There is a missing link in climate change communication. Whilst climate change is increasingly visible in the news and across our culture, leading to high levels of public awareness, the topic remains absent from where it really matters — in day-to-day conversations between people.
Studies have shown that informal peer-to-peer conversation can lead to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of complex issues such as climate change, along with a greater ability to apply this knowledge when making decisions or offering an opinion (Eveland and Cooper, 2013; see also Cone et al 2013).
As atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise at record rates, it is apparent that awareness and visibility are not enough. Until policymakers make the leap from focusing on talking to each other to talking with the public, we are unlikely to get the deep-seated and widespread social momentum behind the policies needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Despite this need, new research from the UK highlights a reluctance amongst the people on the frontline of climate change policy and communication to engage the public in conversation about climate change. There is a sense that the UK’s best hope of meeting its climate change targets is to pursue policies which do not rely too heavily on public engagement for their success. This is true both amongst the grassroots (community groups, small businesses, volunteers with environmental groups, owners of small-scale renewable energy generation schemes) and key influencers in the political and business world.
There are profound risks associated with prioritizing climate mitigation strategies that bypass the public, or which try to do so without even acknowledging the subject. Before discussing those risks it is important to say that the people who participated in the research gave reasonable explanations for their squeamishness about excessive public involvement. These related to a lack of trust, on both sides of the expertise divide. The research included three workshops in different parts of the UK, where participants were invited to explore the merits of four different strategies for delivering the UK target of 80% CO2 reductions by 2050.
Each strategy (Command and Control, Carbon Tax, Cap and Dividend, and Tradable Energy Quotas), implied a different level of public participation. The policy with the greatest level of public participation was Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs). TEQs would provide each adult in the UK with an equal carbon quota, defined by the greenhouse gas emission cuts needed to deliver on the UK’s climate change targets. People who live low-carbon lifestyles can sell their unused carbon allowance to heavy users who exceed their quota (or, in some proposed schemes, “retire” them so that they are no longer available for use). TEQs would bring the issue of climate change front and center into people’s lives, and make the public partners in delivering the country’s climate mitigation targets.
However, workshop participants identified a number of concerns about the level of public involvement required for the scheme’s success. One concern was that the public would be unlikely to trust the scheme’s technical feasibility — the calculations of what carbon had or had not been used would be seen as unreliable. Neither would the public trust that the scheme was being administered fairly and wasn’t being exploited by the wealthy and privileged for their personal advantage. The public was also not trusted to understand the scheme and why their access to energy was being rationed. It was also assumed the public would not trust that their data would be protected properly. In essence, hostile media and business interests would be able to quickly whip up a storm of outrage were anyone to try and implement such a scheme, and public opinion could not be trusted to hold firm and stay on the side of climate mitigation in the face of such a response by vested interests.
Several participants thought it would be much better to put in place technological solutions that would cut emissions without anyone having to make drastic changes to their lives. “Climate change is bad politics,” one senior politician told us; no one is going to vote for restrictions on their choice of food or holiday so best not to mention the subject at all.
Whilst there can be no doubt that building a broad and robust social consensus on the need for ambitious climate action is tough work, it would be a mistake to walk away from that challenge, or to expect that it can be done without the awareness or involvement of the people whose personal emissions are, ultimately, causing climate change. The technologies which will allow us to avoid the messy business of building the capacity for holding climate conversations on a national scale do not yet exist. Even if such technologies could be found, developed and implemented in time, it is overly optimistic to assume that people’s lives won’t be impacted by such interventions, whether that is nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, or reflecting sunlight back out into space. Add to that the fact that climate change itself, and whatever adaptations are pursued, means it will be an inescapable part of everyone’s future.
It should, therefore, be obvious that talking with each other matters. We need to make sense as a society about what is unfolding, and how to respond. This is a key element of any effort to build a meaningful response to climate change. But how to go about it? By developing the infrastructure, support, and training to help those on the climate change frontline have effective conversations with the people they encounter in their work and campaigning. We cannot avoid involving the public simply because it is difficult or awkward. Efforts to address climate change need to be reimagined. Science has got us a good way along the path to understanding what is required. Now it is time to draw concertedly on the magic of conversation.
These findings are described in the article entitled Intermediaries’ perspectives on the public’s role in the energy transitions needed to deliver UK climate change policy goals, recently published in the journal Energy Policy. This work was conducted by Christopher Shaw from the University of Oxford, Victoria Hurth from the University of Plymouth, and Stuart Capstick and Emily Cox from Cardiff University and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.