With a month to go before mayoral elections in England, there is one overarching question that voters can ask of their mayoral candidates: will they organise their work around the values that citizens in these cities and city-regions hold to be most important, and will they do so explicitly – testifying publicly to the shared importance of these values?
Climate campaigners and communicators wring their hands at the fickleness of public debate on climate change: a debate does not seem to be in any way proportionate to the scale of the challenge that climate change presents, or the gravity of its consequences.
Faced with this frustration, one response is to try to link climate change more firmly to other more salient aspects of the news agenda – for example, immigration, security or economic growth.
On the face of it, this seems like a sensible approach. If, for example, people don’t seem to care (much) about climate change, but care deeply about the economy, why not focus on the potential economic benefits of a vibrant renewables sector?
But the continued failure of this approach, now over many years, suggests that it may be misguided.
It is an approach that seeks to build concern about policy areas while showing little understanding of the underlying values that drive public appetite and demand for policy change.
Values are not rooted in policy debate: they are structured very differently. Debate about policy may cut across many conflicting values, while commitment to the same coherent set of values may underpin public support for seemingly unrelated policy interventions.
Policy areas – like national security, immigration, climate change, public health care or economic competitiveness – are largely discreet. Public debate on these issues is led by experts with different areas of specialism.
These experts sit in different academic disciplines, in different government departments, in different (often competing) charities, or at different editorial desks. To be sure, links can be made between different policy areas. But where this is done, these links are material. Think of the debate about the impact of immigration on national security, or the intersection between economic competitiveness and public revenues for public health provision.
Unfortunately, most policy debate is structured in ways that fail to grasp the psychological factors that are of critical importance in shaping public support for action in these areas: people’s values.
People’s values are often blind to policy areas. In our work, we have shown that public support for conservation action may be built as effectively by communicating about disability rights as by communicating about biodiversity loss: if the values are right. If the values are wrong, then communication in one sphere is found to undermine public support for action in the other.
Crucially, it seems that the actual issues don’t seem to much matter – what matters are the values that are invoked in debate about these issues.
These insights present a crucial challenge to the way in which public debate around social and environmental issues is conducted. It suggests that the work of, say, a government department focused on child poverty may be as important in influencing public support for ambitious action on climate change as the work of, say, a charity working specifically on climate change. Even where that government department makes no mention of climate change.
Of course, these inter-dependencies are already operating – often unseen, and usually in an unhelpful direction.
So, today’s dominant narrative thread, running throughout public policy debate and focused on wealth creation and economic competitiveness engages specific values. These are values which, as demonstrated by study after study, are diametrically opposed to public expression of concern about challenges such as climate change.
The psychological evidence seems clear: systemic public support for serious action on climate change will be predicated on different values.
These will be values of community, social justice, friendship and helpfulness. And they are values that can be placed at the forefront of public policy making. Indeed, there is a clear mandate for this because these are the values that a large majority of people hold to be most important – though, tragically, most of us underestimate the importance that a typical fellow citizen places on these values.
Though difficult, it will be necessary to effect such change at a national level. But at a local level it is perhaps more foreseeable. This is why we are working in Bristol and Greater Manchester in the UK: seeking to help place these values, and awareness of the importance that citizens place on them, at the forefront of regional public debate.
There is a single overriding commitment that mayoral candidates in the upcoming elections across England next month should make, and that we can encourage them to make at their hustings. It is this: to begin to organise their work around those values that the citizens in these cities and regions hold to be most important, and to do so explicitly – testifying publicly to the shared importance of these values.