthcoming 2007