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How business can help tackle climate polarisation

By David Powell on January 8, 2024

The world’s politics isn’t getting any less febrile, and in the UK some fear we are on the cusp of a net zero backlash. Leadership, visioning and great climate storytelling from business has never been more needed. 

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These are precarious times. Argentina and the Netherlands have both elected populists. Marine Le Pen is riding high in the French polls and the AfD are on the rise in Germany. Climate and nature are inevitably swept up into that, with many of these once-fringe figures pledging to take chainsaws to environmental protections – literally, in the case of Argentina’s Mr Milei. 

And here at home, the climate debate feels like it’s on the cusp of polarisation. It’s a few months since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tried to change the national story on climate change, describing net zero as a ‘sacrifice’ that’s bad for working people. As an electoral gambit it doesn’t yet seem to have done much. But the UK’s prized political stability on climate change is certainly under threat.

Never has leadership from business been more essential. Everyone noticed the hostile response from Ford (and the rest of the green economy) to Sunak’s speech. This was great to see, a cheering reminder that in the big picture the genie of clean investment is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in just because the Prime Minister said some unhelpful things. 

People are fully in support of the principle of cutting emissions, quick. But awareness is low of what we can all do to play our part, and daily life gets in the way. There isn’t a compelling everyday national mission on climate change and you can kind of feel it in our politics. That’s why we at Climate Outreach are just one organisation calling for the government to take public engagement on climate seriously – reminding them also that under the Paris Agreement, they’re committed to doing so. 

And business has to be a central part of that. Businesses help to shape the conversations we have every day and the purpose we work to. And corporations shape norms: what’s aspirational, exciting, and seen as progress. 

Leading businesses already know it. We ran a workshop at last month’s Net Zero Festival where we asked businesses what they are doing to inspire and educate people about climate change. One standout example was Sky Sports, talking about their involvement with Green Football Weekend (GFW) to help connect football fans with everyday sustainability. What’s so great about GFW is it combines the marketing power of big business with club and fan-led campaigns across the country, to create a national moment where climate action and more feels like something football just cares about. 

It is not always easy of course. One worry participants reported is being accused of hypocrisy. Some companies think they can’t talk big about climate action if they’ve not got their own house in order yet, fearing backlashes or social media hassle they don’t need. Our advice: take this head on. Be authentic and acknowledge this stuff is hard, and no-one’s perfect but you’re trying. Apple’s famous ‘Mother Nature’ video and Noah’s superbly up-front ‘Our Packaging Sucks’ campaign both do this. It makes them seem both authentic and relatable. 

Smaller businesses can feel this particularly acutely – we heard that some worry they don’t have the margins or capacity either to focus on sustainability or to tell great stories about it. But there are so many great examples out there – Team London Bridge told us about how they’re working with small businesses in the area to encourage more cycling and cargo bikes. 

The dominant theme of our conversation was the centrality of values. As a new study shows, for all the importance of the bottom line, it’s moral arguments that are the most effective at inspiring businesses to take climate seriously. And those values, authentically held and lived, are at the heart of the kind of great climate storytelling we desperately need in these delicate, distrustful times. 

Businesses have a central role to play in the story that is told about climate action right now: why we’re doing it, how much support there is for it, and the specific tangible benefits it can bring. About the need to take seriously the reality of the pace of change for people and their lives, and invest and communicate accordingly. Leadership like this – from politicians and business – can help avoid a bigger backlash on net zero.


This piece was originally published in BusinessGreen on 13 December 2023.

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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