Climate change through the eyes of a politician

climate change

Rebecca Willis is an independent researcher focusing on environmental politics and policymaking. Rebecca convenes Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme for MPs and is conducting research into the politics of climate change in the UK.

Her research is based on the observation that “whilst the political and governance challenges of climate change have been discussed at length, there is little understanding of how politicians, as influential individuals within the political system, understand or respond to climate change.”

Rebecca’s recently published research study presents findings from 14 qualitative interviews with Members of the UK Parliament, to discuss how politicians conceptualise climate change, and their deliberations on whether or how to act on the issue.


Rebecca explains: “It’s easy to get frustrated with politicians. We know the consequences of not acting on climate change. We know what needs to be done. We just need to get on with it – which means that politicians need to play their part. No surprise, then, that climate activists are quick to express exasperation at the slow pace of change in government and parliament.

“But what does it look like from the politician’s point of view? How do our elected representatives think through their own stance on such a complex issue? …it’s long been known that the way in which people act on scientific evidence is complex. We don’t just look at the evidence and calculate a rational response; instead our understanding is mediated by our social setting, outlook and experience. Politicians are no exception.”

In the full paper, you can read four politicians’ stories, and a more detailed discussion of the findings summarised below.

Common Themes

Rebecca spoke to politicians who do understand the need to act on climate change (i.e. no climate-deniers). Three common themes emerged from her findings:

1. How it makes them look

First, politicians’ responses depend on their sense of identity: how they see themselves, and how they want others to see them. Like any other institution, parliament has its own cultures and norms, which politicians are measured against.

Many told her that climate change was seen as an ‘outsider’ issue, not something discussed as part of the mainstream of politics. One, who campaigns actively on climate, said he was seen as a ‘freak’.

2. How representative is it?

Second, politicians are, of course, elected representatives. What they choose to act on depends, in part, on how they see their representative role. None of the interviewees felt much pressure from their electorate to act on climate change.

3. It needs to be tangible

Third, and linked, politicians have limited time and resources, and they need to show results. As one told her, “Politicians like to have campaigns they can win…. And you can’t say ‘I’ve campaigned to stop climate change. And now climate change is fixed, and I’ve delivered for you.”

Rebecca explains that, as a result of the above assumptions held by politicians, “many described how they tried to break down the complex issue of climate change into solutions and tangible, practical policies. The danger, though, is that, in doing this, they lose sight of the significance of the issue, or the need for more radical solutions.”

Read the full research article at Sage Journals.

Adapted from the original article,  published 19th September 2017, at

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