The climate wasn’t the top priority in the Queen’s Speech. What can we who want to see rapid decarbonisation do now?
The purpose of this blog is to share principles and practices that may be helpful for developing constructive political debate in this time of crisis. In my previous post I argued that what the country and the planet needed was a majority of MPs committed to addressing the climate and nature emergencies and competent to take on the complex task of planning and managing the transition to sustainability. But what is the outlook now? Johnson has made some public commitments but how deep do they go?
In the Queen’s Speech, Johnson announced an Environment Bill, as had been trailed in the Conservative manifesto. It repeats the government’s commitment to net zero carbon by 2050, a target Johnson reinforced in his election victory speech to his supporters: “In this election, you voted to be carbon neutral by 2050, and we’ll do it!” Knowing that he will be hosting COP26 in Glasgow in November, one might hope that Johnson genuinely wants to be seen as a world leader tackling the big issues of our times. The manifesto stated that the environment would be his top priority in his next budget. An increase in finance for the environment, a commitment to working with global partners to tackle deforestation and marine pollution, carbon capture and storage, £9.2 billion to invest in energy efficiency, a promise not to restart fracking unless science can show categorically that it is safe… all that looked good and is testimony not only to the impact made by climate activists but no doubt also to hard work behind-the-scenes by concerned Conservatives.
But there are reasons to remain wary. Johnson didn’t turn up for the leaders’ debate on climate change on TV. He has reportedly given cabinet positions to climate sceptics. Brexit and his plans for the NHS may take priority over climate action. The target of 2050 is widely held by climate scientists to be far too late and in any case it is only for ‘net zero’, assuming that carbon capture and storage will be effective by then.
Moreover, even if Johnson is sincere in his intentions, he made clear in the manifesto that his approach would be market based: “Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.” He certainly wasn’t accepting the proposition made by climate activists such as Naomi Klein and Kate Raworth that major systemic change is needed.
And if environmental action is really to be the top priority for the next budget, why didn’t he present it as the defining aim of his administration which, of course, is what it should be? An optimistic reading of his mixed messages (and his jokey reference to carbon neutrality in his victory speech) is that he knows full well how important climate change is but dare not say so too loudly because the electorate is still more worked up about Brexit. A less optimistic reading is that he is merely trying to placate voters who are worried about the environment.
But we have to start from where we are. Undoubtedly activists will be stepping up the pressure with increased non-violent direct action. But there will also be manoeuvres within the system. For us as constituents, one thing that we can do is to hold Johnson to his promises by lobbying his MPs, drawing on the best communication skills we can muster. If indeed we want to see more constructive dialogue in politics, our starting point might well be that advocated by Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
The top priority is to build a good working relationship.
An inspiring model of how to lobby MPs is being developed by a small but significant organisation, Hope for the Future, based in Sheffield where I live. They have been training constituents how to lobby their MPs using methods derived from ‘Non-Violent Communication’ (NVC). The core idea of NVC is that the way to build constructive dialogue with another person is to seek to understand their ‘needs’ – to see the situation from their point of view. Over the last six years, Jo Musker-Sherwood, Sarah Robinson and their colleagues at Hope for the Future have been teaching constituents how to build a working relationship with their MPs, looking for overlaps between the MPs’ interests and the green agenda and they claim: “We have a proven track record transforming MPs’ hearts and minds on climate change – 100% of the MPs we work with go on to take one tangible climate-related action.” One of the things that they do is to research an MP’s interests carefully before going to meet them. They prepare a short list of ‘asks’ but only produce them when and if they have managed to establish some degree of rapport; the top priority is to build a good working relationship, even if that means progress is a little slow.
The approach is realistic: you may not like or agree with this MP but that’s who you’ve got. Being aggressive won’t win them over, so you’d better look for interests in common. You may not get a climate denier to switch to whole-hearted support for the Paris climate agreement but you might find that they are willing to work on reducing air pollution from cars; at least that would be a shift in the right direction. And if you build a mutually respectful working relationship, there is a chance that you will be able to talk through your differences in due course. It’s a wise approach, and it’s tried and tested. (If you would like to know more about it, there is plenty of information and guidance on Hope for the Future’s website.)
Following the Conservative win, and the influx of tens of new Conservative MPs to Westminster, I would suggest that Hope for the Future convene a conference for constituents from every Conservative constituency in the country to train them up for a country-wide effort. It’s worth a try. Environmental tipping points are looming and we’re going to need to get as many MPs on board in the next few months as we can. Another useful resource that could be drawn on is the research undertaken by Climate Outreach in Oxford into the attitudes of the centre right and the messages to which they best respond.
If, despite such efforts, the new government doesn’t put a credible plan for achieving sustainability in place within the next six months, those wanting to see a policy on the environment that is rational, moral and effective, may have to shift from the slow-burn NVC approach to something more assertive. Hope for the Future make clear that building rapport does not mean abandoning assertiveness; the skills are complementary. One of the texts that they quote from is “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, a former FBI agent who has worked extensively as a hostage negotiator. Interestingly, his approach is compatible with NVC in that he starts from the premise that you need to understand the emotions of a hostage taker and to build rapport with them. But clearly he also has a strong desire to influence the person and to get the result that he wants i.e. the release of the hostages with no loss of life. Many of his techniques can be applied in other situations and the environmental movement may well be advised to take note of them. What with the fires raging in Australia, perhaps at last climate change is acquiring the salience, and thus the urgency, that it has long lacked. If our political representatives persist in dragging their feet, we may indeed need to call in the negotiators, people who have honed their skills in situations of intense conflict. After all, we couldn’t just let a mediocre and incompetent administration take us down the pan, could we? If Johnson doesn’t get a credible plan rapidly in place, he may find that he is dealing with assertive negotiators.
The need to bridge the disconnect between skilled experts and our elected politicians has never been stronger.
It is a strange thing that through all the argy-bargy of the last three years, there has been so little constructive reflection on the dialogue process itself. There have been honourable exceptions. But in general there has been too much noise, too little calm analysis, too little mature reflection.
Why is this so? There are thousands of people – skilled experts! – who work as facilitators, negotiators, mediators, conflict resolution experts, social psychologists, counsellors, political analysts, political historians, etc. whose skills could and should be drawn on. The need to bridge the disconnect between these people and our elected politicians has never been stronger. Certainly in terms of the environmental crisis, and probably in terms of the social unrest we are witnessing across the world, democracy is going to have to be renewed if it is to survive and be squared with the necessity of rapid, coherent, international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop sustainable infrastructure – long before 2050.
If you share my interest in promoting constructive dialogue in the political arena, do follow me and let me know which individuals, organisations and campaigns you are finding most thoughtful, skilled and heartening.
You can find an entertaining discussion about what to expect from the new government in the Sustainababble podcast #161: Five More Years, recorded the day after the election. 
 A summary can be found here: https://www.freshworks.com/freshsales-crm/sdr-sales-development-reps/summary-of-never-split-the-difference-blog/