NGOs need to rethink how we talk about climate

NGOs need to rethink how we talk about climate

A new report from ACT Climate Labs sets out how campaigners can help build a stronger mandate for climate action.

In the fight against climate change, we are faced with a growing paradox. The impacts of a warming climate are everywhere: the past eight years are on track to be the warmest ever recorded; average temperature records were set in 25 countries in 2021, from China to Nigeria; and extreme weather events have caused disruption, destruction and death around the globe, including the UK.

Yet, to many people, the issue now appears less pressing. Only 14% of the public mention the environment and climate change as the most important issue facing the UK today, down from 24% a year ago. The proportion of people that believe there are more urgent priorities for public spending is steadily growing.

In some ways, this is understandable. The cost of living crisis casts a giant shadow over many people’s lives. Many also see climate change as something for politicians to address. Individuals can’t do much about China burning 3 billion tonnes of coal a year.

But it’s not enough for campaigners to accept this state of affairs without asking themselves some difficult questions. Chief among them is how can we build a stronger, broader, more diverse and powerful movement that can persuade politicians to do more to tackle the climate crisis?

To do that, NGOs need to adapt their approach, arguments and communications strategies to talk to all potential members of this movement – in particular those that are on the fence.

This means engaging with them more effectively, utilising the information sources that they consume and trust, taking the time to meet them where they are at, and framing climate action in ways they can relate to. And it means understanding that, while all our lives will be in some way affected by a warming planet, the majority of people remain agnostic about action or simply focused on other things that matter to them.

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Nearly three-quarters of the UK population are neither climate activists nor climate deniers. They are what we call ‘the persuadables’. By definition, such a large group is diverse, but we know they are more likely to be either older, multi-ethnic, working-class and live outside of big cities. At ACT Climate Labs we have been speaking to representatives of this group over the past year to find out what they think, the issues they are most concerned about and how they perceive the climate crisis.

The results demonstrate not only the failure of climate campaigners to communicate the impact of climate change in terms that they can relate to, but also the damage being done by concerted attempts to misinform the public and undermine attempts to tackle the crisis.

For many we interviewed, people talking about and campaigning on climate are viewed as other: ‘Eco-mobs’ who want to take away enjoyment. “People on the telly talking about climate change are always angry and asking you to give up something like eating meat…”

Despite the heatwaves, climate change remains an abstract concept for many and efforts to tackle it are felt to be futile. “It makes no sense for an island like the UK to focus on climate change, it’s going to cost us a fortune and China and India will continue to do whatever they like.” Considerable doubt remains about proven solutions to the climate crisis, in spite of the evidence: “If solar was so good, then why don’t people have it?…Why don’t government buildings have solar panels if they work?”

For most, the link between the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis is non-existent, and there is no sense that solutions to one may help the other: “Why are we talking about the green agenda when children live in poverty? Far better to put the money in the NHS”.

So how should NGOs respond to these perceptions, beliefs, and preferences? To start with, we need to engage with the issues people tell us they care about. Everybody we spoke to expressed affection for their local area. “I can’t relate to protecting the planet. But if someone was to chop down the willow tree outside my home, I would get upset, nothing could ever substitute that willow.”

Similarly, we need to tap into the belief in the importance of local heritage and the clamour for skilled employment. “Wind turbines could be the next step from shipbuilding to take us back to having an industrial reputation.”

Consistently telling people that none of this will matter if we don’t stop the planet from warming will do little to build support for an agenda which, to many, remains inaccessible and irrelevant. We need to combine messages of hope with pragmatic plans that demonstrate how action to tackle the climate crisis will provide benefits to people and address the issues which they tell us are most important to them.

We must do so not by warning of extinction or the end of the world, but by clearly articulating the benefits of action and empowering people to take action to address the issues that matter to them. We must start listening to the people that are on the fence, and in so doing, begin the arduous but vital work of building a new movement that, collectively, really could save us all.

Click here to find out more about ACT Climate Labs’ new research.