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House of Lords debate briefing: the role of behaviour change in reaching net zero & the case for a public engagement strategy

By Jamie Clarke on September 27, 2021

We have been speaking with peers in the UK Parliament’s House of Lords about the importance of public engagement for strong climate action. Ahead of their debate on 16 September 2021 about the role of behaviour change in reaching net zero, we provided them with the briefing below which they specifically referenced several times. 

The final rotor blade is slowly lifted by an offshore crane for installation to the fifth and final wind turbine of North America's first commercial offshore wind farm.

In the recording of the debate at 13:16:30, Baroness Blackstone picked up our point about the lack of proper monitoring around the UN’s Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), as well as the need to connect with hard-to-reach groups. At 13:45:30, Lord Browne spoke about the importance of trust and the need for government action to be in step with the action being asked of individuals.

The briefing, which was prepared by our Executive Director Jamie Clarke with the support of our Executive Coordinator Rafaelle Robin, is provided in full below. It outlines why a public engagement strategy on climate change is so important, and what an effective public engagement strategy should look like.

Why a public engagement strategy on climate change is so important

● Public engagement with climate change will be critical to reach our important net zero ambitions and retain a 1.5°C world. Many of the significant policy changes needed will require public consent and buy-in to succeed. We’ve already seen the difficulties that governments have faced with implementing carbon policies from France (Gilets Jaunes) to Australia (carbon tax rejection) and the limited success of UK behaviour change initiatives such as the 2008 Act On CO2 campaign. With the causes of the climate crisis intimately bound up with the ways we travel, how we power our homes, the food we eat, and the physical products we buy and use, changes to individual behaviour will be vital. The Climate Change Committee has estimated that 62% of remaining emissions reductions will rely to some degree on individual choices and behaviours.

● It is therefore critical that politicians and policy-makers take ambitious steps to effectively engage citizens and enable them to live in a low-carbon way. This is not just down to individuals – governments have a major role in setting the conditions under which lifestyle change can occur. Policies and structural changes that make major lifestyle changes easier, socially aspirational, and financially accessible are essential.

● Currently, the UK does not have a centrally-led public engagement strategy to engage the British public on climate change. This is despite Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – since renamed ‘Action for Climate Empowerment’ (ACE)- committing all the world’s nations to engaging their citizens on climate change.

● The Climate Change Committee has recommended that creating a public engagement strategy should be a key policy priority for the UK government. The government has said that its approach to public engagement will be included in a comprehensive net zero strategy, scheduled to be published before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021.

● The Government should put in place a comprehensive public engagement strategy which recognises the dynamic relationship between individual and government action, and draws on the tools and learnings of social science to deliver effective engagement.

● With the UK hosting COP26 in Glasgow this November, there is a real opportunity to not only showcase leadership in this area, but to get the importance of public engagement with climate change higher up the international agenda. Whilst processes around the ACE protocol have been developing momentum, it still lacks the capacity and buy-in from national governments that is needed. Governments are not being measured on their commitments: there is a lack of infrastructure, and no monitoring or reporting process.

● As such, currently only a handful of nations such as Italy, Costa Rica and Scotland are leading the way with the adoption of considered public engagement policies. In 2020 the devolved government in Scotland began consultation on a draft climate change public engagement strategy, and set up a Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change to engage citizens in policymaking.

● The UK is well-placed to become a world leader on effective public engagement with climate change, and should aim to set the bar high. It’s not just our domestic population we need to be engaged – we need populations in countries across the world on board with the significant changes required. The UK government should be seeking the opportunity of COP26 to highlight the importance of the ACE Protocol, invigorating and giving it increased weight in international policy circles.

Getting it right: what an effective public engagement strategy should look like

The Government needs to deliver a domestic strategy that is grounded in social science and experience of what we know works and doesn’t work in public engagement campaigns. The £6 million Bedtime Stories advertising campaign on climate change in 2010 that received hundreds of Ofcom complaints is a good example of what hasn’t worked. Though public engagement on climate change is an evolving field, there are already some strong areas of agreement on how to make engagement effective.

In order to generate a social mandate for climate action, the government needs to actively adopt public engagement and participatory policy-making that is meaningful, two-way, and values-driven.

Broad-based – Communications must overcome partisan divides and engage a wide range of stakeholders across the political spectrum. Communications must explain how policies will benefit different audiences with respect to their real motivations, values and concerns. These values will lead to a very different language to that arising from just dry climate science data. Our research Britain Talks Climate shows that the British public is fractured but not deeply polarised, with climate change emerging as an issue that has the potential to unite us. There continue to be groups that feel socially and economically excluded from the wider conversations about the country’s progress: Post-industrial areas, ‘red wall’ constituencies and others need to feel that there are genuine and meaningful efforts to understand their needs and to engage with them on the path forward. Engaging them, as well as the typically more engaged segments of the population, will be a real opportunity for transformation. Positively, certain values and ideas – protecting future generations, creating a healthier society, and preserving the countryside in ways that end our throwaway culture – have almost universal resonance across Britain.

Trusted spokespeople – Trust in the messenger is more important than the messages. Spokespeople, whether climate scientists, journalists or government officials, have a critical role inpublic understanding when it comes to climate change. But to allow wider audiences to see themselves in the climate story, the imagery and spokespeople associated with climate change in the public mind needs to be diversified. This means supporting representatives from a range of social groups who are trusted and have their own particular concerns about climate change – from farmers and weather broadcasters to communities affected by flooding.

Two-way – Stakeholder engagement is inseparable from communications design and application. Communication should not be just talking at people to inform them about the policy, it should be about listening to them and integrating community level peer-to-peer initiatives. The government will need to acknowledge the limitations of top-down, message-based strategies for public engagement and put a strong focus on opportunities for participatory engagement and public dialogue. We know from the health sector, including Covid-19 outreach, that specialist strategies should be employed for hard to
reach communities.

Engaging hearts and minds, not just nudging – All the social evidence suggests that if people have not taken on board and internalised the reasons behind behavioural changes, they are unlikely to act in a consistently pro-environmental way or will only undertake superficial changes. This means the government’s communication being explicit about what we need to do to tackle climate change, and the reasons behind policies – not simply making changes under the radar using behavioural ‘nudges’.

Much more than an advertising challenge – Communicating climate change is not the same as selling a product. Significant budgets have been paid to marketing agencies to promote climate change around the world but few have changed hearts or minds. Climate communications experts should be included alongside marketing professionals from the outset of the policy process and in all stages of design. Communication is an iterative process and performance of the messaging must be regularly evaluated, reviewed and revised against.

Government action needs to be in step – the public take strong cues from government action so policies and government spokespeople need to be seen as being in tune with the actions being asked of individuals.

By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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