SEPTEMBER 17 — In the era of PH1.0, public communication and narrative control presented challenges that led to its downfall. However, within the current coalition, one Minister stands out for his understanding of the significance of a robust narrative. On September 13, 2023, I had the privilege of attending the ‘Madani Economy Narrative and 2024 Budget Dialogue’ programme hosted by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change.
Its minister, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, articulated a comprehensive vision encompassing five pivotal areas. Amidst these commendable initiatives, what stands out is the minister’s astute appreciation of the paramount role a compelling narrative plays, particularly within his ministry. This piece explores why it’s imperative to get the climate change policy narrative right to avoid public backlash and ensure effective climate action.
Learning from the UK’s experiences
To comprehend the importance of a coherent narrative, we can draw lessons from recent developments in the United Kingdom. During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the conservative government, under Boris Johnson, unveiled a series of initiatives signalling their commitment to global climate leadership. This included the ambitious 10-Point Plan and their efforts at COP26 in Glasgow to uphold the 1.5°C target.
However, a confluence of factors, including the pandemic’s impact, geopolitical events like the Russian war, and the repercussions of Brexit, resulted in soaring inflation and a sharp increase in gas and food prices in 2022. These circumstances fuelled scepticism toward climate policies, with critics contending that aggressive climate and net-zero measures exacerbated the cost of living crisis.
The populist narrative took root, prompting the conservative-led government to backtrack on previously celebrated climate policies. On July 31, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the resumption of new oil and gas drilling, signalling a departure from environmental commitments.
The climate narrative challenge is not exclusive to the government. Recently, Labor MP and London Mayor Sadiq Khan faced significant scrutiny over the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) policy. While the scheme, which expanded to cover all of Greater London, charges older, more polluting vehicles £12.50 (RM75.52) per day, it is the world’s largest clean air zone.
However, it has drawn criticism, particularly regarding the burden of rising costs in an already expensive city. What often remains understated is that the majority of vehicles in Greater London already meet the Ulez standards, sparing their owners from the charge. Furthermore, a Ulez scrappage scheme was introduced, offering micro-businesses and low-income individuals access to a £100 million fund to replace high-emission vehicles.
Due to a lack of proactive narrative craftsmanship, protests have erupted in defiance of the new policy, and five London borough councils have legally challenged the Ulez expansion, alleging procedural lapses and insufficient consideration of compliance rates in outer London.
The crucial role of a strong narrative
Without a compelling narrative accessible to the masses, climate policies can easily be cast as unpopular, triggering public backlash and potential reversals. Malaysia must heed these lessons. Fortunately, Nik Nazmi demonstrates a clear understanding of this challenge. The minister highlighted the importance of connecting his policies, be it on low carbon development or biodiversity restoration, to the Madani Economy concept of raising the ceiling and raising the floor for the rakyat.
Before policies that may face public resistance, such as the removal of petrol subsidies, effective communication can foster greater acceptance. Positive outcomes like job creation, improved food security, and enhanced public health resulting from a just transition should be highlighted. Equally important, the adverse consequences of inaction need to be emphasised.
A holistic approach and stakeholder inputs vital
Another aspect of cultivating a robust narrative and garnering support involves adopting a “whole-of-nation” approach and maintaining flexibility to navigate the unpredictable economic landscape. The minister has adeptly addressed the former by establishing the advisory panel and consultative panel on climate change, which brings together stakeholders from diverse sectors, including industry, academia, civil service, youth, and marginalised communities, to provide guidance on climate change policies. The key to success lies in genuinely listening to stakeholders’ voices when appropriate.
A recent setback in Britain’s climate ambitions, where no new offshore wind farms were secured in a clean energy auction, serves as a cautionary tale of the negative repercussion of discrediting stakeholder input. Offshore wind developers had warned that the auction’s maximum price was too low to ensure profitability, with costs rising by approximately 40 per cent due to escalating material prices and increased borrowing costs. However, the government did not heed such warnings and as a result, put the UK’s climate targets at risk and sent a bad signal to investors, who may now look for projects elsewhere. Malaysia must learn from these mistakes.
Nik Nazmi is poised to rise to these challenges, having swiftly learned from the communication lapses of PH1.0. Just as good policy is vital, a compelling policy narrative is equally essential.
*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.