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Public engagement as though 1.5C matters

By Robin Webster on October 15, 2018

Guinea - Rural Women's Cooperative Generates Income and Improves Community Life

Nothing like what is happening – and what needs to happen – has ever occured in history.”  We need “urgent, Herculean changes” – “a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives.”

All last week commentators struggled to express the magnitude of the information contained within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest special report on climate change, which lays out how to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C this century, and what happens if we don’t manage it. Allowing global emissions to proceed on their current track means civilisation is unlikely to survive this century. But not doing so means a profound and rapid remodelling of the lives and aspirations of communities around the world.

As outlined in our new think piece on public engagement, the 1.5C target requires rapid and radical policy change from governments; as well as lifestyle change on a range of totemic issues like diet, personal travel and home heating. It also probably means sucking carbon dioxide out of the air at some point this century, using as-yet unproven technologies. Achieving all this, the IPCC says with a measure of understatement, will require “collective efforts at all levels.”

None of this will happen without public support; public engagement; and public consent – which is why for the first time the report includes coverage of the social science of public engagement. The rapidly developing science of climate change communication shows that values, worldviews and political ideology are much more fundamental in shaping people’s views or engagement with an issue than how much they know. Effective communications requires relatable stories, not graphs and statistics – and two-way conversations are more powerful than one-way top-down information provision.

But there are still gaps. Little work has been carried out, for example, to understand how to shift attitudes and behaviours around identity-driven and cherished issues like meat-eating or flying, rather than smaller scale behaviours like recycling or reusing coffee cups.

In many parts of the world, efforts to achieve any sort of public understanding or engagement are also frighteningly absent. Nearly all in depth research on communication and engagement so far has been carried out in wealthier countries – mainly the UK, North America and Australia. The language of climate change remains based in the values and assumptions of a few unrepresentative countries.

In other words, the infrastructure and discipline of public engagement needs to be put in place just as the infrastructure of policy change does. Missing out this vital part of the puzzle will doom the 1.5C target to failure just as surely as policy failure or national conflict. This is even more important in an era of increased social and political polarisation, when powerful politicians are seeking to drive people away from each other. This polarisation has the potential to undermine hard-won international agreements on climate change, taking us backwards rather than forwards.

The infrastructure of engagement could involve social scientists collaborating with campaigners to ask tough questions about lifestyle change; or the creation of a ‘league’ to compare how effectively governments are delivering on their commitments to engage the public on climate change. It could mean using new methods to reach out to citizens – Climate Outreach’s Global Narratives Project for example has created a simple, low-input method of training climate communicators in different countries around the world, and building capacity for delivering communications programmes.

The 1.5C target, and the information contained in the IPCC report, is frightening. But there is an inspirational idea embedded in it – collaboration. It is a report for everyone, a goodbye to get-out clauses – and a target that can only be achieved with the engagement of all.

By Robin Webster

Robin led the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach until April 2023, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

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