COP26 was a watershed moment for UK concern about climate change. What’s next? How will the British public think and feel about climate change in the coming months? What are the stories they’ll hear – and not hear? And what should climate advocates be doing to keep awareness and concern high, whatever lies ahead? We crowd-sourced predictions from the climate movement and beyond.
Our Climate Engagement Lab helps climate campaigners and advocates understand how to authentically connect with and inspire people from across society to take meaningful action.
In January the Lab held a special session with representatives of campaigning organisations and also those who engage the public in different ways – from football clubs and broadcasters to consumer advice groups and the arts. We wanted to help advocates think about climate engagement from the perspective of how people from different communities, audiences and demographics live their daily lives. As Climate Outreach’s Theory of Change says, this is what drives how people really think about climate action.
Attendees were asked to take themselves out of ‘work mode’ and to be the ‘them’ that they are with their parents, children, or friends. Who do we listen to and trust? What are we worried about for the coming months? And what does all of that mean for how to build effective climate campaigns in 2022 and beyond?
How to deepen and broaden climate concern and action in 2022
Of course pretty much the only safe bet about the future is that it won’t turn out quite like you think. But whatever’s in store, conversations kept coming back to three principles for deepening public concern about climate change and helping channel it to meaningful action.
1. Sensitivity: times are tough and polarisation is a risk
While headline public support for climate action is high across society, the months ahead look challenging for many, particularly those on low incomes. Climate advocates will need to be particularly conscious of the danger of appearing out of step with this reality, and ready to reflect seriously so campaign proposals can’t be easily dismissed as elitist or unfair on those in hardship. To help, in spring 2022 Climate Outreach will publish a guide for campaigners on understanding and navigating the critical importance of ‘fairness’ in building broad and deep public support for climate policy.
2. Tangibility: make it real, make it local, and pass the mic
People experience the public debate about climate change in different ways, through different media. Some live and breathe it, and others barely notice at all. Over the years our work has repeatedly found that effective climate engagement connects the issue with people’s everyday lives: about ideas that excite people, in places they can touch and feel, and most importantly championed by people that they trust and which resonate with their identity. In our session participants recognised that campaigns and projects need to start from the local, responding to people’s love of nature and the places that they live.
3. Urgency and agency: make actions meaningful
Warnings from climate scientists and ever-scarier extreme weather aren’t going away. There’s a big risk of climate anxiety and disempowerment, about which many of our participants are already worried. Now more than ever it matters that the actions people are asked to take feel meaningful. That’ll be different for different temperaments and audiences. But as we explore in our Theory of Change, meaningful means in particular actions that resonate with people’s identities, their concerns, and those that they see to be held by the communities around them.
The stories we’ll hear in 2022
Here are some of the main stories which our attendees felt might affect climate concern in 2022:
‘Can we afford it?’ Attendees felt strongly that worries about rising living costs, inflation and particularly energy bills would define the public mood for a good while in 2022. Millions, particularly those on the lowest incomes, are bracing themselves for months of hardship ahead. This will also occupy a lot of political and media attention. At present people don’t seem to be blaming climate policies for soaring gas prices, but that may not remain the case – for two reasons:
‘It’s not fair that I should pay to have my boiler ‘ripped out’: As policy moves away from invisible tinkering with the energy system to changes to our homes, diets and transport, the public will start to notice. Beneath strong headline support for climate action, there is less enthusiasm for some of the things this might mean, like eating less meat. Overblown headlines like those saying ministers will ‘rip out’ people’s boilers have already stoked worries about disruption to people’s lives. Climate communicators will try to balance this by pointing to benefits like warmer homes and green jobs. But caution must be taken in being on the wrong side of a perception – rightly or wrongly – about what is ‘fair’. As the government is learning to its cost, something perceived to be hypocritical, unjust or unfair can carry enormous weight. Climate Outreach argues that public support for climate action critically depends on it being widely thought to be fair, and we’ll be publishing research and a dedicated guide to help advocates respond effectively to this in spring.
‘Is climate change for people like me?’: Opponents of climate action are trying to increase polarisation around climate change, dragging it into the so-called ‘culture wars’. The UK has avoided this so far, and there’s much more support across the board for climate action than perhaps many of its opponents realise – but this must not be taken for granted. Nigel Farage is just the latest politician to join a small but noisy movement seeking to brand net zero targets as elitist. This is further complicated by the Prime Minister’s uncertain future (at the time of our session), with climate policy potentially becoming a dividing line between candidates to replace him. Attendees saw a big challenge ahead for climate communicators to navigate this uncertain terrain – taking it seriously, but not fueling it. Again, our upcoming guide to fairness this spring will give some tips and advice on how best to do this.
‘My uncle’s just bought an electric car’: For all the above, it’s important to keep perspective. Lower-carbon cars and energy (just for example) are only going to become cheaper and more widespread. More people will have friends in jobs that are in some way ‘green’, and more businesses will advertise their climate-friendly credentials. This can only help to build support for net zero in practice – no matter what the national commentariat debate – as climate action feeling ‘normal’ is a central part of the social mandate needed for a greater political response.
‘Think global, act local’: Since Covid, millions of people in the UK have been (re)immersed in their local communities and town centres, and in particular their local green spaces. The huge outcry last year about sewage outflows into waterways showed the depth of British feeling about keeping nature clean and healthy. Advocates have historically hived off ‘climate’ and ‘nature’ into separate campaigns, but attendees felt that now more than ever most people won’t see the distinction. Campaigns that start from tangibly improving and protecting people’s valued local areas could be highly effective in 2022, whether labelled as ‘climate’ campaigns or not.
‘It’s really happening, but what can I do about it?’: 2022 is sadly unlikely to pass without major climate impact incidents around the world, like wildfires, floods, and deadly heatwaves. The effects of climate change at home are already being noticed in everyday life, and this is unlikely to decrease. Attendees felt that impacts around the world were increasingly resonating with communities in the UK with family or roots in affected regions. Two major UN climate reports are also due in the coming months which are likely to provoke headlines about the ever-shrinking window for keeping temperatures to a 1.5 degree rise. The trick for climate campaigners will be to respond to the anxiety and sense of urgency with actions that feel meaningful.
‘Maybe I’d better do something’: Many will find that meaning in protest and activism. After two years of lockdowns or restrictions, attendees expected renewed mobilisation. Some expected influential new voices to enter the fray, including from faith, sports, major businesses and beyond, to join campaigns demanding action. This may potentially include a focus on the next COP talks in Egypt in November, although for the UK public this summit will inevitably be lower profile than one held at home.
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We are grateful to the Samworth Foundation for their support for the Climate Engagement Lab.
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