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How to build climate change engagement in the UK after the lockdown

By Briony Latter on May 5, 2021

An adapted 50th birthday party celebration during the Covid-19 lockdown, UK

As the UK comes out of its third national lockdown, has the lived experience of Covid-19 had any impact on attitudes to climate change? A new survey of public opinion by Climate Outreach, as part of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), found that people’s concern about climate change remains high, with only Covid-19 being of greater concern.

It may be tempting to draw parallels between Covid-19 and climate change, however, these two issues are not naturally connected in people’s minds (e.g. indirect impact of climate change on the Covid-19 response). People are becoming tired of Covid-19 and lockdown, and this has been a negative experience for many in the UK.

Making the connection between climate and Covid-19 in terms of policies may not help the climate cause, and may even lead people to think that further lockdowns are being advocated for. Therefore, great care should be taken in connecting the two issues, or there may be a risk that this appears to be exploiting the situation. Though this research took place in the UK, the negative impact of Covid-19 has been global and this risk is likely to be common internationally. 

This blog highlights some of Climate Outreach’s key findings from this research. 

Narratives that unite us

There are narratives that can unite us when we talk about climate change in the context of Covid-19. Segments of the UK population that were identified in the Britain Talks Climate report as being least supportive of more typically environmentalist climate change messaging felt favourably towards messaging about bringing the world back into balance. Issues such as climate change, pollution and the degradation of the natural environment, alongside crises such as Covid-19, feed into anxieties about a world that is out of balance.

People responded positively to the claim that Covid-19 has shown that ordinary people working together can make a difference. It is possible that people may now be more receptive to opportunities to take local actions on climate change as part of a community. Using examples and case studies of where people working collectively has made a difference to people’s impact on climate change and the environment offers the possibility of capitalising on the sense of ‘us’ being the ones who make a difference.

Narratives that divide us

There were significant differences in reactions to some messages across different segments of the UK population. The expression ‘climate emergency’ was divisive, with some respondents feeling that it was not the top priority, and questioned the comparison being made between the risks posed by Covid-19 and climate change.

Some people were highly dismissive of messages suggesting that Covid-19 has shown us that some things are more important than money. Communicators should be careful not to sugar-coat the impacts of Covid-19 and ignore the real hardships that people are facing. As one survey participant said, it’s “easy to say for rich people that have sufficient enough money to live and care about such things as climate change”.

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After the lockdown? New lessons for building climate change engagement in the UK

Different policy responses

There were differences in perspectives on restrictions, responsibility and trust on Covid-19 and climate change, suggesting that different types of policy responses are required. People were more open to restrictions on their individual freedoms to stop the spread of Covid-19 than they were about the prospect of similar restrictions for climate change. When it came to people’s feelings of personal responsibility and agency, this was higher for the spread of Covid-19 than for actions to mitigate climate change. However, when considering trust in the government this was higher for the effectiveness of actions to limit climate change compared to those in response to Covid-19. These differences indicate that climate messaging should recognise the role that both large institutions and individuals have to play in meeting the UK’s climate targets.

Looking towards COP26

In a year when the UK is hosting COP26, there is an opportunity to show the UK working as part of global efforts to protect our common future. People have been front and centre of the Covid-19 story in a way that hasn’t been the case with climate change. This research shows the potential that humanising the climate policy narrative may have for building a sense of agency, by telling a story people can see themselves in, as part of a globally connected and interdependent world.

 

Climate Outreach have produced a set of eight recommendations which can help to frame arguments and align messaging in a way that is most likely to engage people in the UK on climate change in the current context. It is through understanding the narratives that unite and divide us that we can most effectively communicate with and engage people on climate change.

By Briony Latter

Briony is currently working as a Research Assistant at Climate Outreach as part of her PhD at the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. Briony holds an MA in Climate Change: History, Culture, Society where she researched climate change communication and engagement with the older generation in England.

She has a background in the creative industry, having worked as a retoucher and photographer after completing a BA in Photography & Video and an Art & Design foundation course. Briony also worked in communications and is currently a communications volunteer at Hope for the Future and Friends of the Earth Cymru. Outside of work Briony can usually be found hiking, running (sometimes on the fells), reading or baking. She is currently learning Swedish.

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