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Enlightenment 2.0: What happens when citizens come together to talk about climate change

By Chris Shaw on September 20, 2017

Previously published on Huffington Post.

As our new research paper published this week argues, whatever our hope for technological fixes, we are not going to avoid climate catastrophe without helping ordinary people make better use of the oldest social tool of all – our voices.

Although the ancient Greek philosophers usually get all the credit for being the people who invented argument and reasoning, the idea of ‘a conversation’ (an amicable exchange of views) was actually invented in France in the early 18th century. At least that is the claim made by Marshall Berman, who recounts how Persian visitors to Paris were invited by women to visit the literary salons then springing up across the city, where both sexes would sit as equals to discuss the pressing issues of the day. This simple act – men and women coming together to talk – was a key element of the social changes which gave birth to the Enlightenment, modernity and parliamentary democracy.

Today, we hear a great deal about fractured societies, isolation and a breakdown of trust between citizens and government. This crumbling social cohesion surely has something to do with the fact that most of us have little opportunity for ‘conversations’ –  face to face encounters where we can come together and be given permission to talk as equals with our peers about serious (or simply enjoyable) topics.

As we explain in our new academic paper Using Narrative Workshops to socialise the climate debate, published this month in Energy Research and Social Science, my colleagues and I at Climate Outreach have witnessed the power of bringing small groups of the ‘ordinary’ public together in informal round table settings, to share their thoughts on the big questions facing humanity – and to provide a vehicle for dialogue about climate change.

Our Narrative Workshop methodology was designed as a research tool, a way to make it easier for people to get to grips with the otherwise technical and abstract phenomenon of climate change. Narrative Workshops have proved a successful way of making discussions about how to respond to climate change accessible to a diverse range of different sections of society. From faith groups to young people, in the UK, across Europe and in other cultures such as the rural villages of India, we have repeatedly seen people demonstrate a keen interest in the challenges posed by climate change. The Narrative Workshop model makes this possible by anchoring the conversation in terms of the participants’ immediate environment, concerns about policies which are fair and transparent, and reflections on how energy is being generated and used.

What we didn’t anticipate were the side-effects that emerged as a result of taking part in these discussions. Recruitment for the workshops is normally done through professional recruitment agencies and often there will be no mention of climate change beforehand. So we are not talking to the already concerned or converted. In this sense the approach is quite different from the Carbon Conversations model, which is intended for people who are already concerned about the climate. This is a representative cross-section of people who hardly ever think about climate change. And yet, as we move through the discussions and begin engaging with the nuts and bolts of climate change, we see people shift from a slumped disinterest to sitting upright to (by the end) leaning forward in their chairs with genuine interest and passion, wanting to know why more action isn’t being taken and where they can go to get more information. This insight is of profound importance – the climate silence that we are fighting against is not the result of disinterest or lack of concern. It is a direct consequence of people being denied the opportunity and unthreatening space in which to have those conversations, to know that their opinion will be respected and heard, and that their concerns are shared by people like themselves.

In our new paper, we present two case studies where the Narrative Workshop method has provided significant advances in building bottom-up dialogue on climate change. The first case study reviews the results from workshops run with groups who share a centre-right political view. The second case study reflects on the experience of developing a framework for conversations for the general public in Scotland.

We are still in the early stages of understanding the full potential of the conversations approach. It is not clear whether the enthusiasm that emerges in the workshops is sustained beyond the moment, or what could be done to ensure that the enthusiasm turns to action. But the future is a co-operative endeavour. A conversation-based approach to public engagement on climate change may also be the missing ingredient in making sure we get to protect that which we love in the face of an uncertain future. If Enlightenment 2.0 is what is needed to develop a meaningful way of living with climate change, then we will need to expand the opportunities for people to come together as citizens in convivial conversation.

Photo CC BY 2.0 Eugene Kim

Read the academic paper here

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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