British conservative media & climate change: What are the opportunities for engagement?
In an exclusive piece of research conducted for Talking Climate, Barbara Mendes Jorge examines the way that climate change is reported in two key conservative publications in the British media: the Daily Mail Online, and the ConservativeHome blog. Identifying the key themes and narratives that dominate the climate change articles they publish, she asks what are the opportunities for engaging through conservative media with right-leaning audiences on climate change?
Despite the large body of evidence that human activity is causing global warming, some public scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change remains. Among those who hold conservative views – and in some rightwing publications – scepticism is much more common.
Social scientists McCright and Dunlap have published a wealth of research on right-wingers and climate change, and concluded that the Conservative movement has been fairly successful in undermining action and public support for climate change – in the US at least.
Scepticism seems to be more common in the US and the UK than in other parts of the world. A recent study found that the US and UK media are more likely to give space to climate change sceptics compared to Brazil, France, India and China, and my own previous research has found that UK right-wing newspapers are increasingly likely to give space to sceptical voices.
But how is the issue of climate change reported and communicated in British conservative media? I conducted some research to begin to try and answer this question. What are the key narratives present in the UK conservative media? How do sceptical commentators frame their arguments? And what are the opportunities for engaging more effectively with conservative audiences?
I undertook an analysis of climate change articles taken from two different publications – chosen because they target a primarily conservative audience. The first was ConservativeHome, an influential blog edited by Tory activist Tim Montgomerie and the second was the MailOnline, the online version of the Daily Mail newspaper.
Political scepticism: not the same as scientific scepticism
“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”
George Osborne, Tory party conference, October 2011
My analysis found that conservative scepticism seemed to be overwhelmingly political in tone: the costs of climate change policies are constantly used as an argument against them, whether talking about the burden of green taxes, the high prices of renewable energy investment, fuel poverty from (supposedly) higher energy bills or the expensive aid that poorer countries are receiving from Britain to help tackle climate change. Articles on these topics were mostly one-sided, with little space given to voices who dispute these claims – especially in the commentary-heavy ConservativeHome.
Businesses were portrayed as being at risk of being run into the ground due to tough environmental regulations – some writers equate decarbonisation with deindustrialisation, and suggest that this would be severely damaging for the UK economy. However, other articles criticise business for profiting unfairly from climate policy – with little explanation as to why it is bad for business to profit from renewables but not fossil fuels.
“Self-immolent” unilateral climate policies are not well-regarded; many commentators believe that there is little merit in Britain taking the lead on climate change policy, often arguing that if big emitters are not doing anything, the UK should not bother taking the lead. Here, again, there seems to be a selective concern about the pitfalls of ‘leading’ on low carbon energy, as when it comes to (e.g.) financial services, many Conservative commentators are pleased to be ‘leading’ the world.
Scientific and technological scepticism was also seen in both publications, with uncertainty of the true consequences of climate change often used as an excuse for inaction:
“The planet might be warming. It might be partly man-made. But the idea that we turn western economies upside down in a futile bid to stop it will look as mad in five or ten years as the craze for the €urozone looks today.”
However, scientific scepticism was far less common than policy scepticism. A distrust of renewable energy was present in many articles. Shale gas and nuclear power were often touted as more reliant and cheaper alternatives, large government subsidies were often lambasted and renewables were typically criticised as an immature technology. Public enemy number one are windfarms, labelled variously as expensive, ugly and ineffectual.
Overall, ConservativeHome was more sceptical in tone than the Mail: regular contributors such as Ruth Lea, Roger Helmer and Matthew Sinclair argue unswervingly against action on climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, given the infamous reputation of the Daily Mail, the debate was more balanced in the Mail than on Conservative Home, and it gave space to a wider range of voices. Whilst ConservativeHome’s commentary was mostly focused on climate policy, the Mail’s coverage of climate change was more wide-ranging, and with much more focus on the scientific developments in the field of climate change.
Opportunities for engagement
A recent study on political orientation and climate change warns against equating “inherent conservativism” with opposition to climate change science and policy. The authors argue that political orientation and climate change views are not synonymous, and much can be learnt by looking at conservatives who are concerned about climate change. With this in mind, I also tried to identify arguments which could be used to communicate climate change more effectively with conservative audiences.
Although ConservativeHome’s articles were mostly sceptical in tone, the blog provided an occasional platform for more green-minded right-wing commentators. It is in their pieces that more promising conservative framings of climate change can be found – and potential opportunities for engaging with this hard-to-reach audience:
● A decarbonisation of the economy would make us less dependent on unstable parts of the world – and this argument could be extended to say that we would be less dependent on other parts of the world full stop.
● Greg Barker praises the “market-based solution” of the Green Deal arguing that saves money, involves private sector, fosters competition and provides technical solutions. In a similar vein, Robert McIlveen argues that a carbon tax is better than other alternatives, because “The economic logic of the carbon floor price…is much stronger than that of any other policy, especially those that try to pick technology winners. It supports nuclear and renewables, and even gas over coal.”
● An article reviewing Roger Scruton’s book sets out how conservativism could influence climate policy: “[a conservative climate policy] would establish the conditions under which people manage their own environment in a spirit of stewardship” with politicians only coming in where there was no alternative. The “products” of the policy would include “human resilience, autonomous associations, market solutions, effective tort law, aesthetic side-constraints emerging from open discussions among the citizens, biodiversity, natural beauty, local autonomy, serious research, and a regime of pricing and feedback loops that return environmental costs to those who create them.”
● Community-based approaches to environmentalism should appeal to conservatives who are concerned about government interference in people’s lives.
It would be interesting to see whether the same themes are present in right-wing publications in other wealthy industrialised nations where climate change does not seem to be such a partisan issue e.g. Germany. With this analysis being restricted to two publications, it would be interesting to expand the research to more conservative publications and compare and contrast the ways in which each type of publication contributes to the debate.
Ultimately, it is unwise to lump political and scientific scepticism together because “opposition to the former becomes denial of the latter – exactly the problem we need to avoid in the first place” . Many of the conservative commentators indicated that they believed in the science, but then criticised policy without suggesting plausible alternatives, as illustrated in this quote from ConHome editor Tim Montogomerie:
“…..many in the climate change industry accuse people like me of being blind to the science. I make no comment on the science of global warming but I would argue that they are the blind ones; blind to the politics and blind to the economics and they’re sticking with a policy course that represents a triumph of hope over experience.”.
The opportunities identified for engagement were few and far between, although I believe they provide a good starting point for confronting those whose ideological stance is preventing them from engaging more reasonably on climate change. Some of the criticisms made by conservatives are thoughtful and useful, but a contrarian stance without substance will not help debate about the issue.
2 Comments + Add Comment
Make a comment