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We can’t get to net zero without a social mandate: here’s how to build peoples’ trust

By Amiera Sawas on September 20, 2023

Ogden Water Country Park, UK

Originally published on Unlock Net Zero


Our net zero goals require people – and yet so much climate policy and action has failed to engage them at all. The Climate Change Committee assessed that around 62% of the UK’s net zero target requires some form of individual action. Whether that’s in terms of our lifestyles – such as how we travel or the products we buy; whether it’s engaging in climate related decision making or whether it’s simply consenting to engage with low carbon policies such as low-emissions zones or infrastructure changes in our homes and workplaces.

The low carbon transition is ultimately about a ‘social mandate’ – where people across a society give their informed consent for the change, knowing what it means for their lives and how they can participate in it too. We simply aren’t there yet – but we could be. We need to build a whole lot of trust.

There’s really no doubt, at this point, that most people in the UK are concerned about climate change. Poll after poll shows a consistent level of concern in around 70% of people. In our own nationally representative research – Britain Talks Climate* – there was a strong consensus across all audience segments, regardless of their values and identities, that ‘climate change concerns all of us’. And 64% of people, over half of every segment, agree that the UK should be one of the most ambitious countries in the world on climate action. Studies also inform us that most people are making changes in their own lives for environmental and climate reasons.

Looking at all of these studies together it is clear that people want change towards lower carbon lifestyles and climate resilience. But for many, there isn’t enough communication about what this transition means for everyone’s futures – in fact only 28% of Britons agree the government has a clear plan. Recent experience has shown us that in this communications vacuum, there are groups of people that are resisting change. The crux of this is that they feel it is ‘being done to them’ without engaging them effectively first.

For example, there has been recent media coverage of public backlash against the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion in London. Despite the huge health and socioeconomic benefits brought by the zone, a number of Londoners have reacted against its expansion with some even organising to vandalise its infrastructure. Frustrations have also been aired with Manchester’s Clean Air Zone, leading the Mayor to put it on hold; as well as low traffic neighbourhoods across the country. Research shows us that these schemes do tend to be more popular than they are unpopular**, but those who oppose them are doing so vocally. There are also geographical splits in opinion – for example with more people in inner city London in favour of the ULEZ then those in outer London.

Our research has shown us – in line with wider studies of public opinion – that trust in government is at an all time low. Two-thirds of participants in Britain Talks Climate think the system is ‘rigged against them’, and so scepticism or fear about net zero policies is unsurprising. There is a crisis of trust, and decision makers are failing to address it by engaging people and building consensus around the common challenge we all face to transition to a climate safe world. Indeed – there are millions of people who just aren’t being addressed at all. This is obvious when looking at the government’s latest published ‘attitude tracker’ on net zero, where 41% of respondents felt they knew ‘only a little or hardly anything’ about the issue, and 10% saying they had never heard of it. How is this possible for the greatest challenge of our time?

The good news is that we learned through our research that most people – regardless of their values, identity and political affiliation – will lean into climate change and net zero issues positively, if they are framed in a way that connects with their values and identity. When we look at the UK public through a worldview approach, we find there are seven broad segments (see figure 1). This worldview is the lens through which we understand key issues and direct and justify our attitudes and behaviours towards climate change. And while there are segments with very different – often clashing – values, there is common ground on the issue of climate change. Whether that’s climate policies to preserve local environments; to benefit everyone’s health; to support future generations or a just transition to build economic prosperity. There are, evidence-based, compelling narrative framings that open the doors to meaningful conversations with everyone.

But what there is a lack of – at the moment – is trusted messengers. In the run up to COP26, hosted in the UK, we surveyed the British public again and asked them who they trusted to tell them about climate action. While every segment trusted David Attenborough, figures like him are in short supply. The lowest levels of trust, across the board, were in our political leaders on climate. The most frustrated segments – for example ‘loyal nationals’, explained why – they don’t feel represented by these leaders and they think they are hypocrites,

“It’s just little things that really got to me. It was that summit that they had, they all flew there and then they had the bare-faced cheek to tell us to be, ’Don’t go flying anywhere,’ you know, Prince Charles telling us, ’Don’t fly anywhere and he fills his car with wine.’ The Queen telling us about climate change and the environment and she’s there on her Windsor Estate, in her diesel Land Rover and then a separate one on the same estate with her dog and a chauffeur. I was fuming, absolutely fuming. It’s just, I think, well, it can’t be that big of an issue, can it, if they’re all telling us that it’s awful, you know, start eating lentils, go around on a pushbike, never fly anywhere but yet they do the complete opposite.”

So, how do we all grapple with this issue of trust when implementing net zero policies? We have to resource meaningful engagement. In the absence of a government strategy to engage the public on Net Zero, there is a lot that we can all do in our work, including:

  • Getting a clear understanding of the audience of your net zero work through the lens of values and identity. Are you engaging a diverse group, or a more homogenous group viz-a-viz world view, values and identity? Do you need common overarching narratives to bring them together around the purpose and benefits of the work, or more targeted narratives that deeply resonate with a specific segment? Make sure to consult the evidence base: don’t make assumptions about who cares, or doesn’t care, about climate change because our assumptions are often wrong, leading to exclusions and missed opportunities to engage diverse groups
  • Ensuring that your audience perceives the work as ‘fair’ – perceived fairness is very important when it comes to climate action. Getting a good sense of what your audience thinks about fairness is critical, through empathic engagement and the support of trusted messengers
  • Passing the mic to trusted messengers – most people are tired of hearing about climate from people they don’t feel represented or understood by. And who is trusted can radically differ depending on your audience. Trusted messengers who are interested in climate action should be identified – whether that’s a celebrity, a faith leader, a youth climate activist, a sports club, or a local small business owner. Then they need to be supported to be a bridge from the net zero work to the community – to facilitate engagement and build the trust that is urgently needed
  • Developing appropriate forums for engagement – there are many approaches that have been tried, whether that’s deliberative mechanisms like climate assemblies, consultation processes, or online feedback loops. Investing in these is going to help you build trust, as well as ongoing feedback mechanisms to support responsiveness and agility
  • Measuring, evaluating, learning and sharing (MEAL) – there’s been a huge gap in MEAL when it comes to engaging the public on net zero. We know that one-way communications are rarely sufficient. But we also all need to learn what actually does work, really quickly, if we are going to reach our net zero targets. So ensure your engagement work has a MEAL plan – and share your findings with others.


* In partnership with More in Common, YouGov and European Climate Foundation

** See: and

By Dr Amiera Sawas

Amiera led Climate Outreach’s research and engagement teams until 2023. She was responsible for overseeing the programmatic and research implementation of the organisation’s strategy. Amiera has diverse experience in climate, environment and development research and programming work, across the private, non-governmental and academic sectors. This has taken her to various countries including Sweden, Pakistan, Jordan and Kenya. As a result, she’s really passionate about the potential of bringing diverse stakeholders together to combat climate change and set an inclusive vision for our collective future.

Amiera has a PhD in Human Geography, a Masters in Global Politics and a Bachelors in Psychology.

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