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How businesses can get tongues wagging on climate change

By David Powell on August 25, 2022

Everyone talks about climate change when it’s unbearably hot. But how can businesses keep the conversation going – and what’s in it for them? 

It was a few weeks ago. A packed pub yet no standing room left outside, so we stood, sweating, inside. Boy was it hot: that rather un-British, distinctly claggy heat with which we are all now becoming familiar. And for the first time I can remember, everyone I was with was talking about climate change. 

Except me. Not because I don’t care about it or because I think the whole thing is a conspiracy plot by Big Aircon. I do care about it, very much: it terrifies me and has for years. But because I didn’t need to – everyone else was quite exercised about it all by themselves.

Frankly, after decades of climate silence – where we just didn’t talk about climate change in polite conversation, and to do so was to make an odd hush descend – for me it’s a bittersweet euphoria to hear so many people willing to bring it up.  Hardly a surprise after temperatures over 40C, and here in London no rain to speak of for well over a month.

Talking about climate change is one of the most important things we can do in our daily lives. Definitely not the only thing – crikey no – but often an undervalued part of the equation. Politics often only moves when there’s a drumbeat, unignorable sense of something’s importance in society. And we might like to tell ourselves otherwise at times, but we form our opinions about what’s important about the world based on a mesh of forces: our values, identities and worldviews; who we trust, from our families to our leaders, and what they’re saying; and the push-and-pull interactions of real world events (like heatwaves or wildfires) and social tipping points.

At the heart of all of that is what we think is normal to talk about for ‘people like us’. That’s what felt so important about the group I was with in the pub. They were all friends, and they were talking to each other about climate change, just in the same kind of way they’d talk about the football scores or whatever else is going on in the world.  Normal conversation, with people you trust. 

Greenwich Park in London after weeks of extreme heat and drought

All of this made me think about the role of businesses in helping spread and normalise climate conversations – chinwags that give people that crucial sense that they aren’t alone in their worries, and that they can do something about it. We’ve found that the most common reason people give for not talking to others about climate change is not knowing what to do about it.  But the workplace is somewhere that (sometimes literally) concrete things can be done, as many green-minded businesses will already know – just a few examples of which being changing energy use, or making it easier for colleagues to cycle to work.  These are tangible changes that get people talking, and create a sense – technically known as efficacy – that something can be done, and doing it will make a difference. This is core to helping people talk about their wider hopes and fears about climate: people get engaged because they feel they can do something, so they find it easier to talk. 

First, connect climate change with the values that people hold – understanding that it means very different things to different people, and there’s no ‘one way’ to make the issue feel relevant to people’s values and identities. Businesses know better than most how their customers think and feel about the world, and will often have sophisticated ways to reach and engage them.

Second, make climate conversation feel normal, tangible and emotionally resonant – using images, frames and storytelling to turn the often abstract fuzziness of climate change into something that’s here, now, and galvanising.  It’s sadly easier than ever to point to climate impacts in the here and now, but also for businesses in every town and city across the country to tell climate stories that authentically reflect the unique heritage, aspirations and realities of those places. 

And third, that critical efficacy -giving people a sense that there’s something they can do, which makes sense for them and feels meaningful. That applies in the workplace itself, as above – for example by making spaces for climate conversation. But also in the ‘so what’: raising concern about climate can backfire without a sense that there’s something we can personally and collectively do about it. Not everyone will take political actions, but everyone goes to the shops. I’m talking about something more impactful than urging customers to change their lightbulbs – businesses can for example offer a sense of collective agency (for example, Ben & Jerry’s climate justice campaigning) by showing the ways in which the company itself – and by extension its customer base – is taking meaningful action to change wider systems.

The urgency of the climate crisis means we need to look for climate actions which have the potential to scale rapidly, and to tip the national debate. ‘Talking climate’ – the rippling out of a common-sense natter about people’s hopes and fears about climate change – may not have a quantifiable emission impact that it’s easy to slot into a cost-benefit analysis. For businesses that need to evidence how many kg of CO2 their climate work has saved, it’s a tricky one. But it’s one of the most important things that all of us can do – most definitely including businesses.

 

First published in BusinessGreen

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By David Powell

David leads our Climate Engagement Lab, which helps UK climate advocacy and campaigning organisations deliver innovative and evidence-based engagement plans. He has 15 years experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth and most recently as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation.  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 plays jazz saxophone and clarinet, and is the co-host of two podcasts, Sustainababble and Your Brain on Climate. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands.

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