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Building a social mandate for a just transition – why public engagement is critical

By Chris Shaw on October 5, 2020

 A just transition requires giving people a voice in defining what makes a transition just. To accompany the release of a briefing paper by the COP26 Universities network, we share three things we’ve learned from our work of listening to what people say and feel about climate change: the dialogue about just transition must be ongoing, inclusive and authentic. 

Trainee prepares for a career in energy efficiency in Pittsburgh USA

The COP26 Universities Network (which Climate Outreach is a member of through our role in the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, CAST) has just released a new briefing titled Just Transition: Pathways to Socially Inclusive Decarbonisation. It argues that a social backlash against decarbonisation is likely if it is not perceived to be just. In order to avoid such a backlash, policymakers need to facilitate broad buy-in for decarbonisation policies by giving people a voice in defining what would make a transition just.

Our experience at Climate Outreach of sitting down and listening to what ordinary people say and feel about climate change suggests there are three features this kind of dialogue must have if it is to succeed in building broad, deep and sustained buy-in for the transition, and for that transition to be aligned with commonly held perceptions of what is just and fair.


An ongoing conversation 

Ultimately, the changes under discussion have to happen, and they will involve changes to all our lives. First and foremost, the process of listening to and talking with people should be an ongoing one. Transforming into a low carbon society involves developing strategies to address a broad range of complex issues in the context of rapidly shifting circumstances. To succeed in the long term, these strategies need to engage the wider public and build a social mandate for climate action.

Mitigating emissions and adapting to a rapidly changing world in a just manner will require ongoing deliberations the length and breadth of the country. A one-off deliberation for a small group of people convened in response to a specific event such as the declaration of a climate emergency is a good start, but it can only be a start.

There is an appetite for getting involved in these dialogues. People who take part in discussions about the world they want to live in invariably report enjoying the process. One of the recommendations that often emerges from these events is that there should be more of them, involving more people. 

We need to keep ‘talking climate’ not as a means to an end, but as a crucial part of the low carbon transition itself.  It is better to think of these conversations as an integral part of the transformation, rather than an activity that simply runs in tandem with an otherwise invisible and distant shift in how energy is generated and how emissions are mitigated. There will be little chance of building deep and sustained engagement if people feel estranged and disconnected from the process.

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Broadening engagement with just transition

An inclusive process

Responding to climate change requires accelerated action across the world, at all levels of society. The ongoing work of building and sustaining engagement must be an inclusive one, if it is to be just. 

Despite high levels of public concern about climate change, many people may not feel that the process is one intended for them, or they may not feel able or comfortable in taking part. 

This challenge is at the heart of a project we are currently developing the methodology for. The project – ‘A fair energy transition for all‘ – is a collaboration with partners in nine European countries to bring economically vulnerable citizens into a deliberative space to ask them what the transition to a low carbon future would need to look like in order to feel fair to them. The key innovation for this project (supported by the King Baudouin Foundation) is getting economically vulnerable and marginalised citizens to participate in the discussions in the first place. 

Through careful design of the process, we are taking steps to make it more inclusive, such as removing the need for technical expertise or technical presentations. We are carefully crafting a framework for the discussion that is respectful of the participants and grounds the conversation in their immediate lived experiences, values and concerns. We are also paying attention to the recruitment of participants in order to maximise homogeneity within the group in terms of socio-economic and educational background.

An authentic process

Finally the process of listening must be an authentic one, respectful of the opinions expressed. This is a particularly challenging issue, given that the climate science indicates the very least we should be trying to do is limit warming to 1.5C, and that is an exceedingly challenging target.

However, if the deliberation is an authentic one, then it should not simply be an exercise in rubber stamping pre-ordained conceptions of just outcomes. For a dialogue to be just and authentic, participants must be allowed to bring into the conversation all of their concerns and questions. 

The COP26 Universities Network is a growing group of more than 30 UK-based universities working together to help deliver an ambitious outcome at the United Nations Climate Summit being held in Glasgow at the end of 2021

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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