​The new civil politics of climate change

​The ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’: Can schools, colleges and universities augment government policy action? 

Leading academics from University of Lincoln, LSE, University of Hull and University of Manchester have collaborated on this blog about climate policy change and the role of universities and colleges.

Andrew Kythreotis (University of Lincoln)
Theresa Mercer (University of Lincoln)
Candice Howarth (London School of Economics)
Andrew Jonas (University of Hull)
Noel Castree (University of Manchester)

Are we at a turning point for climate policy action momentum as António Guterres, the UN Secretary General suggests? Events such as the school climate strikes and declarations of a climate emergency by Welsh, Scottish and central UK Governments have highlighted the key role people will need to play in helping the UK Government reach carbon neutrality by 2050. But Governments and the private sector cannot do this alone – nor should they. It is everybody’s responsibility and educational institutions can help ensure climate action is at the top of political agendas. The EAUC has recently set up a climate commission as a Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) sector response to the UK government’s declared Climate and Environment Emergency. Such response by non-governmental organisations illustrate how thirty years of collective international negotiations and government policies have not yet got to grips with successfully tackling climate change.
The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has made great strides worldwide in making people more aware of ‘dangerous’ climate change, yet the prevalent political system of liberal democracy is not exactly conducive to XR tactics. It is argued that green growth will not work on its own, although some disagree. The recent United in Science report highlights how policies to reduce emissions must triple to keep to the 2°C threshold. This inevitably puts political pressure on governments, but it also highlights the need for an acceleration of civil politics to augment government action. So, can colleges, universities and schools lead the way in such civil politics? Potentially, yes given we are now arguably witnessing a ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’ involving greater non-government and civil action. However, there are several barriers that need to be addressed before we can truly say that climate civil action through schools, colleges and universities can catalyse fundamental climate policy change. Below we discuss some of these barriers and how they might be overcome.
Barrier 1: Reframing the climate change ‘problem’
As a collective problem, climate change is so overwhelming – we are all anxious about it – that it can prevent individual action. Prevailing social norms to consume, along with public lack of trust in governments or others to take decisive action, also erodes motivation to act. Climate (policy) threatens assumptions about our quality of life, fairness, progress and individual freedom, leading to political and ideological division in responding to the issue. Civil society needs to think very carefully of ways in which tackling climate change can appeal to people and groups from different walks of life.  Another barrier is democracy itself – the fact that the voting process excludes school children and college students’ voice of the under 18s. Governments need to take a firm lead on establishing climate change as a primary policy imperative, and have this deeply embedded into schools’, colleges’ and universities’ curricula so this permeates society intergenerationally. Maybe a cabinet minister for climate activism who links ‘all things climate change’ with other pressing social and economic issues is an important step in society moving away from the binary ‘us-them’ syndrome and emphasising climate action as integral to new forms of economic development as fossil fuels dwindle.
Barrier 2: Conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest will inevitably endure between different stakeholders in making appropriate climate decisions. These conflicts of interest need to be considered within a ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’ movement and acknowledged and critically discussed in schools, colleges and universities so that youth engagement is not skewed in favour of one standpoint, and therefore remains representative of all of society. A lot more academic and policy research on climate change and education is needed to understand how school children value their environment as means to develop more holistic and inclusive climate policies.
Barrier 3. Educational institution engagement cannot be implemented as a ‘one size fits all’ knowledge framework
Greater public engagement in climate action must be targeted and can only work if the knowledge domain of the general public is germane to their everyday life. Despite Michael Gove’s infamous 2016 quote that “people in this country [UK] have had enough of experts”, modern life is so complex that it necessitates a division of labour and hence the need for contributions from trained experts like engineers and architects. The limits of lay knowledge (and particularly lay expertise) in matters of climate change are therefore restricted, so those participating in the ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’ need to be mindful of how far public engagement in climate action can extend in a ‘rule of experts’ context. Likewise, schools, colleges and universities need to teach how climate change policy is dependent on different forms of expertise and citizen action.
Barrier 4. Uneven intergenerational power relationships
A lack of voice, visibility or opportunity are often formidable barriers for a more equitable youth engagement in climate action and policy.  There is a physical and political barrier between where government-led political decisions are made and where equitable/just youth contributions can take place within the existing political process. Young people can involve themselves in the science process through volunteering in large citizen science projects, but there remains the existence of a further uneven power relationship between scientists and ‘citizen scientists’. Scientists are constrained by how they can approach their research methodology/data collection because of rigid reporting structures of institutions/funding bodies. Additionally, scientists’ biases have been demonstrated in citizen science projects where certain data sources are favoured over others (e.g. based on the background/education level of the data collectors). This suggests a belief that citizens and more specifically young people do not possess the necessary knowledge or data collection skills to perform robust science to the standards of scientific ‘experts’.
The key question here is how does the ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’ align itself with scientists in a way that moves the relationship beyond the scientific consensus argument and engenders schools, colleges and universities as central in the climate policy hierarchy?
Barrier 5. Challenges of upscaling
In addition to uneven power relations existing between local and national government, the ‘New Civil Politics of Climate Change’ faces various challenges across different countries and within the scalar jurisdictions of each country. Engagement is easier to deploy in democratic political systems that have a commitment and track record of fostering public participation in environmental/social decision-making. For example, commitments to broad principles have been made under the Aarhus Convention of 1998, European Union Directives on Public Participation and Access to Environmental Information, even specific directives such as the Water Framework Directive.
However, prospects of public engagement (let alone, youth engagement) are less obvious in non-democratic, authoritarian countries where political leadership is not representative or accountable, public participation is not legitimate or encouraged, and where political freedoms are curtailed, and civil society organisations do not possess freedom of speech (e.g. China, Brunei). However, there is evidence to suggest that there is also some variation in democratic countries when it comes to climate policy action and commitment.
Conclusion: Moving climate policy forward through a new civil politics of climate change in schools, colleges and universities?
So, is it all doom and gloom for the New Civil Politics of Climate Change? Well, no. Many of the above barriers can be overcome with schools, colleges and universities playing a central role. For example:
  • The need to reframe the climate change problem, and address conflicts of interests and uneven power relationships, can be further exposed and highlighted by the current context and momentum of this new civil politics around the world, particularly how school children and college/university students offer a policy window for instigating step changes because they are less cynical and more capable of seeing the irrationality of many of the above barriers to climate action and policy.
  • The New Civil Politics of Climate Change that we are witnessing provides an opportunity for more constructive policy dialogue between civil society and governments on the value of schools, colleges and universities in embedding local networks of action. The value of co-producing climate policy is one such avenue that the government can now take and start to talk to schools, FE and HE Institutions, climate activists and even faith groups as a pre-cursor to involving more non-governmental groups in deciding how to tackle climate change, particularly in assessing local climate risks and adaptation choices. This will help erode some of these institutionally engrained conflicts of interests between different groups by reframing the climate change problem in terms of social good, rather than just an environmental issue.
Who better than our educational institutions to lead on this? Some of the authors are involved in facilitating the co-production of climate knowledge and action with HE students and primary school students through discipline-based research that involves developing and playing games related to sustainability and climate change.
Whilst this New Civil Politics of Climate Change offers a ray of hope and opportunity to rethink how schools can contribute to addressing the deepening climate crisis, there is a need for further investigative research and analysis to unpick some of these challenges and determine the relationship between schools, citizens and governments within this new civil polity. To understand how the emergence of a New Civil Politics of Climate Change can politically transform all our institutions into robust climate action, there needs to be strong leadership. Whether this can come from government or civil society actors remains a moot point.
What is clear is that the school climate strikes, supported by the XR movement, has created a policy window for governments to implement climate policy differently. It is now up to governments around the world to open their policy doors wider and let civil society and the general public in. Schools, colleges and universities may be the most socially acceptable way to do this.

Delivered by EAUC