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The IPCC’s climate scientists have done their job – now we must do ours

By Robin Webster on March 24, 2023

In the administrative region of Kepulauan Seribu National Park, Pramuka Island, the coastal community is committed to coral restoration to preserve the marine ecosystem.

Today’s report from the IPCC’s climate scientists is attracting headlines for issuing what’s been called a ‘final warning’ on action on climate change and a “clarion call” to massively fast-track climate efforts across every timeframe and country. Buried within it is some crucial guidance for what this means in practice.

The report states that “attention to equity and broad and meaningful participation” can build “social trust” and so “deepen and widen support for transformative changes.”

To put that in non-IPCC language; in climate policy, people matter. The kind of radical social changes supported – demanded – by this report simply won’t happen without the consent and participation of citizens around the world.

But reports, however brilliant, however terrifying, don’t inspire action. That falls to us, as citizens, led by our governments around the world.

For many years, this critical part of the climate change response has been strangely ignored. Socially marginalised and economically vulnerable citizens, and those who are more impacted by changing temperatures, remain excluded from the conversation.

Rebellions against climate policies emerge as a result. Governments pay lip-service to the idea of communicating with and engaging citizens. But as the Committee on Climate Change has recognised in the UK, there’s rarely a plan for how to do it.

Governments around the world actually have a formal duty – embedded in article 6 of the UNFCCC – to educate their citizens on climate change, involve them in policymaking and ensure they have all the necessary information.

The UNFCCC’s Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) is made up of six elements: education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation. These six principles are all core to public engagement, and most importantly to holding governments accountable.

States are legally obliged to implement many of elements of ACE, but many are not aware of it yet. It is vital that we continue to make the case to them about the importance of public engagement if we are to avert climate breakdown.

Governments are important not just as policymakers, but educators. Today’s report specifically flags the importance of “education including capacity building, climate literacy, and information provided through climate services and community approaches” to “heighten risk perception and accelerate behavioural changes and planning”.

What does that mean in practice? Providing more and more frightening information about the coming impacts of climate change can just as easily be overwhelming and despair-inducing as helpful.

So what we need instead are bold, positive campaigns that support feelings of ‘efficacy’ – giving people that feeling that it’s possible to do something on climate change, and that that something has the potential to make a difference. This applies, for example, to campaigns around getting football fans talking about and pledging action on climate change, changing travel behaviours, or getting involved with Fridays for Future.

Climate change communications shows that people take action when they see their values, identities and concerns reflected in the story being told, and are able to observe and hear about their peers taking action.

Citizens who are going to change their lives need to be supported to do so in communities of collective action, whether that’s with communities in big cities boosting access to green spaces or social housing tenants leading the conversation on housing retrofit.

Achieving this isn’t easy. At the government level, doing this right means bringing together social science, communication and policy experts alongside businesses and citizens involved in tackling climate change in their lives and communities. It means making public engagement a core function of government, and funding it properly. It means introducing climate policy that treats everyone as they should be treated.

It’s a big challenge. But attitudes towards – and concern about – climate change is changing rapidly. Climate Outreach’s research shows that people are hungry for change and aware of the need for profound social transformation, but in many cases desperately seeking support and information about how they can be involved. Turbo-charging public engagement means pushing at an open door.

I’ll end with some more words from IPCC: “Climate resilient development is advanced when actors work in equitable, just and inclusive ways to reconcile divergent interests, values and worldviews, toward equitable and just outcomes.”

Pulling people together to take action on climate change requires a true bottom up, listening, participatory approach to working with different people across societies. Achieving this isn’t the job of the scientists. They’ve done their job. Now governments and all of us need to do ours.

This article was first published by Climate Home News, 21 March 2023.

5 responses to The IPCC’s climate scientists have done their job – now we must do ours

  1. Dr Hayley Pinto says: says:

    Great to see the importance of education raised. Currently we have a classic chicken and egg situation where politicians wont act because they don’t think the electorate will accept change ( in addition to a bunch of other reasons relating to lobbying and vested interests) and the electorate underestimate the risk because they don’t see the government taking it seriously. We do however, in the pandemic, have a reasonable example of how this can change rapidly, leading to widespread behaviour change that would have been unthinkable before it happened. This is why we need a clear, strong public health campaign. This should emphasise not only the risks, but also the enormous potential of climate action to improve health and wellbeing, and economic stability. One thing the environmental movement has not been good at is describing what sustainability could look like. This leaves a void for deniers to fill with nonsense about living in mud huts and eating locusts. At the Centre for Sustainable healthcare we run courses for healthcare workers on sustainability that demonstrate how sustainable care is actually higher quality, more personalised care and often less expensive. Focusing more on prevention means working with partners across the system to implement the changes that tackle climate change but also help reduce risks of illness. Around 50,000 have completed the e-learning we developed with Health Education England with several thousand more having attended more detailed courses. Health professionals are trusted voices. A well-educated healthcare workforce could help drive this agenda forward.

  2. Phil Korbel says: says:

    It’s great to see the recognition that engagement are getting (at last!) but like you say, most states don’t even know about the obligation to act let alone the means to deliver on that. I’m happy to report that hundreds of organisations are not waiting – our enquiry in-tray is overflowing and has been for a good long while. 55,000 certified Carbon Literate across seven continents – and counting. This makes for an extraordinary community of practice, who are always happy to share their experience. for more detail.

  3. Helen Gooderham says: says:

    I read with interest your comments above, although I am retired from teaching now, I still do teaching on the Climate Crisis and Biodiversity Crisis. Although I am well read in the subjects – scientific and media reports I still find it difficult to engage with a large number of people who are not climate deniers, but seem to switch off after a while.

  4. James paradis says: says:

    Thanks for the comments. The social phase of engagement with global warming would be valuable as a follow-on to the scientific phase of climate analysis. If anyone in your organization would like a copy of my syllabus for a college course I teach titled “Reading Climate through Media,” I’d be happy to send it. I’m struggling with ways to offer educational materials that engage people in ways that give them confidence they can work with issues about global warming. JP

    • Lorenza Nachira replied: says:

      Hello. I read your comment and I was very interested in your college course. I am currently teaching about the climate crisis to high schoolers in Italy and I am more and more interested in understanding how can I involve all people into this topic and move them to action. I looked up the name of your course: the information I found makes me eager to know more about it. I think your teachings would be very valuable in improving my communication skills, and to help other people to become effective climate advocates. I would be very grateful if you could help me in any way in this regard.

By Robin Webster

Robin led the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach until April 2023, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

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