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Talking climate at the grassroots: what works and what’s tough

By David Powell on June 21, 2023

It’s tough not to have much time or cash. But smaller groups do nonetheless have a few advantages over bigger ones when it comes to engaging the public on climate change. They’ve a natural head start in meeting local people where they’re at and they can try new things out fast. 

I make the case below for more support for grassroots campaigners to translate evidence on what works into climate engagement plans. I also highlight the three recurring challenges that might stop them doing so.

An inspiring six months 

I’ve just finished six months of running training and workshops for small UK organisations on how to do sharper climate communications. These groups are all grantees of the National Lottery’s Climate Action Fund, which we’ve been supporting as part of a collaboration with The Social Change Agency, who led on the public and community engagement strand of the programme. 

Groups span a wonderful diversity of approaches and themes, like theatre and arts, community energy, or city-wide climate action. Our programme focused on helping them understand the concerns, worldviews and values of a diversity of people in their areas, and trying to better talk with and engage them about climate change.   

Pretty much all of these groups are on the small side – some no more than a couple of paid staff, if that, or sometimes people giving their time for free. This creates a few challenges, of which time and money are the most obvious and pertinent – it’s why the National Lottery’s Climate Action Fund is so important, to buy them the ability to look strategically at their work and take part in training and support packages like ours. But before I get to those, I wanted to take a minute to highlight these organisations’ strengths. 

First, they can be nimble, responding quickly to new opportunities. In particular, they can quickly test out new types of language, imagery or engagement and get quick feedback on what works. I lead our Climate Engagement Lab, the ethos of which is about experimentation and applied research. Our strong advice to groups not sure how best to tweak how they use social media is to try it, and carefully measure what happens. It’s a lot easier to do this if there’s only a few people making decisions about what to say and to whom. 

Small, locally-focused groups are also likely to be inherently more trusted by people in their community than a more distant-seeming national organisation. Our Britain Talks Climate research and toolkit has found that for most non-activist audiences, local charities are trusted more than national or international ones. This links to two core evidence-backed principles we come back to time and again in our workshops and advice:

  • Tangibility: most people are most galvanised by things they can see, feel and touch and by stories of harms and benefits they can visualise. Campaigns based in the reality of people’s everyday lives and communities can talk more meaningfully about what climate change means in practice for places. 
  • Authenticity: trust in the ‘messenger’ – the person or group talking about climate change – is critical in effective engagement. In a country where trust in ‘elites’ is low and many people feel that climate activists don’t have their interests at heart, people from their community may be seen as better empathising with local concerns and narratives.  

What we did

  • An introductory workshop, covering the core social science evidence on effective climate engagement, segmentation, climate visuals, and having good conversations. 
  • Three optional deep dive workshops on audience segmentation, Talking Climate, and Climate Visuals. Topics for these were chosen based on participant feedback on what they would like to know more about. 
  • 1:1 advice clinics with a member of the Climate Outreach engagement team. 

Before the programme started and again at its end, we asked participants to self-assess, on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high): 

  • Their personal expertise in climate communications. Over the programme this increased from an average of 2.8 to 3.1 – an 11% increase.  
  • Their confidence in talking with non activist audiences about climate change. This increased from 2.9 to 3.8 – a 31% increase. One respondee told us: “I have gained many insights into how best to frame communications with groups who may not be ‘Guardian readers’”. 

Three big challenges

It’s gratifying to see participants reporting that the sessions have worked for them. But there are of course limits to what can be achieved in a relatively short programme such as this, in particular with cash-strapped groups. In particular, I found three recurring challenges that might hold back smaller organisations – and I thought I’d jot them down below. 


1) Need for bespoke support

“I think the next phase of this learning will come through putting the knowledge into practice” – grantee. 

The best-crafted Powerpoint in the world will only get you so far. Many people need a little hands-on support to start working out specifically what it means for them, in particular for groups without much cash or time. That wasn’t the emphasis of what we were doing in this training programme, and our workshops were important: providing knowledge and insight remains critical. But it’s only part of the picture: there’s no substitute for doing. 

This isn’t a new insight for us at Climate Outreach. Our Climate Engagement Lab partners with organisations that have big plans for engaging new people in new ways on climate change. We put our expertise at their disposal and they tell us everything they know about the people they’re working with and are trusted by. Together we make and test hypotheses based on our social science insight and what they know will work in practice. The result? Both real-world application and testing of evidence, and greater confidence in partners about how to do more of it in future. 

We did offer 1:1 clinics at the end of the programme – pretty light-touch, but where I felt we were really able to get to the specifics in a bit more of a crunchy and useful way. The sessions allowed us to marry what we at Climate Outreach know about how to better engage people with the challenges individual groups faced, helping generate ideas for what participants could try next. It’s tip of the iceberg stuff, but for us an essential part of any training programme, like our Climate Ambassadors scheme. 


2) Time and money 

Or the lack of it. To quote one participant, “it’s hard to find time to do enough communications, let alone think about how to do it more effectively and then review and refine.”  This is a central reality for grassroots organisations, often comprised of few or no paid staff.  

When designing the programme we were acutely conscious of the time and capacity of participants. There’s a lot of social science and evidence behind our training programmes and unless you’re speaking to a room of academics it’s always important to cut to the chase in a way that is most applicable for those in the room. We provided dos and don’ts as much as possible – for example drawing on the evidence from our recent review of Britain Talks Climate which looked at which climate stories are consistently more likely to appeal to non-activists. And as we were constantly reminded by participants, the reality of communications for smaller groups isn’t sequencing calibrated messages over an array of targeted social media channels or newspaper adverts. It’s about using limited time to make as big an impact as possible, for example through snappy visuals

I keep coming back to this but do think size offers some advantages in engagement for groups that are willing to try new things, and perhaps may be seeking to grow bigger audiences from a relatively small base. Large NGOs may take weeks or even months to research, internally consult, extensively test and finally green light new comms programmes, tone of voice, or campaigns. Smaller organisations can move quickly, try new approaches, and using some basic online targeting and analytics, see what happens and adjust accordingly. Our recent Lab partnership with the Campaign for National Parks is an example of what this might look like. The key is having a particular audience in mind and having a bit of knowledge, which I hope we’ve been able to provide, on how best to connect with them. 


3) New practice takes time to embed 

No training programme changes practice overnight, particularly where it might challenge how participants have thought about how things are done. One participant summed this up: “the presentations have been effective in challenging practice. However, this is a long-term programme and acting on the insights presented will take time.”

Better climate communication is about really understanding your audience – listening to them, not proselytising. And more meaningful climate engagement isn’t just about tweaking the words in a press release, but thinking about some of the fundamentals that define who your organisation is in the world: 

  • The story you tell about your own values and in whose interests you work
  • How authentically you come across, and to whom 
  • Whether you’re trusted as a messenger and if not, who else you partner or work with
  • What your proposed solution or ‘ask’  is, and whether it feels consonant with the kind of solutions that make sense to your audience. 

It can take time to crack this stuff: even the skill of noticing when you’re using alienating language won’t appear overnight.  

Earlier on I mentioned that there’d been a noticeable, but relatively small, increase in participants’ reported confidence in climate communications. As one said: “we’re a very small organisation and it’s early days”. Confidence embeds through doing, and it takes time to do that. Outside the training room the pressures of trying to do everything now will soon rush back. So it feels important to be able to check in with groups over time to see how they’re getting on – and to offer some support not just for changing language but embedding effective communication and engagement principles at the very top of the organisation’s strategic approach. I’ve seen first hand from my work in the Lab that truly new approaches to talking with people about climate change requires that commitment to be embedded into the heart – and ongoing, sustained practice – of everything the organisation does. 


This blog reflects on work commissioned by the National Lottery Community Fund. Climate Outreach were a support and learning partner to TNL’s Climate Action Fund. 

One response to Talking climate at the grassroots: what works and what’s tough

  1. Elizabeth Anderson says: says:

    Well done. One-to-one conversations are the way to go. We hope to do more on this in future. Just finished our 2nd What a Wonderful World Festival of arts, science and the natural world. Hope we can learn from your experience.

By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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