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  • 2018willisphd

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How do politicians understand and respond to climate change?

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2018
Number of pages183
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The scientific consensus on climate change is strong, and evidence points to the need to take action to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouses gases. At the Paris summit in 2015, 195 world leaders set a clear goal to limit climate change. Yet the means to achieve this goal remain firmly at the level of the nation-state, with each country assuming responsibility for its own national plan. Thus national administrations, run by elected politicians, have a crucial role to play. It is the role of politicians to put in place the strategies, policies and incentives necessary to facilitate emissions reductions. How does this commitment at the level of the nation-state fit with a politician’s mandate as a democratically elected representative? What role do national politicians think they can and should play in responding to climate change?

The study explores these questions empirically, seeking to understand how Members of the UK Parliament (MPs) understand climate change and its implications for political and social life, and their deliberations about whether or how to act on the issue. The work is informed by an interdisciplinary literature including science and technology studies, sociology, political science and environmental governance. It uses a mixed method approach, comprising corpus analysis of political speech, a focus group with climate advocates, and two sets of qualitative interviews with MPs.

The study finds that, whilst politicians understand, to varying degrees, the need for action on climate change, it is not straightforward for them to make a case for action. There are three main reasons for this. First, the literal and metaphorical scale of climate change in comparison to the procedures and preoccupations of daily politics. Second, politicians consider the climate issue in the context of their professional identity and the cultural norms of their workplace, and report that climate action does not ‘fit’ with these norms. Third, UK politicians feel very little pressure from their electors to act on climate change, and have to work to build a democratic case for climate action.

The study offers recommendations for both research and practice. In terms of research, there is a need for a more fine-grained, contextual understanding of the interplay between global goals and national political systems. In terms of practice, politicians, working with other stakeholders, need support in order to articulate the scale and significance of the climate challenge, and craft responses which build democratic support for further action.