Comment and analysis by Leicester Green Party, and its fellow-travellers
When we talk about climate change, what we are really talking about is ourselves, the things we value, and how we want the future to be.
Most people now accept the reality of climate change but it is still rarely discussed around the dinner table. Somehow, all the talk of ‘parts per million’ and ‘two degrees’ has turned it into a scientific problem, to be solved by people in laboratories who understand statistics. The iconic polar bear, poster child of environmental campaigns, has only compounded the problem because polar bears are a long way away from most of us and that makes climate change seem remote. The majority of people are not involved in the discussion about what it means for our lives, perhaps because they haven’t realised that it means anything for our lives. Climate change is a scientific reality but not a social reality. And the problem with this collective silence is that, unless we have the conversation, we’re never going to make enough progress towards solutions. In a democracy, (even one as unrepresentative as ours), politicians won’t push beyond where they perceive public opinion to be. If no-one is talking about climate change, they assume that no-one cares. The authors of Talking Climate set out five principles for public engagement to start the conversation.
Principle 1: Learn lessons from previous campaigns and be prepared to test assumptions.
Climate change was ‘adopted’ by environmentalists when it first came to light and it is still considered an environmental issue, rather than a health or human rights issue. This has made it easier for people to assume that it will not affect them (because we are adept at believing we are somehow separate from our environment) and it has given it all the stigma attached to the stereotype of environmentalists. If we want everyone to care about climate change, it can’t just be an environmental issue any more.
We didn’t learn from the analysis of the public health campaigns around HIV/AIDS. These began by using doom-laden messages about the consequences of continuing certain behaviours but they later found that the fear-based approach was only persuasive for people who were already concerned about their health. For people who weren’t concerned, it pushed them towards denial or a tendency to assume that this was a problem for other people and not for them. Fear-based messaging can backfire.
Successful social change campaigns focus on creating movements rather than moments, to sustain public engagement. Climate campaigns have often focussed on specific political requests, like an agreement from the Copenhagen summit, and then suffered from a paralysing collapse when those moments are missed. Civil rights campaigns, in contrast, built a movement continuously over a period of time and captured national debates much more effectively.
Principle 2: Public engagement should start from the ‘values-up’ not from the ‘numbers-down’.
As campaigners, when we talk about climate change, we normally start with the facts. We tell people how much the global temperature has increased, how much CO2 is now in the atmosphere and how much the sea levels are rising. There are a lot of numbers. The problem is that most people are not engaged by numbers. This is not to say that the facts are unnecessary but, as the authors explain, ‘being right is not the same as being persuasive’; there is a different way to start this conversation.
There has been a lot of research over the past few years about the values that people hold and how they affect their views. People who hold self-transcending values and who identify more with ‘intrinsic’ rather than ‘extrinsic’ motivations (e.g., they are motivated more by a sense of wellbeing than a financial reward) are more likely to be concerned about the effects of climate change. Knowing this, we should create our campaigns to foster and appeal to these values. Encouraging people to reduce their energy use in order to save money might have a short-term effect on their carbon footprint but it will not engage them with a wider conversation about responding to climate change because it only engages with self-focussed values. The vast majority of people from across the political spectrum also hold compassionate, communal values, concerned with looking after our families and communities, and it is those that we should be appealing to when we talk about climate change.
Principle 3: Tell new stories to shift climate change from a scientific to a social reality.
There has been a lot of research looking at the language we use to talk about climate change and it has produced some useful advice. For example, we can counter the sceptics’ arguments about the ‘uncertainty’ of climate science by using the more familiar language of risk: everyone is used to taking action to reduce risks, whether it’s wearing a seatbelt or buying house insurance. Of course all attempts to know the future are uncertain but we still watch the weather forecast to decide whether to take an umbrella.
However, changing a few words doesn’t go far enough. To start an ongoing, deep conversation about climate change, we have got to build it into stories that people can relate to. We aren’t particularly good at absorbing information from graphs and statistics: we are much better at understanding narratives. We tell ourselves stories all the time, about the kind of people we are and the things we have done. Stories give shape to our lives, define our values and determine what we do next. The stories about climate change need to start with people’s values so that they fit with other stories about ourselves and become part of our social reality. Climate Outreach, the organisation behind Talking Climate, has developed and tested climate change narratives that people with right-wing views can relate to. They talk about security, avoiding waste and protecting our landscape and suddenly climate change is no longer a left-wing issue. Campaigners can adopt these stories to reach a wider audience.
Principle 4: Shift from ‘nudge’ to ‘think’ to build climate citizenship.
Among environmentalists in Leicester, the question of whether it is useful to promote behaviour change to tackle climate change or whether we should focus entirely on political change comes up regularly. Many early campaigns on climate change focussed on behaviour change, starting with the simplest changes, like turning off the lights. The theory was that these behaviours would cascade – people would take their own bag to the shops and then start to think about where their food was coming from etc. Gradually, this would evolve into a proportionate social response to climate change. However, it didn’t work – the small behaviour changes weren’t widely taken up and they didn’t cascade into bigger lifestyle changes. The campaigners hadn’t realised that you can’t persuade people to change by focussing on individual behaviours and leaving them to join the dots. An ongoing response to climate change requires that people internalise the reasons for changing their behaviour.
Recent research has concluded that a sense of environmental citizenship, which recognises responsibilities rather than rights, leads to pro-environmental behaviour that is rooted in a commitment to the principles and values behind it. Behaviour change is then sustained and substantive. The values behind this sense of environmental citizenship might not actually have anything to do with the environment; they might be more connected to a sense of fairness between humans and a responsibility to avoid causing harm, which requires protecting the environment. Most people find it easier to care about other people than they do to care about the natural world. This is yet another reminder that we should be talking about the human costs of climate change and appealing to communal values in our campaigns, whether we’re calling for individual change or political change.
Principle 5: New voices to diversify the climate discourse.
The social silence around climate change is so pervasive that we often don’t know what the people around us think about it. That’s dangerous because we’re all guided by social norms. Surveys consistently show that a large majority of people in the UK support renewable energy but a survey asking people to estimate other people’s views found that 78% of respondents thought that half the population opposes renewables. If we think that our opinion is out of step with the people around us, we’re likely to keep quiet about it. If we could find our way out of this communication deadlock, we might find that wanting action on climate change is not as unusual as we thought.
In the age of information overload, we are all bombarded by different viewpoints every day. To manage that, we choose to listen to the people we trust and the people we identify with. Research suggests that people do trust scientists on the issue of climate change but the message can be more powerful if it comes from someone within our own social network. New voices are emerging, like the Pope delivering an Encyclical on climate change in 2015 or medical journals publishing editorials on the changing climate and human health. We should nurture these new voices to help make climate change relevant to everyone.
Environmentalists have been campaigning for action on climate change for twenty years and there has been some progress, but nowhere near enough. It is time to pause for a moment and think about how we do this. There is no point in shouting louder and louder if our messages aren’t reaching people. These principles offer a guide for more effective communication to break out of our green ghetto and start a wider conversation. More voices talking about climate change will inevitably mean that there are more opinions about how to tackle it but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. Disagreeing is part of being human and we’ve never managed to make progress on any issue without having a debate about it first. If the debate isn’t happening, it is because people aren’t discussing climate change at all and that isn’t getting us anywhere. If we’re going to deal with this problem, we need everyone and we will all have to start by talking climate.
 Corner, A. & Clarke, J. (2017). Talking climate. From research to practice in public engagement. Palgrave Macmillan: Switzerland. Page 2.