2019 marked a turning point in public understanding of climate change, but now the real challenge begins - here are Climate Outreach's key priorities for 2020.
2020 is set to be a critical year for climate change. We know the science dictates the need to act ever more rapidly, extreme weather events are hitting communities harder and harder, and this year's UN climate conference in Glasgow will be the most important global climate event since the Paris Agreement was signed.
In many parts of the world we are, for once, starting the year with record levels of public concern after an incredible year for public understanding of climate change.
Key triggers for this new landscape include the IPCC’s latest scientific report as well as increasingly devastating climate impacts that are now being seen and felt in the global north. These impacts of course have been a feature of life for millions in the global south over the past decade, but when something is far away, it is easier to ignore, as the social science confirms.
We also saw a measurable shift in the way many media outlets cover climate change. Most media outlets no longer attempt to create a false balance or waste time questioning the accepted scientific consensus - climate change is at long last being represented honestly in many outlets.
2019 brought much needed public energy to tackling climate change
What really marks last year out as a key year for public engagement is a number of new spokespeople, led by Greta Thunberg, combined with a galvanising set of new climate organisations such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion (XR). These people and organisations brought a public energy and urgency to tackling climate change that had long been missing.
Importantly both Fridays for Future and XR have actively attempted to widen participation in the climate movement beyond the green bubble (whether they are succeeding is an open discussion). For example XR’s demand for citizens’ assemblies has helped create regional and national democratic spaces for representatives from across communities to work out how to deal with climate change,
Results of these shifts in public concern have driven a significant transformation in many countries around what is politically and socially acceptable on climate change grounds. We’ve seen governments commit to more ambitious policies such as net-zero legislation, corporations vie for green credentials, and citizens start to have more conversations around low-carbon behaviours that have traditionally been regarded as too difficult (such as veganism and flying less).
In reality we’re only reaching the starting line of climate action - now the real challenges begin. We are going to have to work out how we deal with a threat that for too long has been ignored or put on the back-burner, and we have some tough questions to grapple with.
How do we translate high levels of concern (as captured in surveys) into more meaningful behavioural changes and support for transformative low-carbon policies?
How are economies going to decouple from fossil fuels without driving social injustices, in particular ensuring those employed in these industries see a positive future? We only have to look to France and the rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement for an example of how climate-related policies designed with little consideration for the impacts on people can be derailed.
What areas of national emissions are going to be addressed first and to what degree is this going to be driven by technological innovation or social innovation? How are high carbon behaviours going to shift in a durable way? Which geographical areas of a nation do we allow to be subject to the impacts of climate change already in the system, and which do we invest in protecting?
Successfully answering these questions needs to be a collective endeavour - societies do not change with the stroke of a policy brush, and technologies are not simply accepted because they achieve a national target.
To implement game-changing policies we need sustained public demands for transformative policies that are acceptable to the majority of society and ultimately what is politically acceptable. Similarly if we are to see a transformation in what are socially acceptable behaviours, we need acceptance that current social norms need to change across society. Both of these shifts will need to be underpinned by a social mandate, and that requires strong and effective public engagement.
Meanwhile, in many countries the public picture is not as united behind the need for climate action.
In countries such as Australia, Canada and Brazil, not to mention the USA, climate change still divides opinion and undermines positive change. It was noticeable that even in the UK the leader of the conservate party was a no show at the first ever leaders' debate on the climate crisis - a worrying symbolic statement.
Across the world right-wing populist movements continue to gain prominence, often on the back of opposition to climate change concern.
There is an urgent need to address this polarisation, to enable all communities to understand the importance of tackling climate change to them. Talking climate is critical to this and that is why Climate Outreach is focused on producing tools and supporting organisations and new spokespeople to widen and deepen climate engagement beyond ‘environmentalists’.
2020: the year of people-centred climate action
Engaging the public with climate change isn’t straightforward - our brains are wired to ignore this complex problem. Overcoming polarisation and shifting deeply ingrained behaviours is a real challenge but it’s a challenge we must urgently address.
We have a great deal of understanding already of how to do this and with the right approaches and investment in public engagement infrastructure (just like any other low-carbon infrastructure), it is clear that we can ensure success in a year that sees the critical UN climate negotiations take place in Glasgow.
Over 2020 our key priorities at Climate Outreach include:
- Talking Climate - driving climate conversations with those communities traditionally marginalised from the climate conversation to overcome polarisation and drive ambition in the lead up to the UN climate conference (COP26) and beyond.
- Climate Visuals - enabling more of society to see their connection with climate change, in particular through shifting visual imagery in traditional and digital media.
- Government action - initiating a global campaign at and around the UN Conference for international governments to fulfil their (ignored) commitments on delivering effective public engagement for their citizens.
- Personal action - accelerating understanding of how to rapidly shift high carbon behaviours through our ongoing role at CAST (Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations) and other collaborations.
- People-centred policy - working with communities to ensure the public are central to key policies and decision-making through citizens’ assemblies and similar deliberative democratic spaces.