Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A Too Easy Target

Perhaps the 5th November was a bad day to chose to watch my first live commons debate. Remember, remember, the 5th November. . . Today's security measures at the Palace of Westminster however would surely thwart any kind of gunpowder or its more modern equivalent and all forms of treason although perhaps plotting can still sneak a path through the X-Ray machines.

I padded up the softly carpeted staircase to find that the public gallery was already packed with Italian tourists and groups of schoolchildren. But, by the time Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband rose at 12.15 to start the main business of the day, the commons benches were almost empty. I counted about MPs in the chamber. The press gallery was almost empty.

So, was this an obscure debate about glass manufacturing? An absorbing session on the finer points of parliamentary process? No. It was actually parliament's last scheduled debate on climate change before the much anticipated COP15 talks in Copenhagen. The last opportunity for MPs to represent and voice the questions and concerns of their constituents and to ensure that Ed Miliband and his team of negotiators left for Copenhagen with these questions ringing in their ears.

So why did I chose to sit in the tourist filled gallery to watch this debate when I could have seen it broadcast live at home? The remote controlled cameras in the commons chamber will only show you so much. They don’t show the galleries. They only show long shots of the chamber or who is speaking. Only by being there can you really see the level, or lack, of animation in the house as MPs stand to catch the Speaker’s attention. Only by being there can you watch as the row of impossibly young civil servants, perched on their own benches tucked behind the speaker’s chair, pass notes along a relay of backbenchers to those on the front bench. Only by sitting behind that huge glass screen can you see MPs slumped on benches, just one hour into what could be a 6 hour debate.

When Peter Lilley, Conservative MP for Hitchen and Harpenden, claimed that a survey completed by visitors to the Science Museum’s “Prove It” climate change exhibition "after they had been through the museum and seen the graphic evidence presented in the most persuasive way possible by the alarmists" showed that people who remained unconvinced of the dangers outnumbered those convinced by a ratio of 6:1, there was a flurry of note-passing but not a single challenge. Both front benches failed to point out to Mr Lilley, as had already been reported by the Daily Telegraph, that this was actually an online survey and that it had been "hijacked" by climate change sceptics. I'm certain that a concerted and determined campaign by the many organisations campaigning for action on climate change could easily reverse that ratio. In fact, when I last looked, the ratio was already down to 2.4:1 and falling.

I was left feeling disappointed that Mr Lilley wasn't picked up or challenged on this and that this now sits on the Hansard record. I had to fight the urge to knock on the big glass wall of the public gallery to make the point and couldn't get rid of the image of Benjamin Braddock hammering on the church wall in the final scdene of The Graduate. I could just image the snarling gritted teeth as I hammered away shouting "online survey! Hijacked by sceptics!"

I’m still waiting for Mr Lilley’s office to point me towards the Pew survey reported to show that “only 15% of the UK population take seriously or are seriously concerned about the prospect of climate change”. Something to be concerned about if it is true and something that could give us useful information on how people respond to the messages they are receiving about climate change.

In earlier "oral questions", Mr Miliband and Joan Ruddock looked exasperated and I leant forward on my bench as Mr Lilley, chose to attack "that" advert - the £6m "bedtime story" campaign that I've written about before and that is still the subject of an ongoing Advertising Standards Agency investigation. Mr Lilley describing it as a “propaganda film” focused on what he described as the “fairy story” depicted in the advert . It just goes to show that adverts like this present such an easy target for deniers, sceptics and those who are "luke warm", giving them a gift in that bedtime stories and fairy stories are so often one and the same thing.

The lack of MPs and the lack of press left me concerned that people could well be becoming getting weary of and hardened to the use of negative and doom-laden messages and images, such as those carried by the Act On CO2 TV campaign. It left me feeling that, as the Barcelona talks plodded on, the world had resigned itself to an incomplete deal in Copenhagen.

A new direction is needed if people are to become engaged and feel empowered. Hope and opportunity have a huge role to play and many groups are now trying to bypass the semantics of the science by focussing on a positive future and the huge opportunities it gives us to radically review the way we live.

John Gummer, summed this up nicely.

If Britain wants to be in the same position in the future that the industrial revolution put us into in the past, we really must accept the green revolution. That was the whole burden of the report produced by the Quality of Life group, which I had the honour to chair. The report made it clear that there was an economic imperative to deliver a low-carbon economy”

Campaigning groups are finally starting to use messages like this to try to dispel feelings of helplessness that can come from being bombarded with images and forecasts of doom and destruction. I’ve just read the introduction to Al Gore’s new coffee table style book, ‘Our Choice’, and am looking forward to reading some positive and empowering messages and just hoping there are no pictures of polar bears clinging to lumps of ice. . .

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