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COP26 and civil society: engaging beyond the ‘green bubble’

By David Powell on October 20, 2021

With the UN climate talks kicking off in Glasgow in less than a fortnight, civil society groups should be looking to evidence-based messaging and narratives to help them communicate events to the public.

Construction worker building wind turbine. Québec, Canada.

The bad news is that the public still doesn’t know much about COP26. The good news is that civil society groups can change that: they’re among the most trusted climate messengers across the UK public. Narratives emphasising that the talks are a moment where governments can come together in unity to protect nature are most likely to resonate across society, according to a new COP26 engagement guide from Climate Outreach.

The guide draws on new research exploring how two British values-based audience segments respond to messages about COP26. Civic Pragmatists (progressive, but not politically active) and Loyal Nationals (right-leaning and populist) are extremely worried about climate change, but not usually the top priority for climate change campaigners.  

This work forms part of Climate Outreach’s Climate Engagement Lab, which supports civil society campaigners and advocates to help them reach and engage new audiences, turning social science evidence into action. 

The guide recommends: 

  • Embracing the trust that civil society organisations have amongst a breadth of the UK public ahead of COP26. Environmental charities are more trusted than many other communicators – not least politicians, particularly among some segments of the public such as Loyal Nationals, who tend to be cynical about political motivations.
  • Explaining why COP matters. Few Britons had even heard of COP26 at the time of this research (May-July 2021), never mind grasping its importance. Positively, when focus group participants learned about it many were instinctively supportive, albeit incredulous that the government hasn’t done more to tell them about it. Awareness will inevitably rise over the coming days – not least for fans of Eastenders or Coronation Street. But communicators should always take the time to spell out why the COP matters, in everyday language. 
  • Talking about nature and global cooperation. People understand conversations about the climate talks differently to domestic climate policy and politics, meaning that some people perceive language around green jobs and investment as counter to that ethos of participation; Civic Pragmatists in particular. In contrast, explaining why COP26 can address damage to the natural world and inspiring people about nations coming together for the common good, resonates well in this context. Nature framing in particular increases all segments’ support for COP26 itself but also makes people feel connected to the issue, and more likely to consider taking actions both personal (like eating less meat) and political in response. See examples in our guide of effective language used in practice.
Systematic deforestation in a Bolivian national park.

One question we have heard from campaigners is how best to bring people into narratives about nature. Globally, indigenous communities have played a central role in conserving nature, and in living in a way that is in harmony and in balance with it. Our underlying COP26 research also found support for narratives that explore the connection of and interdependence with people and nature, endorsing our work last year that suggested Covid-19 has given people an increased appreciation for the impact the natural environment has on us (and vice versa). But there is more work to do here and we would love to hear people’s thoughts. 

The Climate Engagement Lab is designed to help test what works for campaigners and advocates in practice, and to learn together with them about what other support and insight is needed to reach new audiences and deepen public engagement. Please get in touch with Climate Outreach or use the comment box below to share reactions to any of the above, and of course to let us know what happens in practice if you have tested our campaigning recommendations. For updates about the Climate Engagement Lab, sign up here.

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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