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Britain Talks Climate: how to get the climate story right in an election year

By David Powell on April 26, 2024

People care about climate action but are worried about what change might mean for them. In an election year here in the UK, it’s never been more important for leaders to get the climate story right.

The top message for politicians from our new Britain Talks Climate research is this: don’t slow down climate action. Speed it up, if anything. 

The majority of people in Britain want politicians to work together to make this happen. They want politicians to get on with it.

Don’t forget, the climate and nature crises are still the fourth highest priority for people – and for some, much higher – ahead of the general election. 

When asked about the likelihood to vote for imaginary political parties based on net zero pledges, we see that people are more than twice as likely to think politicians should speed up, rather than slow down efforts to reach net zero.

Likelihood to vote for imaginary political parties based on net zero pledges (Data: More in Common, January 2024)

That feels remarkable considering  people are pretty worn out by politics right now.

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the economy and the world. But climate concern is only hardening. Spend all day on X (formerly Twitter) and you might not believe this, but there’s a deeply-held, quiet majority, ‘common sense’ view that climate change matters. Frankly we should all trust in that, and talk about it, a little more. 

Getting the political story right

But dig beneath that headline support and things get more complicated. Many people are uncertain or even worried about what the changes ahead mean for them.  Partly, these are genuine worries about fairness and cost, at a time when many are really struggling.  To take one example, people with less money think moving away from gas boilers to heat pumps will be unfair to people like them.

Perceived level of fairness of home heating policies over the next 10 years to transition away from fossil fuels, by financial situation.


This demonstrates the real challenge of policy and politics in an election year. 

From now on, the transition is unavoidably bound up with everyday life. Sixty percent of the emissions cuts needed require that people, in some way, do something – what we eat, how we travel, how we heat our homes, and more.  It is mission critical that people broadly think the cuts are a good idea in both principle and practice.

If people don’t feel transition policies are in their interest, wave goodbye to those nice, neat graphs showing steady reductions in emissions. Which, of course, opponents of climate action know all too well. Their game is no longer outright denial, but trying to make each policy unpopular, one by one. Some are trying to drag ‘net zero’ into the culture wars. 

The outgoing head of the Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, is warning that ‘net zero’ itself is becoming an unhelpful, totemic phrase.  Certainly it smacks of technocracy and elitism. Our own research found that people much prefer the concept of ‘balancing’ carbon emissions to the term ‘net zero’.

How to tell a better political climate story

I have been speaking to senior politicians from all parties over the last few months, and their number one question is how to navigate the risk of backlash while pushing ahead with action. 

There’s plenty in our new research to help – starting with the fact that most people are up for being talked to like adults about what’s ahead. They want to hear more about what leaders are doing about climate change – not less.

Salience of various types of climate information (Data: More in Common, January 2024)

A better story starts with things we can touch, feel, and actually see and trust – not targets, or big promises and grand visions that people struggle to believe in.  

Leaders need to respond to people’s concerns – in particular the idea that things like heat pumps or electric vehicles are not what they want, or would be unfairly expensive. These are felt at both an individual (costs to me) and a collective level (costs to society). 

One of the easier things to get right is helping people know where subsidy already exists – not just waiting for early tech-adopters to seek that information out.  As one person in our focus group told us:

They have to have subsidies. I think they have to [consider] real people with real life experience instead of people that have got lots and lots of money that think, ‘Oh this sounds good’. But they don't take into account your everyday person.”

Disengaged Battler, Glasgow

Worries about what’s ahead are particularly acute for people on lower incomes, those who are less trustful of politics and elites, or who don’t think there are decent alternatives to, for example, using their car. 

Of course they are worried. People don’t want to be left on their own with this, and so far there has not been a compelling, inclusive story about why that won’t happen. Both policy design and communications have to deliver an actually true story about how the climate transition will relieve the stresses of most people’s daily life, or at least not be yet another thing to worry about.  

The climate story needs to reassure. It must also inspire, keeping sight of that underlying, deeply-felt concern. Right across Britain, we heard increasing concern about changes to the weather – from 40C heat to flooded farms. All seven segments care deeply about nature, protecting wildlife, and stopping pollution. Everyone is in the market for leaders who have a plan for acting on all that. They just don’t want it to be unfair to them personally.

Ranking of most and least important climate and environment issues for the UK government to prioritise, relative to each other

What’s at stake in this election

We all lose if a climate story takes hold that net zero creates economic or cultural winners and losers. More than anything, people want to know that leaders have a plan, and to trust an inspiring story that feels fair, believable, and tangible for each of us and our lives. 

So going into a UK general election, it is really important that leaders get the story right. Yes, they should respond to and champion the broad public mandate for getting on with it, or even speeding up. But they also need to engage and energise not just those with cash and a love of new technology, but the millions who are stressed, skint and not sure that change will be good. 

Public engagement on climate change really matters. That means listening and responding; taking people’s concerns seriously; and telling brilliant climate stories that make us all feel included. Whoever wins the next election, we’re here to help.


If you have any questions or just want to get in touch, contact us.

By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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