Climate change is a systemic threat to public health, national security and the global financial system

February 14th, 2014 by RSA

(please click report cover to open the RSA webpage containing the report)

(please click report cover to open the RSA webpage containing the report)

An RSA report has found that mischaracterising climate change as an exclusively environmental issue, rather than a broader systemic threat to public health, national security and the global financial system, has led to the majority of the British public failing to take climate change seriously.

In a challenge to the green lobby, A New Agenda on Climate Change, written by Dr Jonathan Rowson of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, called for the debate to be reframed – so that we face up to our ‘pervasive stealth denial’ and demand politicians and businesses take leadership on the issue.

A Yougov poll of 2024 adults, commissioned for the report, showed that while only a fifth of the British population are sceptical about anthropogenic climate change, 64% of the population accept the facts but do not accept the full implications in terms of their feelings, responsibility and agency.

In addition, only 37% agree their actions are part of the problem, 61% think economic growth should be a priority even if the climate suffers, and 72% said their own standard of living was more important than climate change.

The report concludes that the lack of progress on climate change has been caused by a mixture of vested interests, political paralysis and civic ambiguity.

Instead of a misplaced debate about scientific evidence and ‘generic calls for action’, we need a fuller ‘national conversation’ that encourages businesses to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the report said.

Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA Social Brain Centre, said “the human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions.”

“There is a moral imperative to act, and the main barriers are not those who question the scientific consensus, but those who ‘get it’ but don’t give their politicians the mandate they need to act with strategic conviction.”

“Facing up to broader patterns of stealth denial entails mobilising the millions in the country who, like me, fully accept the moral imperative to act, but continue to live as though it were not there,” Dr Rowson said.

Today’s report outlines how Britain could use its soft power and financial influence to take a leading role in addressing the global climate problem.

When the embodied carbon in the products we consume through imports is factored in, British emissions are going up, not down, the report said.

The report concludes that energy efficiency measures, such as the UK government’s Green Deal, are unlikely to reduce global carbon emissions because of the size and significance of ‘rebound effects’ – with people spending the money they save from reduced energy bills on other carbon-intensive products and services.

Dr Jonathan Rowson said “it’s not about being ‘green’, it’s about being more honest and strategic about the causes and impacts of the problem.”

“We have to connect with the roots of the climate problem, which is partly about using too much energy to fulfil culturally constructed needs and desires, but is more profoundly about the price of fossil fuels that produce that energy, and political and economic structures that keep us addicted to them.”

Outlining eight ways to end climate change stealth denial in the UK the report calls for action in the following areas:

  • Institutional: Build a powerful non-partisan climate alliance independent of the environmental movement, with clear campaign objectives.
  • Media communication: Assertively and consistently refocus the debate away from the existence of the problem towards competing ideas about solutions.
  • National Emissions Measurement: Lobby for consumption-based emissions reporting to get a more honest picture of how Britain is doing.
  • Financial Influence: Promote widespread divestment in fossil fuels to stigmatise the continued investment and subsidies for their continued production.
  • Civic Communication: Create platforms for diverse groups of motivated people to talk openly with each other about climate change for sustained periods.
  • Macroeconomic policy: Introduce a revenue neutral carbon tax at the point of fossil fuel extraction.
  • Social Initiative: Localise energy responsibility through renewable energy feed-in-tariffs and extend Carbon rationing action groups.
  • International Reinforcement: Share positive developments and build reciprocal commitment with other countries to illustrate that Britain is by no means alone on the issue.


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