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‘Last chance to save the world’ climate warnings risk turning the public off

By Olivia Rudgard on April 28, 2021

Boris Johnson UN Security Council meeting on climate change

Previously posted in The Telegraph

The UK Parliament BEIS (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) Select Committee is undertaking scrutiny of the government’s preparations for the UN COP26 climate summit. They held a session looking at public engagement on 27 April, and invited oral evidence from several experts including Climate Outreach’s Executive Director Jamie Clarke.

Watch the full recording of the session (click on 11:42) and read the article below by Olivia Rudgard published in the Telegraph.

Charities warn that dire warnings and a failure to deliver solutions could lead to public disillusionment.

Jamie Clarke, Executive Director of the charity Climate Outreach, said that previous climate conferences had been followed by a fall in public interest in the environment after world leaders failed to live up to expectations.

He told MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that more attention should be paid to social sciences in tailoring public information campaigns. It comes ahead of the COP26 climate conference, due to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow this November.

Mr Clarke said a previous occurrence of the UN conference, hosted in 2009, which was much-hyped but failed to deliver, offered a cautionary lesson to today’s world leaders.

Mr Clarke said: “There is a fear, as has happened previously – COP15 in Copenhagen is probably the most salutary tale – when the public is engaged with COPs but is given a message that is unrealistic. “‘This is the last chance to save the world’ [was] quite prominent then, and then politicians don’t quite step up to that very high branch. We actually saw public concern plummet.

“If you create a deadline that is unrealistic, which we will not be able to actually achieve, you put it completely beyond the bounds of possibility – that doesn’t mean you can’t have a high bar, you should be aiming for a high bar – but it can’t be unrealistic. “The climate crisis is very real, but if we give a one-stop shop, that this is now or never, then what happens afterwards?”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the conference’s outcome, an agreement which was not legally binding and was rejected by many countries, was followed by a series of scientific controversies.

It coincided with “Climategate”, the controversy in which emails hacked from the University of East Anglia were posted on the internet and used to casting doubt on the scientific consensus around global warming.

Shortly afterwards the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted to mistakes in one of its reports. “We had a series of events where the politics was perceived to have failed, and then the science came under attack. “It really dented for a while the public narrative, which had been very positive in favor of climate action leading up to Copenhagen,” he said.

There are concerns that it may not be possible to hold the international summit with all participants physically present due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with charities raising concerns that an online event will be less impactful.

Jamie Peters, of the environment charity Friends of the Earth, said video events lacked the “essential in-person meeting” and negotiator huddles that have been key to securing previous climate deals. “If we can’t do a COP in person with full civil society participation, it should be delayed,” he said. The event was initially supposed to take place last year but was delayed due to Covid-19.

June’s G7 summit of world leaders, also hosted by the UK in Cornwall, is currently expected to be held in person, with US president Joe Biden confirming last week that he planned to travel to attend.

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