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UK Government Utterly Fails to Communicate About Climate Change

30/06/2014 09:15 BST | Updated 29/08/2014 10:59 BST

The UK Government displayed breath-taking complacency in its formal response this week to a report by MPs that criticised the way in which climate change is being communicated to the public.

In April, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology panned the Government, media and scientists for a failure to convey enough clear information about the causes and potential consequences of climate change.

The MPs attacked the BBC and some right-wing newspapers for disseminating inaccurate and misleading information, and complained that the Met Office and Royal Society should be doing more to reach the public.

But the MPs reserved their strongest criticism for the Government for a "hands-off approach to engaging with the public and the media" about climate change which has "resulted in a vacuum that has allowed inaccurate arguments to flourish with little effective challenge".

This week's response from the Government offered almost nothing of substance except the news that it was "establishing a science expert communications group to consider how best to further improve the communication of climate science".

And it sought to deflect any blame from the Met Office, which is formally a Trading Fund of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, on the grounds that it "has no formal mandate to communicate climate science to the public".

This is all rather feeble, given the challenges that the Government faces in explaining to the public the rationale for its policies for managing the risks of climate change, particularly given the lack of coherence between Departments.

In particular, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has spectacularly under-achieved in its mission to make the nation more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and, for instance, bungled the launch of the National Adaptation Programme last year, and neglected to take global warming into account when devising a new flood insurance scheme for households.

This is perhaps not surprising because the Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided to assuage hostility to wind farms among backbench MPs in the Conservative Party by giving the job of Environment Secretary to Owen Paterson, a climate change 'sceptic' who apparently spends more time listening to the eccentric views of his brother-in-law, Lord Ridley, on the subject than to his own chief scientific adviser.

So here is what the Government could be doing to improve communications.

First, it needs to invest more in the Met Office's Public Weather Service and expand its remit to include communication with the public about climate change, drawing on the world class research of the Hadley Centre. While the Met Office already has some useful information tucked away on its website, and some enthusiastic communicators, it is currently not up to the job of promoting informed public debate.

More funding should also be made available to the Environment Agency so that it can help the public to understand how the UK must adapt to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided. This is all the more important because DEFRA's own communications activities about climate change are so abysmal.

In addition, the Government should be investigating in far more depth the extent to which the public understand the risks of climate change and the options for managing them. The regular survey carried out for the Department of Energy and Climate Change asks a couple of basic questions about the issue, but DEFRA has, perhaps predictably, abandoned any polling about the impacts.

Individual members of the Government also need to raise the profile of the issue. It is significant that the Prime Minister has occasionally commented on climate change, for instance in relation to the flooding this winter, but has yet to make a major speech on the subject.

It is still not clear whether Mr Cameron will even join other world leaders at the climate change summit organised by the United Nations Secretary-General for 23 September in New York to build support for an international agreement to be signed in Paris in December 2015.

And he should also tell his Cabinet colleagues, including the Environment Secretary, that their public comments about climate change will be scrutinised more closely in the future to check they are consistent with the scientific evidence, with the punishment for non-compliance being a tutorial with Sir Mark Walport, the Government's chief scientific adviser.

Until the Government takes more seriously its duty to communicate about climate change, the public debate will continue to be undermined by confusion about the scale of the risks and the options for managing them.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.