Interview: sustainability and climate change expert, Rebecca Willis

Rebecca Willis is a researcher in environment and sustainability policy at Lancaster Environment Centre and is an expert lead for the UK Climate Assembly, the national Citizens’ Assembly commissioned by Parliament.

Rebecca also founded the Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme in 2009, an initiative to support Members of the UK Parliament. Her most recent work is her book which was published earlier this month (March 25) Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change, where she discusses why we need more democracy, not less.

What do you think the current situation with coronavirus means for climate politics?

What is happening now is fundamentally changing the way people think about state and collective action and the limits of markets.

We’ve seen now that the government can do stuff if it wants to.

It’s basically made it very obvious that the free market can’t handle crisis very well.

So I think it will reset politics and there is potential for that to make a stronger case for climate action.

You write that although climate concern is high, its relevance in peoples lives is low, why do you think this is?

One of the reasons is there haven’t been any honest conversations between people and government about what needs to happen.

If you look at the last 20 years of climate policy, generally speaking, things have been done without people noticing, but when you look forward to what needs doing, they are things that will affect people’s lives.

We don’t have an alternative but to have a conversation with people about what needs to happen.

Until now there has been this conspiracy of silence. No one has felt the need to talk to people about the changes that are afoot.

You talk about the climate crisis as being as much about political power as it is individual power. Can you discuss this more?

There’s no doubt that individuals can have an impact on their own behaviour, you can choose whether to fly or not, you can choose how and how much to heat your home, etc.

But all of these choices are made within a system that we don’t choose.

An economic system, a social system, and infrastructure that is already there and that you as an individual don’t have much control over.

Placing the burden on the individual is a handy get-out clause for governments and businesses who use the argument of ‘well people can choose to do the right thing.’

But the evidence is clear that we need to replace our high carbon systems with low carbon systems.

You can choose to cycle to work instead of drive to work, but you can’t if you are living in a housing estate that was designed for cars.

Sometimes it’s the actual infrastructure that needs changing.

All of these need to be handled at a collective level and that’s essentially what governments are for.

The stark reality is that renewable energy only helps if it substitutes fossil fuels. There are two sides of the story, you need to ramp up the good stuff, and reduce fossil fuel use.

The latter is barely considered in policy.

Very few countries have a coherent plan to end fossil fuel extraction, in fact, they’re going in the other direction.

I’ve heard many times when Nicholas Sturgeon is challenged about the carbon impacts of North Field Oil and Gas, her standard line is ‘well we can’t close down the oil and gas industry overnight.’

That’s just a rhetorical way of closing debate.

No one is suggesting it should be closed down overnight, but it absolutely should be a phased-out over time.

What changes do you think are necessary going forward? 

There’s a lot of people, particularly on the left, who say the problem is capitalism and we need a system change.

Intellectually, I get that argument, but I also think you could design capitalism that does take climate seriously.

The issue for me is that we have to start with what we’ve got now.

I think that in the election campaign, we did start to have a decent conversation about what climate commitments the different parties were prepared to make. Unfortunately, it was a discussion that the conversation played virtually no role in.

But for the first time, parties were debating their proposals to meet the climate target.

The danger for me with the big claims that we need to change capitalism is that they are very disempowering.

What are you going to do then, sit and wait for capitalism to crumble?

No politician is going to go for that

My starting point is can you draft a climate strategy which sure, might be radical and ambitious but is something that politicians can garner support for and that they can get started with implementing now.

The whole premise of your book is that we need more democracy. People have been striking and politicians have listened. Does this make you more optimistic? 

I think that it needs to come from both sides, people need to speak out, climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion are a really good example of how that can work.

I also think its incumbent of politicians to show leadership, they need to make a case for action on climate.

The trick is to link those two things.

The main reasons politicians have been wary of speaking out is that they’re not sure they will get support, but now they know people will support them.

Every bit of research about what sort of policy would get public support suggests there would be much stronger support than politicians realise for far-reaching climate action.

Can you tell me a bit more about your experiences working with the Climate Assembly, do you think it was a success?

One thing that really struck me is that if you give people respect, time, space and access to good evidence, they come up with good decisions.

That is a completely different way of doing politics than we saw with the Brexit referendum for example.

With Brexit, people were given a binary choice with terrible and often inaccurate information.

The Citizen’s Assembly model is very different, it gives people time and space and allows them to debate.

And as a result, participants did their bit really well and sometimes those decisions weren’t those which experts would make.

For example, there were discussions about the frequent flyer levy.

Some people didn’t like it because they thought it was unfair as rich people can pay their way out of it, some people preferred rationing of flights because it applied to everyone the same.

Normally you’d think rationing of flights would be a really heavy-handed policy, and yet it might be the case that it is actually more acceptable to people than tax, because people feel like it’s fair and is in line with actions needed on climate.

Fairness, consistency, and trust are the underlying principles that people want to see.

The book is available to buy here. 

Photo Credit – Rebecca Willis and Pixabay



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