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Delayed climate policies demonstrate just how much we need a UK public engagement strategy

By Rachael Orr on September 22, 2023

Originally published in Business Green

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision this week to weaken and delay climate policies, and the backlash last month to the extension of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, are just two examples that demonstrate how desperately we need a strong national public engagement strategy. What would that look like?

Charging an electric vehicle in Milton Keynes, UK

Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency.

This was car company Ford UK’s dismayed response to the news leaked a few days ago – and then confirmed – that Rishi Sunak was about to water down the government’s net zero commitments.

It’s not only businesses who need these three core things from the government. Every one of us needs to see ambition, commitment and consistency from our political leaders if we are to have any chance of delivering a just transition to a low carbon future.

For Claire Coutinho, the recently appointed Secretary of State for DESNZ, an already daunting job has just got even harder. A summer of wild weather around the world – from heatwaves to hurricanes to wildfires – leaves us in no doubt that climate change is not some future problem. It’s here and now. We need urgent action. The UK public say they agree.

And yet. The backlash over the recent extension of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) – a policy designed to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions – also shows us that we face huge challenges not just in gaining and maintaining support for climate policies in general, but in ensuring people understand and support them as they are implemented.

If we don’t, it’s all too easy for politicians to walk back from their climate commitments, and to try and use them to score political points.

A key lesson from the ULEZ expansion – a policy introduced by a Conservative mayor and implemented by a Labour mayor, to support a national net zero policy introduced by a Conservative government and supported by the Labour opposition – is that we haven’t done the hard work on engaging and involving all of us.

The speed of the changes required for us to meet our net zero goals means we need to supercharge not just our policy design, but also how we involve and talk with everyone about how policies are implemented. This isn’t currently happening – so it’s no wonder the recent Committee on Climate Change report found that only nine out of 50 key indicators are currently on track.

Unless we start prioritising people, and keeping our messages to them consistent and ambitious, our net zero policies are in grave danger not just of being delayed, but of failing.

Fortunately for the Secretary of State, there is something she can do immediately: publish the government’s strategy for public engagement on climate change.

What would this mean? It means an ambitious plan that says: “we see us, you, everyone, as absolutely central to tackling climate change.”

It means being bold and ambitious about all the different ways we can talk with people about climate change and what our net zero target means in their lives and their communities. The UK, in common with all rich, high emitting nations, needs to transition to a low carbon economy in the next 20 years. If people don’t better understand what that transition means for them, they won’t be able to support it.

It also means ensuring people feel these policies are fair – one of the driving factors influencing whether people support climate policies or not. And people rarely see any change as fair if it feels like it has been done to them, rather than with them. To do this, we have to be much better at starting the conversation about climate where people are – not where we want them to be.

As Climate Outreach’s recent report – covered by Business Green – points out, we believe the government’s role in public engagement is about leadership, but not necessarily about delivery. We need our Secretary of State to be clear in her commitment to tackling climate change, and equally clear that we can’t do it without everyone being involved. But the central government’s role is mainly about convening and financing local initiatives, sharing the learning about what works and helping to supercharge these all over the country.

So a key part of what the government’s public engagement strategy must do is identify the trusted messengers and spokespeople in communities across the country who are best placed to have these conversations. Community leaders, faith leaders, headteachers, sports coaches. We need to support them to start conversations about climate change and talk with people about what it means for them, their homes and their neighbourhoods.

What else might a public engagement strategy contain? Perhaps more climate assemblies. More public meetings to talk about how climate policies will be implemented. More online spaces for people to discuss and debate things. More new ideas on how we bring people with us.

Why hasn’t this happened already? Delivering a public engagement plan was a commitment made at COP26 in 2021, and a key recommendation from both the Climate Change Committee and Chris Skidmore MP’s Net Zero Review.

Ultimately, public engagement is a clunky term, and it’s not one that’s widely used or understood. It’s easy to dismiss as ‘another advertising campaign.’ But it has to be much, much more than that.

We don’t have all the answers. No one does. But we do know that until and unless both policy design and climate storytelling help people connect their hopes and aspirations to this agenda, we’ll keep seeing backlash over policy implementation – and keep failing to deliver on our net zero policies.

We know the new Secretary of State is a committed environmentalist. She probably has a year to make her mark before the next general election. Showing how she is going to prioritise people alongside policy to really deliver for our planet would be a great place to start.

Reports & guides

Reports & guides

Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change

By Rachael Orr

Rachael is the CEO of Climate Outreach. She works closely with the board to ensure effective governance and growth of the organisation and with our senior leaders in defining and delivering the organisation’s overall strategy, goals and impact.

Rachael has spent her career in the voluntary sector in leadership roles combining a deep commitment to social justice and to public engagement. She has run campaigns for Shelter, led programme and campaigning work at Oxfam and currently serves as Chair of Trustees at the Refugee Council.

It was in her last role, leading a network of housing associations, that Rachael really appreciated the huge gap in public awareness and engagement on climate change – and the huge opportunity to fill this gap. Housing, like many sectors, is in a race to decarbonise, and the sector is still really developing its approach to community, resident and public engagement. Rachael firmly believes that Climate Outreach is uniquely placed to help many sectors fill this gap.

Rachael is a mum to two young children so most of her spare time is spent playing schools or superheroes – and tidying up. She spends any time she gets to herself running, cycling and going to the theatre.

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