Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

The currency of transition: why grand visions need trust

By David Powell on February 13, 2023

Selling grand visions is hard, particularly if people don’t trust you to deliver. The UK government’s been finding this out over the last few weeks: its ‘levelling up’ agenda has taken a bit of a kicking in the court of public opinion.

As a phrase, ’levelling up’ is a classic piece of Whitehallese: I’m not even sure you can level things upwards, semantically speaking. But beneath the slogan, the deeper problem is that most folk don’t believe that ‘levelling up’ will happen, or at least not for them. As of just over a year ago most of the UK public didn’t trust that it’ll do much for where they live, which may explain some of the backlash over last week’s allocation of levelling up funding.

As with ‘levelling up’, so ‘net zero’. Big ideas and grand intent, but critically dependent on trust to keep the show on the road: active public support is essential, not only at election time. Trust is the currency of transition.

How do people come to trust and engage with complex, abstract ideas like climate or economic policy? Part of what the evidence from social science says is that they need to have belief that the outcome is tangible, important and achievable, and that they trust in the motivations and sincerity of the ‘messenger’. People need to trust not just that it’s possible, but critically that it’ll be good news for them when it does.

This is particularly important where transition could be rocky – like around the future for high carbon industries. I found out from my work with trade unions a few years ago that the very term ‘just transition’ can be incendiary to high carbon workers: a well intentioned but ultimately superficial phrase that disguises that the UK’s recent energy transitions have been anything but just. People are not inclined to trust broad promises over the evidence in front of their eyes.

Trust is in crisis in the UK: trust in politicians and political institutions is super low. In 2020 our Britain Talks Climate research explored the (very different) ways that the seven British segments think and feel about climate change. There’s widespread belief that climate change is man-made, real and a problem, but that doesn’t mean people have faith in politicians to address it. A majority of every segment agreed with the idea that “politicians don’t care about people like me”, and right across the board trust in parliament is at rock bottom. To quote one person we spoke to:

“People will talk big, make it a big political issue, talk big and do stuff. But there is no actual physical action taking place saying, ‘okay, we are doing this’ or ‘we are supposed to do this’. It doesn’t happen. It won’t happen.” 

There are many things behind this. One of which, of course, is that if a grand vision promises to make people’s lives better, it needs to actually feel like it’s making their lives better. Trust building is also about giving people a say – properly listening to, and talking with – in a meaningful and sustained way. This is where public engagement comes in (or, in practice, doesn’t).

Take citizens’ assemblies. A few years ago the country’s only nationwide assembly on climate change captured headlines and has, the evidence suggests, led to lasting changes in behaviour from those who took part. Pressure on councils from campaigners has resulted in a slew of locally led assemblies, like here in Oxford. But to be part of the answer to deeper problems of trust, such conversations need to be much more commonplace and, critically, seen to actually affect things and deliver real world change.  And that’s just the start.

Public engagement has many facets – from top-down information campaigns to bottom-up listening exercises; climate change education; access to information, and more. There’s a guiding structure and set of commitments on which governments are obliged to deliver under the Paris Agreement to engage their citizens on climate change. Most aren’t. Despite the UK being one of the world’s most centralised democracies, on the practicalities of climate action there is a dearth of meaningful public engagement from the UK government.

Climate policy needs a steady, positive drumbeat of not just public support but also public demand: a tangible sense that politicians should do more. At Climate Outreach we call this a ‘social mandate’, and it’s the special sauce that is usually neglected when thinking about more technical or economic aspects of moving towards net zero. Delivering this needs sustained, credible, meaningful public engagement and action that flows from it. The new Skidmore Review on net zero slammed ministers’ relative silence on climate change, calling for a public engagement strategy.

Hopefully that’ll help.

This article was originally posted in Unlock Net Zero on 24 January 2023.

Sign up to our newsletter

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.

Sign up to our newsletter