Previously published in New Scientist.
To head off climate disaster requires difficult changes to our lifestyles, and politicians must not be afraid to say so.
On October 15, the UK government celebrated the start of its first ever ‘Green GB Week’ – an opportunity to promote clean growth for the nation. This followed hot on the heels of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which set out the steps needed to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C.
There’s one indisputable conclusion to take from that report – if we’re to get climate change under control, absolutely everything must be on the table. This includes lifestyle changes such as flying less and cutting down on red meat.
Yet Claire Perry, the minister in charge of the UK’s climate change strategy, doesn’t see it this way. She described the idea of government telling us what to eat on climate grounds as “the worst sort of Nanny State ever”, adding: “Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?”
Perry’s reluctance to ask us to change says something important about why public engagement on climate change has not been straightforward. People in wealthy, industrialised nations like the UK tend to see climate change as a ‘psychologically distant’ risk: not here, and not now.
As a political issue, it struggles to compete with more immediate concerns like terrorism or insecure employment. Politicians also fear that engaging with the public on climate change risks comes across as preachy or interfering. And, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, there has been a degree of suspicion that climate change activists have a hidden left-wing agenda.
End of the world?
Adding to the public’s sense of disconnect, warnings of apocalyptic futures have been paired with ‘simple and painless’ behavioural changes like re-using plastic bags and doing our recycling. It isn’t surprising that people are confused: is it the end of the world, or do we just need to change our coffee cups and ditch plastic drinking straws?
The research my colleagues and I do – on how to improve the communication of climate change – is designed to address these problems. One clear outcome of that research is that it is crucial to talk about climate change in the here-and-now, linking changes in the weather to tangible and meaningful actions that people can take to cut carbon.
What’s more, most people find it easier to think about their own health than that of the planet, so emphasising the health benefits of low-carbon activities like cycling instead of driving, or insulating draughty homes, might be a better way to go.
One big barrier is the prevailing social silence around climate change. Few of us discuss it with friends – perhaps that’s why politicians underestimate the level of support for renewable energy and concern about climate change. Getting the conversation going is the first step to meaningful action.
And most importantly of all, communication needs to connect with public values across the political spectrum. Avoiding wastefulness in energy use, improving health outcomes, conserving green spaces and forests, creating a sense of pride in rebuilding the Great British energy system, and fostering a sense of responsibility to future generations are ways of talking about climate change that are more likely to resonate than guilt-laden messages about self-sacrifice.
Once the public is engaged in a meaningful conversation about why we have a responsibility to consider how we eat, travel and live in a changing climate, skipping the steak and chips might not sound like such a radical proposition.
Photo: Franz Bischof