Some of you may have seen the following exchange in Parliament the other day in response to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Irma in parts of America and the Caribbean.
This debate was called by the Government to address the UK's response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. Sir Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, delivered the Government's response to the House of Commons. On four occasions during this debate, MPs attempted to bring up climate change as a broader cause of the recent extreme weather events which needs to be addressed. On all of these occasions, however, Sir Alan Duncan brought the discussion back to focus on the more immediate concern of responding to those being affected by the hurricane.
Those of us wanting to encourage open discussion about the root cause of increased extreme weather events couldn’t help but feel disappointed by Sir Alan’s dismissive response. By no means were these MPs ignoring the immediate need of those across America, rather it was a stark opportunity to address the causing factor of these disasters in order to reduce their instances in the future. It is possible, however, that the way in which the questions were asked elicited the defensive response they received.
It is not uncommon to see exchanges such as the one above happening in Parliament, but is there more going on here than party politics and the throwing around of climate change as a political football? Republican climate sceptic turned climate activist, Bob Inglis, thinks so.
Bob Inglis is the founder of republicEn.org, an initiative that brings together American Conservatives concerned about climate change. In a recent podcast with Ana Marie Cox called 'You Can't Build Things With Pitchforks and Torches', Bob Inglis spoke about a few of the barriers to Conservatives engaging with climate change. One such barrier was a lack of confidence that people on the right might feel towards the arguments around climate change. When someone doesn't feel equipped to enter a discussion, they may wish to shut it down.
He uses the metaphor of a tribe leader not wanting to leave the tent to go and face the other tribe leaders down at the river. If they were to leave the tent, they may be stabbed in the back by those in the tent because they are frightened that they don't have the answers. Picture this: Donald Trump goes to meet Al Gore to have a discussion about climate change. Who is more equipped to engage in this discussion? If Trump feels insecure about contributing his ideas, he may find it easier to simply deny the focal point of the discussion (climate change) and disengage from the conversation.
In the above example, although Sir Alan Duncan did not in any way deny climate change, he refused to engage with it as a possible cause of the hurricanes that needs to be urgently addressed. This may well be because he did not feel equipped to respond to the questions put forward by the other MPs. Caroline’s challenge clearly put Sir Alan on the defence because, as climate change becomes more and more apparent, the political narrative will have to change and those who have not taken the issue seriously will be exposed.
If Sir Alan feels under qualified to talk about climate change, perhaps he wants to avoid talking about it. Maybe this is what often happens in parliamentary debates. So how can we approach our MPs in a way that will not lead them to dismiss discussions of the issue? If we approach our MPs to raise their awareness but without leaving them defensive, we may well find a more receptive audience willing to engage.
As constituents, we are in a position to equip our MPs with the knowledge, and therefore the confidence, to engage in debates around climate change. MPs have a barrage of local and national issues facing them every day, and they are likely to prioritise those issues where they feel confident that they can offer a valuable input. Meeting with your MP about climate change and supplying them with key facts brings the issue to the forefront of their conscious and equips them to enter the competition of ideas.