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What does the UK government’s Christmas party have to do with climate? Quite a lot

By David Powell on December 14, 2021

How ‘fair’ something is perceived to be hugely affects public support, but people have very different views on what is and isn’t fair.  That’s a big challenge for climate communicators – and it’s why one of the themes Climate Outreach is focusing on over the coming months is fairness. 

Pupils at a school on a solar-powered boat in Bangladesh

Very few things get the public in a tizz like someone important saying one thing but appearing to do another. The furore around alleged Christmas parties last year in Whitehall when London was in lockdown, leading to the resignation of the PM’s COP26 spokesperson Allegra Stratton and even prompting questions about Boris Johnson’s future, was a prime example. 

Stories that create a strong sense of unfairness – of people making rules that they don’t themselves obey – have the potential to move public opinion. Climate activists know this well. Whether it’s evidence showing that people don’t think delegates should fly to climate conferences, or strange interviews about whether you can grow concrete, accusations of ‘hypocrite’ can be used to undermine calls for climate action. 

A sense of fairness matters, on a profound level. Children only a year old have often already started to develop an innate sense of what is and isn’t fair. A sense of hypocrisy or cheating triggers something almost primal in us, with a power we may not be able to fully explain or rationalise: intentional acts provoke deep emotional responses. In terms of the public debate, it can feel like one act of unfairness carries the force of 1,000 acts of fairness.

So – as Climate Outreach has argued before – ‘fair’ climate policy isn’t really optional, if it is to attract sufficient public support. People across the political spectrum believe strongly in the value of ‘fairness’ and that measures to tackle emissions need to be fair

Encouraging public transport in Toulouse.

The meaning(s) of fairness

But what does ‘fairness’ or ‘fair climate policy’ really mean – and does it mean the same thing to different people? The simple answer is no. Even just within Western countries, the word ‘fair’ is open to wide interpretation – and also not directly translatable into other languages

People who hold left-wing views, for example, tend to connect fairness with moral concepts of justice and equality according to Climate Outreach Founding Director George Marshall: a fair society is then one without huge inequalities, and with compensation for injustices. 

For those on the right, fairness is more commonly equated with a sense of playing by the rules: a fair society is one in which everyone has the opportunity to make the most of their lives, and where there is punishment for breaking an implicit social contract. Some languages such as German have the decency to use different words for these different meanings. 

Another sort of fairness is procedural fairness: trust in fairness of how decisions are made, independent of the conclusion or outcome. Support for policies and authorities is partly driven by a perception of a fair decision-making process – not just the conclusion reached. 

This is complicated further still by very different opinions even within political wings towards elites. In the UK, Britain Talks Climate revealed huge differences between (both right-leaning) segments of Loyal Nationals and Established Liberals in how much they trust the government to have their interests at heart. This plays out in the narratives of media that target particular segments: for example, think how often the front pages of right-leaning tabloids carry stories about a ‘callous bureaucracy’ trampling the hard work of the common man. So what may be seen to be fair to one group of Conservative voters may be completely different to another. 


Navigating fairness 

In the UK, Climate Outreach’s Climate Engagement Lab aims to help civil society campaigners and advocates navigate tricky waters such as these. Early next year the Lab will publish a guide for civil society on how best to engage with ‘fairness’ in climate policy, including what messages to use (and not use) with different segments and audiences – and when in practice it might be wisest not to use any at all. To scope this, the Lab is running a three-month programme with a number of UK civil society communicators and campaigners who are working closely on the issue of fairness. To sign up to updates about the Lab, fill out our expression of interest form.  

In 2022, Climate Outreach will also release two pieces of new research into ‘fairness’, one focused on Britain, and the other looking at Europe. The former will explore Britain’s conservative-voting segments’ differing perceptions of fairness and net zero. Funded by the European Climate Foundation, the project will produce a guide and narratives to help build a constructive and nuanced conversation with the public about the fair transition ahead.

For the European project, as part of the Fair Energy Transition for All project funded through the Network of European Foundations, Climate Outreach has developed a new format for allowing economically vulnerable groups to talk in their own terms about what a fair energy transition looks like to them. First findings from the 90 workshops will be available in early 2022, with full results to be released in autumn of 2022.

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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