Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Finding the Right Words – Shaping an Effective Climate Change Narrative

By George Marshall on December 22, 2015

We have a massive problem with climate change- not just the scale and impact of the issue itself, but the continuing lack of public conviction and commitment to action.  Granted,  in opinion polls two thirds of Europeans say that they are very concerned and 16% consider it to be “the most serious problem facing the world as a whole. However, when asked to name the most important issues for their own country, hardly anyone mentions climate change.  Even after 25 years of ever more alarming scientific warnings, in no country do polls find climate change listed among the top ten national issues for governmental action. This in turn keeps climate change permanently on the political sidelines: as a distant global problem that someone else, somewhere else needs to deal with- sometime.

There is now extensive research seeking an explanation for this disconnection- which I summarise in my recent book: Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. It is clear that climate change has few of the qualities that capture people’s attention- it  is distant, intangible, uncertain and complex. It requires change and sacrifice,  which people always resist, whilst lacking the clear external enemies that would mobilise them to accept such sacrifices in times of war.  

Research shows that while our rational intelligence knows from the scientific evidence that we face a major threat,  we can only accept and feel it when it is converted into a narrative that speaks to our values and identity and is shared by people we know and trust. A narrative that can give climate change the priority it requires must go yet further: it must convince people that climate change threatens their most sacred values and that taking action will reinforce their core identity:  whether that identity is political, cultural,  national, religious, occupational or just being a parent or a sports fan. Put simply, people need to believe that action will make them feel even more the person they already believe themselves to be.

The problem is that we have not yet found a way to speak to the majority of people that energises these values or feelings. The 5 to 10% of people that truly accept climate change tend to come from a very narrow social demographic of middle-class, educated,  left-leaning, environmentalists.

I am one of them and I fear that we have been all too successful in promoting the narrative that speaks best to our own values: of global environmental  justice, protection of wild ecosystems, and an enthusiastic embrace of new technologies. Our language, packaged with images of polar bears, African famine, and solar panels, dominates the issue in every newspaper report, documentary, and call to action.

My organisation, the Climate Outreach,  is a non-profit that has led opinion research for the British and Welsh governments and all the main British environment organisations. Consistently we have found that this conventional narrative does not work with the wider population. For many ordinary people, struggling to keep up with daily life, climate change seems distant, irrelevant and even elitist. As people told us repeatedly in focus groups, why should they get excited about a battery-powered car when they could scarcely afford to keep up the payments on the current one? And as for the much vaunted millions of new jobs promised in the low carbon revolution?  Well, this just sounded like another empty politician’s promise. They will believe it when they see it.

In 2009 Climate Outreach led a large two-year project with five trades unions to communicate climate change and sustainability to their membership. In focus groups it soon became clear that the conventional language around climate change and sustainability was disastrously unsuitable. Union activists had a visceral dislike for the typical green demands that people make small personal changes in their energy use to achieve a sustainable “lifestyle”- a  word which, for them, represented the worst kind of superficial consumerism.

In response we reshaped the language around their values, naming it “Climate Solidarity” and emphasising that change will come through collective action. For Unison, Britain’s largest union, we wrote a handbook on “Negotiating around Climate Change” which showed union activists how an understanding of climate change and energy conservation could strengthen their hand in negotiations over pay and working conditions.

In recent years a stronger left-wing narrative has emerged that emphasises the relevance of climate change to social justice, workers rights, racial and gender equality, and argues that the issue contains a radical challenge to corporate capitalism. At last we are starting to see the mobilisation of people across the left against the common threat  to their core values.

But here lies another danger. There is already a political divide between the left and right on this issue. Across the European Union as a whole, but especially in Britain, France, and parts of Scandinavia, there is a marked and growing scepticism among conservatives. In America attitudes on climate change are now a stronger predictor of someone’s personal politics than their position on any other issue, including the hot button issues of abortion, capital punishment, and gun control.

For conservatives a weak and intangible narrative is being replaced by a far more compelling one: that climate change has been exaggerated (or even invented) by their traditional enemies on the left to undermine their interests and extend the power of the state.

Does this matter? Yes I think it does. It is possible to generate political change on many issues through conventional activism but I cannot see how we can possibly generate the level of social and economic transformation required to deal with climate change without having support that crosses all society. We live in democracies and can only move forward through a shared commitment to action.

That is why, as a radical environmentalist with a long association with the political left, I have concluded that the most radical thing I can do now is to talk with conservatives.  If the left is finding the narrative that speaks to its values, it is just as important that conservatives do too. Many of the values held by the centre-right have direct relevance to this issue : among them a belief in self-reliance, personal responsibility, a resistance to intergenerational debt, a support for enterprise, and a strong personal investment in local community and place.

I doubt very much if there is any  cosy middle-ground compromise about how we deal with this problem. And even if it did exist I doubt that it could ever mobilise sufficient enthusiasm or energy to deal with this problem.  So I would anticipate that, if left and right were both adequately engaged it could generate some difficult, but nonetheless fruitful, struggle between the different political worldviews.

Nonetheless, for all its contradictions, society has still been built through cooperation and mutual interest.  Left and right can still find common ground around the need to defend our way of life, livelihoods, jobs and cultures from an existential threat. There is no need for us to settle our differences- in fact we need to recognise and respect those differences in order to find the creative solutions we need. But we also need to tap into something deeper: our shared humanity and our immense capacity for empathy and cooperation.

2 responses to Finding the Right Words – Shaping an Effective Climate Change Narrative

  1. Mark Raven says: says:

    Are you undertaking similar research as you did with the unions with groups of people more affiliated with traditional values of the right? There has been an awful lot of research done into the substance that may appeal to the right, eg. stranded assets, national security, energy independence, but I am not aware of well tailored right-leaning narratives, particularly beyond the EU and US. Ideas?

    • Léane de Laigue replied: says:

      Thanks Tim – we make our podcasts available to download and stream, but this podcast was carried out by Transition Network – we will check with them!

By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

Sign up to our newsletter