To get the public to take action on climate change, you need to do these five things

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Reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions will require significant lifestyle changes – often on the emotive issues of diet and travel. Yet, as the recent controversies over cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods have shown, sudden change can result in acrimony and polarisation. To successfully transition to net zero, policy makers and campaigners will have to bring people with them. But how can this be achieved?

This is the big question we attempted to answer in our London Climate Action Week workshop this month. The online Zoom session, called From Enemies to Allies: Building Bridges on the Road to Net Zero, looked at key strategies and techniques to win support for climate change action. Here are five of them…

1. Engagement strategies should be constructed from the “bottom-up, starting with the audience’s values. They should not be top-down approaches that begin with the policy objective.

So, for example, a bottom-up message that tried to get buy-in for low-carbon technologies might make use of the audience’s patriotic values – “Renewable energy and electric cars are continuing Britain’s traditional role as the leader of industrial change”. A top down approach to the same issue, might go something like – “Britain needs to transition to electric cars by 2040 to meet the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050”.

2. The co-benefits of taking action on climate change be used to “sell” climate action as fulfilling commonly held values.

These values include a belief in the importance of family, health, faith and cleanliness; a sense of attachment to locality and nation; a desire to preserve cultural traditions and the countryside; opposition to change and an abhorrence of ‘waste’.

Messages that use co-benefits to frame climate action as fulfilling values may go a bit like this, for example:

By cutting the amount of fossil-fuel powered cars on the road we reduce local pollution and protect the health of our children.

Schemes to store carbon can protect our natural landscapes and put our town/village on the map.

By cutting down on processed meat we improve our health and protect the countryside by moving away from large-scale industrial farming.

3. When using co-benefits to push climate action, it’s important to balance this with the truth about climate change.

Firstly, show what’s at stake i.e. “we need to do this to avoid catastrophic climate change, which is already happening where you live”.

Secondly, Tell people what is required of them. For example, the Committee on Climate Change say consumption of beef, lamb and dairy needs to fall by 20%, in order for the UK to hit its 2050 net zero target. This fall isn’t going to happen unless people know that it is required.

4. Behavioural science shows us that the extent to which people adhere to advice depends more on who is giving the advice than what the advice is.

This means the person trying to engage the audience needs to be trusted. The qualities of a ‘trusted messenger’ include communicating in the language of “common sense”, not being condescending, and addressing the values and concerns of the audience. A shorthand for all this is someone like the audience themselves.

5. Alongside trying to reach individual audience members through the media (social or traditional), or maybe even door to door campaigning, it’s important the audience discuss the issues among themselves.

It is peer-to-peer communication that will drive the changes to social norms necessary for behavioural change to take place.

To give a crude example, imagine a hypothetical Dave. He’s an electrical engineer from Dagenham. He’s concerned about his cholesterol and about the impact of climate change on his grandkids’ prospects. He’s read that cutting down red meat helps and he’s contemplating becoming a vegetarian. He’s put off this though, for fear that his mates will think he’s become a bulgur wheat eating hippy. If on the other hand, he had discussed the issue with his friends and they’d all decided to cut down their meat consumption, Dave is much more likely to make lifestyle changes.

Ways to facilitate peer-to-peer communication include climate assemblies, workshops and public meetings, but they could also include things like clothes swap days, nutritional advice sessions and bike repair lessons. You’re limited only by your imagination!

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