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Just when you might be losing hope, the Scottish Government produces its draft climate change plan

By Chris Shaw on January 24, 2017

This article was first published in the Huffington Post.

With impeccable timing, just one day before the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Scottish Government published their Draft Climate Change Plan.

ISEA delegates in conversation

No government is perfect, but in this imperfect world Scotland’s willingness to set the world’s most ambitious climate change targets is to be applauded. And, as the Plan makes clear, the Climate Conversations framework developed by Climate Outreach is central to building the support and engagement required to deliver those targets.

The Scottish Government is aiming to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 66% when compared to 1990 levels over the next 15 years. The Government knows that it cannot meet these targets through a set of top-down directives, or behind people’s backs without them being aware of what is being done. Instead, the Government recognises ‘Public understanding, engagement and action are critical to the social and economic transformations required to achieve a low carbon society.’

That means finding a process and vocabulary that makes the global targets and science of climate change mean something to people in terms of their lives, hopes, fears and values. This is the central aim of the Climate Conversations approach. It works by providing an alternative to fact-based education (which has dominated government led public engagement initiatives until now). It is about allowing people to discuss what climate change means to them, how it will impact on the issues they care about, and what actions need to be taken from their perspective.

At a time when media coverage of climate change is declining and political leaders are avoiding discussion of the issue, the Scottish Government is building a national conversation about climate change. They are doing this because they realise there is no way of making the urgent and far-reaching changes needed without a broad social consensus. In the past year the number of people talking about climate change in Scotland has been growing. In this post-fact world, where technocratic debates about carbon budgets, carbon pricing and parts per million of carbon dioxide leave the public marginalised and disinterested, the values based approach to public engagement advocated by Climate Outreach is proving an effective model for breaking the climate silence.

In her foreword to the Draft Climate Change Plan, Scotland’s Climate Change Minister Roseanna Cunningham highlights the role the Climate Conversations model is playing in building Scotland’s low carbon future, and notes that she is determined to see the Climate Conversations project continue. In making that commitment to the Climate Conversations model, Cunningham is demonstrating her understanding of the need to act on the basis of evidence-based best practice in climate change communications.

Meaningful action on climate change is going to involve everybody, and all aspects of life in Scotland; “changing the ways we get around; the ways we insulate and heat our homes; and the ways we purchase products and services to support the circular economy”. Delivering these changes in behaviours will require “cultural shifts and major infrastructural and technological advances over the coming years.”

We developed the model through a series of workshops and pilot groups in Scotland in early 2016. The workshops and pilot groups were designed following an extensive review of existing approaches, combined with our own experience and expertise delivering climate conversations with groups from across the social and political spectrum. This is the first time our narrative approach has been adopted at a national scale, and the Climate Change Plan reports that the model is a success: “by participating in Climate Conversations, people who do not generally talk about climate change are able to engage in the issues in a way that matters to them and are enjoying the process”. We have now begun trialling the Climate Conversations principles in India, with equally promising results.

The Scottish Government are looking to further develop the climate conversations framework as it is rolled out. By committing to ‘talking climate’ with citizens from across the nation, the Scottish Government has taken a bold step towards ensuring that the necessary social consensus around climate policies is in place – a crucial piece of the puzzle in developing an inclusive low-carbon society.

Find out more about Climate Conversations here, and our new book ‘Talking Climate: From research to practice in public engagement’ 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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