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To grow the economy, we need to tell good climate stories

By Rachael Orr on February 8, 2024

Green business leaders should seize the opportunity to become the storytellers of a fast and fair transition to a low carbon world, writes Climate Outreach CEO Rachael Orr.

Team standing talking and learning together. The company uses renewable/sustainable energy and resources in the North East of England. They are looking at a solar panel one of the women is holding.

My first job in the charity sector was with the housing charity Shelter. In the first campaign I worked on we were asking for the government to commit to building 20,000 new social rented homes per year. It was the right ask. It was a good, clear message to take to civil servants and policy makers. 

But with real people it fell flat. 

We talked to a number of communications experts about this. “Don’t lead with numbers!” they all cried. “People can’t imagine 20,000 homes – and if they can it feels overwhelmingly big. Lead with stories about why homes really matter.” 

I think about this a lot as we start the year with another round of speculation and ultimately Labour announcing it will water down its £28bn climate investment pledge. 

When we’re talking to policy makers, the number really matters. 

But when we’re talking to most other people we are missing a huge opportunity if we fixate on the figures.  People are supportive of investment and one big number is much like another. What they need is something concrete. 

People respond to people. To stories. So I think everyone who cares about ensuring we get some big green investment in the coming years needs to think about the stories they are telling – and the stories we need to tell. 

Climate change affects us all, and involves us all. But all too often conversations about climate exclude and alienate. 

This is partly because the climate ‘debate’ is still too often felt to be the preserve of experts. I was interviewed by a national radio station a couple of weeks ago and their producer asked me if I had a climate science masters (I do not). 

Because the challenge we must rise to is too big to just be the preserve of people with PhDs.  

Societies globally need to engage and involve everyone in the transition to a low-carbon future. 

Right now, this is not primarily a policy challenge. We know the policies we need. In the UK, the CCC has done a fabulous job of setting these out, exceptionally clearly. It is not primarily a technical challenge. Most of the technology is here, or is coming. 

One of the biggest challenges we have to meet is one of communications – of storytelling and engagement. Here are two things this means. First, bringing net zero to life in a way that feels exciting and real to people. Second, showing that this isn’t a magical future – it’s happening already, right across the country (and the world). 

Getting this done right and on time means putting people at the heart of everything. People want trusted information, they want to have informed conversations and they want more opportunities to get involved. They also want honesty – change is hard and it will involve trade offs. We have to talk about that. 

But most of all we must create and tell the stories and be the storytellers of a fast and fair transition to a low carbon world. 

Businesses and business leaders have a huge role to play here. I heard Deborah Meaden on the radio over Christmas bemoaning the fact that the innovators and leaders who are pioneering the green transition aren’t known. 

We need to change this. All of us who care about tackling climate change need to be much better at showing people that the green transition isn’t just possible – it’s happening. 

Business leaders should be proud of telling their climate stories. Of why this matters to them as business leaders – and as people. As parents, grandparents, community activists, concerned citizens. 

Too often, people are scared to tell their climate story for fear of criticism that they aren’t doing enough. They aren’t making enough personal sacrifices. They aren’t perfect. The progress we are making on climate isn’t perfect  at any level – individual, societal, governmental. It is imperfect progress. But it is progress. 

So let’s make 2024 the year we tell the stories of the great things that are happening, and of what more needs to happen. Of what green investment will mean to the place where you live and work. 

Not the year we endlessly debate numbers that, to most people, are meaningless.


This piece was originally published in BusinessGreen on 30 January 2023.

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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