This is one of a series of posts entitled Principles and Advice for Grassroots Climate Communicators, in which I share and reflect on a range of ideas within the field, with a view to helping grassroots activists and groups communicate effectively.For an overview of approaches and challenges in the field, please see my post Climate Communications – An Overview.A summary of the practical suggestions made in this post can be found at the bottom.
In my second post in this series, Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, I suggested that you could think of engaging with an individual in terms of a ladder, from first attracting their interest, through to ‘politicising’ them, i.e. stimulating or supporting them to become active in seeking to influence the powers that be, perhaps by joining a party or campaigning group.
This is the most speculative of these posts because, despite some involvement in environmental politics over many years, I cannot claim any expertise in how to politicise people. The nearest I came was planning and facilitating a workshop for my local Green Party where I supported party members to rethink their approach to the engagement and motivation of new members, following at that time a surge of interest. I’m afraid to say that, despite some very interesting discussions on the day, the pressures of local election campaigning soon took precedence again, the more innovative ideas were not taken up and the surge of interest faded. So this post is more informed by my awareness of the pitfalls than by expertise in how to surmount them. However, I do offer a few touchstones from the literature that may be helpful in thinking about campaign-oriented communications and I was very lucky to be able to interview one senior figure in the field.
It is worth saying that the context of writing this post is that my local campaigning group, South Yorkshire Climate Alliance (SCA) has succeeded in raising funding for community-based climate awareness projects. This development has raised the question for us: what is the relationship between campaigning (seeking to influence politicians and the public to achieve policy commitments towards sustainability) and engagement and education? To answer this question, I would refer you back to the first post in the series, Climate Communications – An Overview, and the importance of aligning your communications objectives with the wider objectives of your project.
The seduction approach
One approach to encouraging political action by previously unengaged members of the community could be described as seduction: offering them enjoyable, relevant, local activities, gradually feeding in political insights and drawing them into action through a ladder of engagement, starting with very simple things people can do, which don’t take up too much time. This approach aims at recruitment. Political parties and campaign groups occasionally have induction programmes taking this kind of approach.
But my experience is that the pressures of day-to-day politics (on top of people’s day-to-day pressures) and the culture of earnestness within many local parties and groups prevent such programmes being set up or maintained. It is only too common that interested people arrive at their first meeting, are barely greeted, are rapidly thrown into an arcane and intense ‘business’ meeting and never get a chance to talk about why they came. Unsurprisingly, only the most committed who feel comfortable in this kind of culture come back. So, if your group is to engage members of the community successfully, it must apply some emotional intelligence and consider seriously what it means to be (a) welcoming and (b) encouraging.
The principles and practical ideas outlined in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators include a wide range of suggestions, from how to make early contacts welcoming through to this challenge of politicisation. It may be useful to think in terms of a ladder of engagement, such as I outline there. When people first approach a campaigning group, it is because they have begun to be concerned about the issue, or having been concerned about the issue for some time, something has happened to galvanise them into wanting to do something about it. So when they first make contact, they want to talk about their reasons are doing so. Isn’t that obvious? But how often do established groups make time and space for new people to talk?
They may also want to air questions and doubts, and concerns about their capacity. They may want to go slowly; they may be fearful about being drawn into something they don’t really know a lot about or which looks daunting. They may need time to build familiarity and trust with the people in your group.
On the other hand, they may come to that first meeting all fired up and ready to go. What can I do? What can I do that will make a real difference? What can I do tomorrow?
Established members of the group need to be sensitive to where each particular person is at, and ideally to have appropriate suggestions that they will be keen to take up.
The standard advice is to have at hand a range of options, from the simplest, quickest and least demanding through to something that sounds significant and exciting. One person may only go so far as to sign a petition; another may be ready to join in a non-violent direct action in the city centre. Your communications should reflect these options. Stephen Duncombe recommends that you ‘layer’ your message: Start with simple, eye-catching headlines, and signpost to more complex levels of information and analysis: 5-second read, 60-second read, 10-minute read, 30–60-minute read. (I think I could improve on my own practice here.)
In a similar way, as climate communicators, we need to develop the skill of helping people to ‘raise their game’. We come back to our central challenge – how to move skilfully between encouraging and motivating people (giving them an increased sense of ‘agency’) and confronting them with the ’urgency’ of the situation, galvanising them to act decisively. (I discuss this challenge in more depth in my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.)
If we do nothing else, we should bear in mind the call made by Margaret Klein Salamon amongst others – to make everyone we talk to aware of the need for systemic change. While it is good to help people to think about their own carbon footprints, about practical things they can do that will help them feel they are contributing usefully, we need to be aware that it appears to be a tactic of the fossil fuel industry to direct the spotlight at individual behaviour change, to shift attention away from what they are doing. All discussions about decarbonising activities and projects should therefore encourage people to take political action, if only at the level of showing them how to write an email to their MP.
In terms of drawing new people into a more political way of thinking, the anthropologist Veronica Barassi makes interesting points about the impact of social media on political activism. (I came across these ideas in a book by Jenny Odell.) Barassi says that the immediacy of social media closes down the time needed for ‘political elaboration’. Because the content that activists share online has to be ‘catchy’, “activists do not have the space and time to articulate their political reflections.” Barassi also suggests that networks built on social media “are often based on a common reaction/emotion and not on a shared political project and neither on a shared understanding of social conflict.” Strong ties and well-defined political projects, she says, still come from “action on the ground… face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation.” Odell draws out from Barassi’s analysis that thought and deliberation require space and time both for individual ‘incubation’ and for dialogue with others.
I note too Barassi’s emphasis on a shared understanding of your political objectives and chosen methods. These are things that can be explained to new people but, please, without browbeating them! I speak from experience; the heavy-handed lecturing and interrogating that I experienced as a young man from a representative of a far left party switched me off mainstream political campaigning for many years. What I think I would have appreciated – and others may appreciate at the present time – would have been thoughtful explanation of the values, beliefs and priorities of different political affiliations or ideologies and why you have chosen your own affiliation or ideology. That’s what I’d call basic ‘political education’, alongside explanation of political practices and strategies on the ground. I assume that, if you studied politics at school, the teacher would present such information in an reasonably impartial way. Unfortunately, most activists are so tribal they aren’t willing to explain these things, so anyone who approaches them is presented with a de-facto ultimatum: “either accept our ideology wholesale and join our tribe or you’re not welcome here.” That’s not my approach; I place a lot of importance on promoting critical thinking and encouraging people to think things through for themselves – even if they conclude they have different beliefs to me.
We live in a time when many white people seem finally to have become galvanised around the enduring injustice of racism and the rights and needs of minorities are being debated perhaps as never before. This is a huge topic that I’m not going to dig into here but I would refer you back briefly to the concept of rapport, described in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators. You can build rapport by interacting in a warm, respectful and genuine way – or you can have it simply by the fact of sharing common characteristics. But in many community groups, some social types dominate the membership – exactly because human beings are attracted to and feel comfortable in groups of people who ‘get’ their way of being.
If you turn up at a meeting or event about the climate and nature emergencies and you can see straightaway that you are the only black person in the room, or one of the few women or young people, or one of the few people with a regional accent, or some other characteristic, you need to have a certain self-confidence to navigate the situation. A warm and respectful welcome is probably all that is needed to help you feel more at ease, along with sensitivity to the points made above. But to go deeper, activists who are more aligned with a historical ‘oppressor’ group would be well advised to attend some training on unconscious bias, giving them supportive time and space to reflect on their own backgrounds and how they formed their values and beliefs – including unaware prejudices. Then there is less chance of them putting their foot in it when welcoming new colleagues.
The community organising approach
Rather than trying to seduce people into becoming more politically engaged, the community organising approach starts directly from political questions. Matthew Bolton describes the approach in his book ‘How to Resist, Turn Protest To Power’.You start by asking people what makes them angry, he says. You encourage them to tell each other stories about how particular problems have affected them. You support them to develop ideas for actions that they want to take (you don’t try to impose your ideas.) You facilitate their discussions, helping them break down the big problems into specific issues, identifying who the decision makers are and who has the power to make the changes they need. Then, together, you ‘take action to get a reaction’. You provoke the decision makers. If they don’t agree to implement the changes you ask for, you escalate the action with ever more creative tactics, learning as you go and celebrating the small wins as you build incrementally up to the bigger issue. In this process of relevant, meaningful, practical action, people learn team work, they build solidarity and they reach for real political power.
A core concept of the community organising approach is ‘self interest’, which can seem contradictory to activists whose motivation is altruism. Community organising asserts that self interest is a realistic starting point. By self interest they mean:
appreciating our own needs and motivations
appreciating the self interest of others
recognising that people are motivated to get involved by the things they care deeply about.
The implication here is that most people will not be drawn into activism by stories of people suffering thousands of miles away. They need to start from where they are at. And where they are at may not align neatly with the priorities of your local climate awareness programme. You may want them to think about reducing their car use but they may be more concerned about bullying at the local playground, for example. Bolton says you should start where they are at but how does that fit with meeting the objectives of your organisation and your funders? This is definitely something to think about.
It would be interesting to discuss whether the community organising approach is at all relevant to better off sections of the population. Self-interest for them may mean thinking about their investments, their pensions, their homes, etc. and they may be able to effect changes in those contexts. Whatever the class background, messages which seem to imply that people’s material interests will be badly affected are likely to be problematic – unless, perhaps, they have become convinced that this is a national, World War II type emergency and we genuinely are all in it together – and at the time of writing (just prior to COP 26, October 2021) we haven’t got there yet.
I note that Bill Gates, writing as an industrialist in his book How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, warns that sustainable technologies will not be taken up if the “climate premium” (the extra cost) is too high. Idealists like me might like to think otherwise but when I ran this by one of my climate conversations groups (a family) they just thought Gates was completely right. People aren’t going to go for sustainable solutions if they are more expensive, they said. And that included them!
So the community organising approach, with its emphasis on people’s self interest and immediate concerns, can be challenging when it comes to encouraging climate activism. The culture maybe shifting now but only recently activists going into less well off areas here where I live found that people were not raising the climate as one of their main concerns. Many people have enough pressures to deal with day-to-day without trying to grapple with enormous, complex, global problems, especially people living in more straitened circumstances. Bolton’s solution is to propose actions that will have a material benefit for people in that community. Rather than trying to educate them about climate politics, for example, you would be better off with a specific practical goal, such as encouraging them to switch to a renewable energy provider or supporting them to seek funds for better insulation that will save them money.
Engaging and training up the strategic leaders of the future
In an interview in 2014, Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition), European Climate Foundation, gave me his analysis of the priorities for climate campaigning, as he then saw them from his position as a prominent climate strategist. He placed his central focus on the transition to renewable energy. He said that we need both grassroots and political action but he emphasised the importance of getting the right people into government, which means training young people now.
Like both Bolton and Barassi above, Allott thought that many young activists and politics students needed to develop a better theory of power or change. In developing that theory – and a realistic strategy – young campaigners need to be helped to develop an analysis of the social context. We live, he said, in a society that is:
infantilised (e.g. celebrity culture)
fragmented and individualised (e.g. loss of religions and unions)
characterised by a low pay and/or overwork culture, so people are worn out.
He questioned the two main activist approaches (aggressive demonstrations and personal lifestyle changes.) Individual lifestyle changes aren’t the priority, he said; that’s blaming individuals who have little or no control. Climate communications should emphasise the citizen role, he said. We should aim to empower people to know how to contribute to the big changes needed – and then ‘do their bit’ in behaviour change as a fun, communal, bonding, guilt-free activity.
One approach to leadership development: Climate Reality Project
Former American Vice President, Al Gore, who has been very influential in making the general public take the climate crisis seriously, has focused his efforts in recent years on developing climate leadership skills in the community. He points out that the key lever for change is to persuade politicians to pass laws that will make sustainable practices obligatory. But we come up against the usual paradox in this field, that the politicians say they can only act when their constituents put pressure on them. So we need committed and skilled climate communicators at all levels of society, some working to build the widespread ‘social mandate’ that is going to be needed for the general population to support the necessary changes, others working more specifically to target and influence particular politicians. Gore’s Climate Reality Project runs training courses which aim to equip and inspire ordinary citizens to become effective climate communicators and campaigners. They say, on their website:
“Our signature activist program, the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, has trained over 36,000 change makers worldwide since 2006. The result is a global network of activists leading the fight for climate solutions through our 10 branch offices – Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa and a partnership in China – and 140 chapters across the US.
We believe real change comes from the ground up. We know that a small-but-committed critical mass of activists can not only transform society, but change the world. That’s why we recruit, train, and mobilize people to become powerful activists, providing the skills, campaigns, and resources to push for aggressive climate action and high-level policies that accelerate a just transition to clean energy.
Alongside these efforts, our dynamic communications initiatives connect climate and behavioral science with the emotional power of compelling stories, raising awareness and inspiring action in online audiences everywhere.”
(For more on this question of stories, see my blog in this series: Should the arts, creativity and especially stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?)
All I know about the Climate Reality Project is what I’ve seen online and one conversation I had with one of their presenters at COP 21. I suspect that it serves up an exciting and inspiring cocktail of information, practical guidance and solidarity. I’m a little concerned that the approach may seem a bit American to some of us in the UK, especially older people, who have not been so good, historically, at embracing enthusiastic styles of communication, but I’m basing that on a very superficial impression. If I’m at all right, then it may be a matter of needing to adjust the approach to suit this particular culture.
My own recent experience of running a climate conversations course for university students here in the UK was very positive; the young people seemed to be longing for a space where they could not only talk about why they cared so much about the climate and nature emergencies but also learn skills in how to communicate their concern to family, friends, colleagues and general public. Several of them fed back that my invitation to reflect on their personal histories, values and motivations had been important to them. My experience is that, if you want to get people deeply engaged, you need to tune into their deeper emotions.
To conclude, I hope this post has stimulated some thoughts for you, if only to be frustrated with its skimpiness! If you are somebody who has a lot of experience in the field and who could share with others your knowledge of what works, I would be absolutely delighted to refer people to your own writing, to insert your comments here, or even to replace the whole post. The point of writing these posts is not just for me to mull over things I’ve read, it’s to enable grassroots climate communicators to be as effective as they can be. You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The suggestions covered in this post include:
be clear about the differences between campaigning and engagement/education, between organisational meetings and induction meetings
make time and space for new people to talk, build trust and develop a shared understanding of your political objectives and methods
build rapport with new people by interacting in a warm, respectful and genuine way
have at hand a range of options for them, from ‘soft’ to ‘full on’
activists more aligned with a historical ‘oppressor’ group would be well advised to attend unconscious bias training
explain how people can contribute to the big changes needed, bearing in mind that the key lever for change is to persuade politicians to pass laws that will make sustainable practices obligatory
consider appealing to people’s self interest, highlighting the material benefits of sustainability
develop skill in helping them to ‘raise their game’
avoid guilt-tripping and approach lifestyle change as a fun, communal, bonding activity
consider how you might train up the strategic leaders of the future, helping young activists to develop a sound theory of power and change
to get people deeply engaged, tune into their deeper emotions
This is one of a series of posts entitled Principles and Advice for Grassroots Climate Communicators, in which I share and reflect on a range of ideas within the field, with a view to helping grassroots activists and groups communicate effectively. For an overview of approaches and challenges in the field, please see my post Climate Communications – An Overview.
I start this post with the table that you may already have seen in the first post in this series. After that, I reflect on the pros and cons of the different frames, to help you think which ones best resonate with you and your community. A summary of key points can be found at the bottom.
What is a frame?
Because climate change is multifaceted – almost all encompassing – there are many different ways to look at it and climate communicators and campaigners tend to select a particular ‘lens’ or ‘frame’ through which to look at it or to focus their activities. A ‘frame’ is essentially a way to simplify a complex phenomenon, perhaps claiming that such and such an aspect is at the heart of it, or is the best way in to understanding it or affecting it. Frames commonly used in climate communications include the ones below. I have put them in a table with the main assumptions underlying each frame on the left, as I see them, and an example of a practical application on the right.
Frame with its core assumption
Information: people need to know the facts about global warming in order to appreciate how serious the situation is.
The Carbon Literacy Project proposes that every citizen should have one day’s training covering the basic facts of global warming, tailored to be relevant to the specific audience.
Persuasion: people need to be persuaded to face the issue and take action, either through some kind of reward or through appeals to their deeper values and identity.
Climate Outreach proposes that climate communicators research the interests, values and needs of particular communities, and try to link climate action with what matters to them. At a commercial level, advertisers are increasingly using ‘green’ language and imagery in order to persuade people to buy their products.
Conversation: human beings aren’t atomised individuals, we form our views through dialogue with others.
Carbon Conversations is a six session course designed originally for community settings. The participants explore the facts and their feelings about cutting their carbon footprints through conversation and enjoyable games. I myself have run a simpler version, called Climate Conversations, focusing down on teaching skills in listening and constructive argumentation. In the political arena, Hope for the Future has developed a model for the constructive lobbying of MPs, based on the Non-Violent Communication approach (NVC).
Emotion: on the one hand, climate change raises strong negative emotions which block people’s engagement (‘disavowal’), so the way forward has to include confronting those emotions; on the other, it is positive emotions that motivate people.
The Active Hope approach involves running workshops where people are taken on an emotional journey, facing up to their repressed fears, expressing their grief and working through to ‘seeing the world with new eyes’.
Reason: although it may be limited, human beings are capable of reason; the climate crisis raises both profound philosophical questions and challenges us to think logically and strategically.
Grace Lockrobin and other ‘community philosophers’ are running events online, in communities and in schools that support and challenge participants to think about environmental issues critically and philosophically.
Choice: the climate crisis confronts us with difficult choices, including technical, moral and political.
David McKay and Mark Lynas ran an event at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield where they challenged the audience to think through the difficult choices that will be need to be made if renewables are to replace all fossil fuels.
Storytelling, Imagination and the Arts: Human beings don’t live by logical arguments, we live by myths and stories – about our own lives, about our societies and about the meaning of our lives – and we are moved by images. Art is a fundamental part of who we are. If you want to reach people you need to stimulate their senses and imaginations.
Community artists draw on a wide range of art forms to connect with people’s subconscious, personal icons and imaginations. Michigan University runs an online course in Storytelling for Social Change. Marshall Ganz and others run workshops to help activists discover and/or write their own ‘story’ as social change agents.
Action: a surfeit of words is off-putting to many, they would rather be drawn into doing interesting things and by acting they will feel both purposeful and hopeful. Activities which help people to ‘fall back in love with nature’ maybe particularly effective.
The Transition Town movement focuses on practical activities such as growing organic foods that can draw people in. Trees for Life takes groups out into the woods to learn forestry skills and also hold dialogues away from the stresses of urban life.
Empowerment: the problem isn’t knowledge or understanding, the problem is people feeling that they can do nothing about it, so climate communicators should focus on giving people the tools and skills they need to change things.
Many Transition Town projects teach practical skills, especially relating to working in nature. The Carbon Conversations course includes auditing your own energy use, travel and purchases, and supports participants to develop practical action plans. My own Climate Conversations courses teach skills in listening and dialogue.
Motivation: people need appealing visions, encouragement, inspiration and other rewards such as enjoyment in order to want to engage with what can otherwise seem a daunting task.
The Active Hope approach aims to inspire people by taking them through a challenging but liberating emotional process. Many writers have produced books full of good ideas and lively imagery for young people and for adults. Extinction Rebellion has stated its aim to promote a ‘regenerative’ culture to reduce the risk of burnout amongst activists.
Leadership development: climate communicators should place the emphasis on those most likely to lead the transition to sustainability, the others will follow.
Former US Vice President, Al Gore, has created the Climate Reality programme which trains people up as climate leaders and communicators, especially young adults.
Political mobilisation: commentators frequently emphasise that the biggest obstacles to change are a lack of political will and/or vested interests. Moreover, individuals and communities have limited power to change the wider society, so people need to understand the need for political action.
Environmental activists continue to campaign in various ways, increasingly seeking to attract attention through eye-catching creative actions. Historically, they have tended to come from the left of the political spectrum but increasingly activists in the centre and centre right are speaking up (e.g. the Conservative Environment Network.) Hope for the Future is promoting a conciliatory approach to lobbying. Community Organising is one of many approaches to grass roots political engagement.
Emergency mobilisation: the situation is perilous and the emphasis should be on communicating urgency and generating absolute determination across society, akin to mobilising a society for war.
Climate Mobilisation and Extinction Rebellion seek to draw the general public’s attention to the need for urgent and radical action.
There are strengths and weaknesses in each of these frames; given that a frame is a selective tool, this is not surprising. In the discussion below, I share my own reflections, in the hope that they will stimulate you to think which frames best align with your own values, context and priorities.
The frames that I discuss below are generic and it is not an exclusive list. We could add to it specific sectors or needs, such as health or food. Where the general public does not respond to the rather abstract concept of climate change, it may respond better to a frame that is clearly of immediate personal relevance. For example, a group of General Practitioners in the UK have formed Greener Practice to draw the attention of both their colleagues and their patients to the healthy co-benefits of sustainability, such as ‘active travel’, meaning walking and cycling – helping people stay fit whilst also reducing road pollution and carbon emissions. (https://www.greenerpractice.co.uk/)
The premise here is that people need to know and understand accurate information about global warming and the predictions that the experts are making in order to appreciate how serious the situation is. They also need accurate information in order to understand the potentials and the limitations of technological solutions.
However, many members of the general population find science and technology off-putting or they do not understand scientific method, especially the way that risks are assessed, so they switch off, get confused or are easy prey for denialists.
Part of the answer lies in presenting information in attractive, creative and interesting ways, tailored to the specific audience. The Carbon Literacy Project, for example, proposes that every citizen should be given training to understand the essential facts about climate change, but they emphasise that the design and delivery should be relevant and appealing to the particular audience.
To assist with translating information into action, your group could perhaps consider recruiting a number of good communicators of science and technology – not academics but people with practical skills. I have found, when facilitating Carbon Conversations and climate conversations courses, that it has been enormously helpful to have somebody there with knowledge and expertise in such matters as home insulation that I am no good at.
(Ideally, information about the climate and the ecological emergencies should be moved to the centre of both educational curricula and journalistic programming. They should no longer be seen as abstruse scientific topics; they should be seen as central to our human endeavour in all fields. But that may be beyond the scope of the your group’s project!)
Rooted in the practices of social marketing, the persuasion approach is based on trying to make pro-environmental behaviours seem attractive, in the same way that goods are advertised. Not surprisingly, this approach is increasingly being used by businesses trying to tap into the new public awareness of sustainability when selling their products, and by businesses explicitly marketing ‘environmentally friendly’ products. We are all deeply embedded in capitalist culture and, while some may not like the idea, consumer choices do interact with and affect social norms.
One version is ‘nudge theory’, premised on the idea that humans beings like to conform to what other people are doing – they will adopt sustainable behaviours if such behaviours seem like ‘the new normal’. “Nudge theory is based on the idea that little things can make a big difference and you only have to tip the balance slightly to steer people into making better decisions, especially if those decisions align with their personal values… The theory argues that nudges should be easy, attractive and social.” (The current UK government has a ‘nudge unit’ based on this theory.)
Another version of the persuasion approach emphasises culture and identity, especially core values. If a climate communicator understands their audience well, they will use language and concepts that link pro-environmental behaviours to that audience’s values and beliefs. Climate Outreach, for example, has undertaken extensive research to test the messages that most appeal to different social groups, including faith groups and conservative groups who historically have tended to be opposed to climate action. It is not so much a question, they say, of using particular words or messages to influence an audience, but of having the sensitivity to understand the audience’s worldview and to avoid giving offence and alienating them. (Some examples are given in the box below.)
The downside of all these approaches is that audiences may feel manipulated – or may respond in a superficial way, for example, not appreciating the true depth of the challenges that face us. To counteract these risks, Climate Outreach emphasises the importance of employing ‘trusted messengers’ who come across as (and are) authentic, able to speak from the heart and build genuine, respectful relationships with audiences.
A different objection to the social marketing approach has been registered on an ideological basis. Some commentators see capitalism as the root cause of the climate crisis; premised on never-ending growth, capitalism can be seen as ‘extractive’, taking and using natural (and human) resources in order to grow profits and taking no responsibility for the ‘waste products’ of industrial processes. Seen within this frame, social marketing is an appropriation of methods primarily used in advertising to manipulate consumers. Such commentators are sceptical about the notion of ‘conscious consumerism’, the implication being that, in order to prevent disastrous global warming, we just have to persuade people to buy different things. What is needed is a whole new social and economic system.
The trouble with that approach is that it makes enemies of those who support capitalism or hope to reform it to make it more sustainable. Policies designed to decarbonise the economy are going to need the support of the vast majority, if they are to succeed. Surveys show that there is a strong correlation between political ideology and attitude to climate change – people on the right are more likely to oppose climate action; people on the left are more likely to support it. Climate communicators are still discussing how best to transcend these divides. The good news is that many more conservatives in developed countries are now speaking up about the problem. However, most of them place their face in market-based solutions, such as the development of new green industries and businesses, and the question of how extensive state intervention should, or should not, be is as yet unresolved.
In The #Talking Climate Handbook, Climate Outreach makes the case that what is most important at this point in time is to build a ‘social mandate’ for government action – in other words, enough people in the general population need to be calling on their political representatives for them to feel obliged and supported to take action. Their focus is not on promoting particular messages but rather on generating conversations. The handbook lays out some guidelines for successful climate conversations, emphasising respectful listening and asking interested questions.
In theory, this approach sidesteps the questions of having and giving information; it is enough to bring the topic into the light. But in practice, based on my own experience of running a short course with University students in this approach, people feel more confident to initiate conversations if they also feel confident of the key facts. So next time around, we plan to run two courses, the first one in ‘carbon literacy’, the second in applying that knowledge. The latter will include learning and practising communication skills as well as planning and engaging in practical actions to reduce the carbon footprints of both the individual students and the University overall.
Two key takeaways from this pilot climate conversations course which may be useful for climate communicators to bear in mind are:
The students very much enjoyed learning listening and questioning skills which they said would be useful for them in many areas of their lives, not only in climate campaigning;
They especially appreciated an exercise where they were asked to think about and share their own values – something that most of them had never consciously articulated before.
A number of climate campaigners emphasise the importance of emotion. Rooted in psychoanalytic theory, they are interested in “the personal histories that lie beneath the surface.” They say that human beings naturally put up psychological defences to defend themselves from painful realities. Most people are in a state of ‘disavowal’ or denial about the dangers of global warming and they won’t be able to take action until they acknowledge and confront repressed emotions such as fear and grief. Climate communicators therefore need both to share their own emotions and to support others to face theirs. This best takes place in a group where the process of sharing one’s own feelings and listening to those of others enables a range of insights and builds solidarity. Rosemary Randall refers to this as a ‘psycho-social’ approach. It underlies the Carbon Conversations model that she helped to create – a short course of six meetings in which a group of people support each other to examine climate information, share their feelings, and plan their personal carbon reduction strategies. On the face of it a friendly, accessible course with a well-designed, informative manual, Carbon Conversations actually aims to go deep and potentially requires sophisticated group facilitation skills.
The emotion-based approach has a clear logic but it raises the Catch-22 problem of disavowal. How do you encourage people to face up to something they don’t want to face up to? Few people are going to eagerly embrace the idea of something like a therapeutic workshop. Recruitment is a major challenge to such groups and it is difficult to see how the approach could be scaled up.
However, the principles of this work can perhaps be applied across a variety of contexts by a skilled climate communicator. The Active Hope approach developed by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone offers a useful framework for taking people on an empowering emotional journey:
expressing our gratitude for the things that we love in the world;
making a safe space to recognise and honour the painful feelings we have about the emergency;
opening our eyes to discover new things about ourselves and what we can contribute;
Even where the circumstances are not conducive to a deep examination of this journey, climate communicators might apply it in miniature, even within a single conversation, the fundamental aims being to (a) help people to face up to what is happening but also (b) feel empowered to do something about it.
Psychologist Heather Hunt comments: “A useful part of Joanna Macy’s approach is honouring our feelings. If we feel grief about extinctions, for example, then that means we feel deep love for nature. If we feel anger, then we want justice. This perspective gives the positive emotions as motivation.” It does seem to me that the psychoanalytically based commentators focus too much on the problems of negative emotions and disavowal; what is missing from this discussion is the engagement of positive emotions, as Hunt says. It is one reason that Climate Outreach and others advocate ‘telling your own story’, speaking from the heart, because that way you can arouse empathy in others.
Asserting the value of the emotions for social and political engagement implies a place for rhetoric in our campaigning and projects, and a place for drama. Skilled rhetoricians know how to engage the public’s passions, and we should not eschew that opportunity. Stephen Duncombe points out that some campaigners are fearful of rhetoric because they associate it with appeals to mindlessness, to prejudice and unthinking populism. He proposes that ‘progressive’ campaigners should learn to use rhetoric (and spectacle too) rather than be afraid of it.
One solution to the problem of disavowal may be to offer non-threatening activities and use them as the opportunity for gradually deepening conversations as the trust builds. Whatever the way in, climate communicators do need to be prepared to support people to deal with what is increasingly called ‘eco-anxiety’ which may surface at unexpected moments. People at all levels of engagement may suddenly have a perception of how deep the problems are, they may move into a personal space of existential crisis. It is probably advisable to build some kind of listening/counselling support into all activities, a bit like First Aid, to be called on if and when necessary. (This post does not go into eco-anxiety in any depth – I may write more on it in the future.)
For further discussion of so-called negative emotions, see my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.
An approach to climate communications perhaps still emerging is one based in reasoning. In recent decades, psychological research has increasingly emphasised the non-rational side of human beings, how most of our behaviour is led by ‘what is beneath the surface’ (to quote Ro Randall again.) But in my view, that understanding only heightens the need for us to maximise the limited rationality that we are capable of, as part of a multi-pronged approach. As philosopher, Grace Lockrobin, says: “Philosophical, political, emotional and practical issues run through any discussion about climate change, so there is a need for multi-layered discussion and exploration, combined with the commitment to critical examination of one’s own assumptions, biases and allegiances.” Along with her colleague Michelle Sowey, Grace co-convenes an online group ‘Community Philosophy and the Climate Crisis’. Both Grace and Michelle argue that philosophical enquiry is a vital part of climate education. Grace advocates climate enquiry with children still in primary school, while in a recent interview, Michelle interviews a philosophy graduate and activist who talks about “how studying philosophy [had] helped her come to terms with the climate and ecological emergency, how it opened her eyes to the failure of the social contract, and why she now sees civil disobedience as a moral imperative.”
At a more instrumental level, the critical thinking skills developed by philosophers are still not widely taught within western education systems. Many of us are not well-equipped to make and evaluate logical arguments, to appraise evidence, to understand statistics, to assess risks or to develop complex strategies. Critical thinking challenges inevitably surface in climate education activities, whether the main focus is on information, emotion or practical action. The risk here is that the general public is turned off by something that can seem academic, especially if formal terms are used. But my contention is that there is nothing more exciting than a revelatory critical examination of one’s own or others’ arguments, providing it is handled in a constructive fashion. Adopting the so-called ‘principle of charity’ under which one seeks, as one’s top priority, to understand the arguments, beliefs and values of one’s opponents makes it more likely that constructive dialogue can take place, transcending the tribalistic boundaries of typical political discourse. “We find ourselves in a dilemma,” Grace says. “The climate emergency is now so urgent that we are torn between the desperation to see rapid action and the knowledge that hasty action might be counter-productive. Critical thinking is therefore required for us to achieve clarity; philosophical practice may take us even deeper, helping us to examine our values and beliefs, confronting us with difficult questions of priority, connecting us to different philosophical and political traditions from which we can learn.” 
John Cook also points out that critical thinking skills are needed to spot, explain and unpick the tactics of climate deniers (for more information on his ‘inoculation’ approach, see the box in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators.)
One tool for improving critical thinking and discussion that I think could be very useful to the climate movement is Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. For those who don’t know this useful model, the different colours of ‘hat’ refer to different focuses for thinking and discussion. The white hat represents facts – in our case, the science, the evidence. The red hat is for feelings; there are plenty of those around this issue, and I’m not sure they are yet being handled with emotional intelligence. The yellow hat is for optimism and in contrast, the black hat is for pessimism, for critical judgement. We need both of these in the climate movement and there is a false polarisation between those who assert that we must be positive all the time and those who say we must face up to the worst possible scenarios all the time. In fact, we need to move thoughtfully between the two positions. The green hat is for new ideas and there is a plethora of them out there – which should give us some optimism! (Of course, we need to be putting the most promising of these ideas into action.) Lastly, the blue hat is for process, as when you take on the role of a chair in a meeting and you stand back to consider where the discussion is going and what next step would be most productive. (For more info on the 6 thinking hats model see: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_07.htm.)
Heather Hunt proposed to me that I should add choice to my list of frames. She points to the book entitled ‘The Future We Choose’, co-authored by Christiana Figueres, a key figure in the international climate negotiations in Paris in 2015. In the table above, I give the example of a presentation by David McKay and Mark Lynas in which they confronted us in the audience with difficult choices about renewable energy. Making choices and decisions is one aspect of critical thinking, as it is now commonly understood: critical thinking is not just a matter of understanding intellectually or philosophically what the dilemmas are, it is the weighing up of evidence and priorities with a view to making a decision and taking action. The climate and nature emergencies confront us with many tricky choices. A classic example is nuclear power: is it ‘sustainable’ or not? Does it solve all our problems – or does it create more? In the end, politicians have to make decisions about such matters, and so do voters, when it comes to elections. As Stuart Hanscomb points out in his book, Critical Thinking the basics, it is not that critical thinking procedures will necessarily reveal a perfect solution to complex problems, but there is a better chance of a ‘best fit’ solution if the evidence and view points have been thoughtfully weighed up through constructive critical dialogue.
Contextualising climate communications within a framework of practical action may serve to engage people in a meaningful – and perhaps enjoyable – way, developing their sense of ‘perceived behavioural control’, self-efficacy or agency, and contributing to measurable carbon reductions. Moreover, each new project, whether at community level, in industry, in commerce or in policy, brings new learnings. In a sense, a society-wide research project is taking place; the challenge of decarbonisation is unprecedented and the more people who are engaged in investigating it, the more we as a society will understand about what does and doesn’t work.
The theory of change here is that, once engaged in a localised but purposeful, communal endeavour, people will become more aware of the wider implications. They will be more likely to ask questions, to seek answers and to get more involved – especially if they trust and respect the integrity and expertise of those running the project.
A prominent strand of thought within the climate movement is to encourage people to ‘fall back in love with nature’. The thinking is that many people in industrialised societies have lost a sense of connection to the natural world. Engaging people in enjoyable and/or challenging activities in the outdoors, especially those that involve a stewarding role, may help them to reflect on the bigger picture of the climate and ecological emergencies, whilst also reminding them of the intrinsic pleasures of physical activity in the outdoors. David Attenborough has said: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
Considering action as part of climate communications potentially takes us over a boundary, moving beyond engagement (getting people’s attention) towards politicisation. Action of course is not a single thing; there are many different types of action possible and these could be seen in a ladder or progression. A very simple version might be:
Easy/quick things you can do
Getting more active / contributing to the movement
Becoming a leader for sustainability
Embracing active care for the climate and all living things may also take us into spiritual territory. In recent years, different faith groups, such as Muslims, Jews and Catholics, have publicly stated their conviction that humans have a responsibility to be stewards of the earth.
Action can help climate communicators in another way: Roger Hallam, one of the founders of the Extinction Rebellion movement, has recently pointed out that people become more engaged if they physically move around! His comments are a critique of dull political meetings where people sit still. This is one reason why creative activities may be an important feature of the climate communicator’s toolkit (see also Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?.)
Many people like to make and do. Moreover, creative activities can engage the imagination and emotions, enhancing meaningfulness. In ‘Paradise Is Here, Building Community Around Things That Matter”, Ruth Nutter lays out some principles for creative forms of community engagement, including: being visible in daily life, inviting openly and instructing clearly, giving permission to think and do differently, connecting with care and using plenty of paper.
I think action is very important but it does not mean ignoring the other frames. It is up to the skilled practitioner to explore how best to integrate within practical activities scientific and technological information, opportunities for conversation, critical thinking and emotional reflection, and questions for philosophical or political investigation. There is much to be learned here from the expertise of community and educational arts workers. It may be that one of the keys to success is collaboration – designing projects which bring together creative practitioners with partners with sector specific knowledge and skills (e.g. in sustainable construction), as well as skilled climate communicators, all of them working closely with the participants to go on a shared journey of discovery.
One caveat is that some people feel threatened by activities that look artistic, performative, embarrassing or personally exposing, so it is important that the initial offer is non-threatening, enjoyable and free from pressure.
A distinct realm of action is political protest. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future have been widely acknowledged as having successfully raised the issue in the general public’s awareness through non-violent direct action. However there have been some criticisms. At a recent webinar on climate communications, Rosemary Randall suggested that it is important to have calm conversations with members of the public while engaged in such protests, to explain the rationale behind them. Stuart Capstick was concerned when the public itself felt targeted by non-violent direct action; he thought it was better to target the media, the financial system, etc.
Please note that some commentators argue that climate advocacy efforts focused on the actions of individuals simply makes people feel guilty, while acting as a distraction from the role of big polluters in driving climate change and the need for wider system change driven by governments.
Politicisation and the role of the arts and creativity are discussed further in:
Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?
Empowerment and motivation
Some climate communicators may prioritise the aims of empowerment (giving people the knowledge and ability to contribute effectively) and motivation (stimulating people’s passion and determination.) Again, these frames take us over the boundary into politicisation; in my post on that topic I refer to some examples of different approaches. Common threads seem to include: listening to people’s concerns, understanding their needs, respecting their values and building solidarity, whilst providing opportunities to experience participating in actions that have an impact, building confidence and resilience.
I am intrigued by Marshall Ganz’s idea that motivating people means moving from a focus on the self to a focus on the collective, telling ‘the story of us’. This is a different perspective from the Community Organising one that says that human beings are inherently self-interested and will only do things if they perceive a personal reward.
Experienced climate activists and communicators may decide that the most useful frame or focus for their communications is to nurture the next generation of leaders, at whatever level of society. The enormous impact of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement that she inspired has awakened many older politicians and activists to the significance of the younger generation, who are increasingly spelling out that they are the ones who are going to have to live with the impacts of climate change. In Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?, I quote Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition), European Climate Foundation, who told me that upcoming leaders need to have a credible theory of change and the ability to think strategically over the longer term – qualities that often seem to be missing from our current, short-termist political leadership.
What are the implications at community level? I would suggest that the ethical leader is continually nurturing new leaders, modelling and teaching skills in engaging, inspiring and empowering others. The process may start small, giving people simple but responsible tasks to carry out, only offering more challenging tasks when the person has built up their confidence. Given that it seems likely that the social transformation required can only happen if it is supported by all sectors of society, nurturing the leadership skills of those who are often overlooked or disparaged may be particularly important.
A more aspirational manifestation of this ambition is Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps. The website states:
“We believe real change comes from the ground up. We know that a small-but-committed critical mass of activists can not only transform society, but change the world. That’s why we recruit, train, and mobilize people to become powerful activists, providing the skills, campaigns, and resources to push for aggressive climate action and high-level policies that accelerate a just transition to clean energy… Alongside these efforts, our dynamic communications initiatives connect climate and behavioural science with the emotional power of compelling stories, raising awareness and inspiring action in online audiences everywhere.”
I don’t know how well the Climate Reality project is going down in the UK; I have a suspicion that it might come over as rather American and un-English but I would like feedback from somebody who has been directly involved. Personally, I like the idea of climate leadership programmes for young people and I know that there are various models out there. One question I would have is whether they tend to attract middle-class people – which is fine and appropriate for people who want to work with and influence middle-class people; but wouldn’t it be great if your group could engage working class people too? This is one reason why I have included the notes on community organising in my post on Politicisation.
Policies designed to decarbonise the economy are going to need the support of the vast majority, if they are to succeed. Surveys have often shown a strong correlation between political ideology and attitude to climate change – people on the right more likely to oppose climate action, people on the left more likely to support it. The picture seems to have changed somewhat since 2018, however. The growing visibility and immediacy of extreme weather events and the high-profile impacts of Friday for Future, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough and others has hopefully put climate denial beyond the pale. Increasingly, citizens agree that they are concerned about climate change. However, they (we) demonstrate a considerable gap between concern and action (the ‘value/action gap’) and the politicians who are best equipped to lead on systemic change are only just beginning to demonstrate a commitment to transcending tribal divides and opposing the vested interests of powerful climate deniers.
Climate communicators are still discussing how best to approach the political question. For some, it is a moral imperative to contextualise climate and ecological action within a ‘progressive’ vision of wholesale social transformation, rejecting capitalism either substantially or totally. On the other side are those who see capitalism as an eternal verity and advocate pragmatic changes to steer it in a more sustainable direction.
At a basic level, one thing that community climate communicators can do is to help citizens see the importance of lobbying their political representatives, whichever side they may be on. When asked what was the single most impactful action for ordinary citizens to take, Al Gore said to get your political representatives to pass laws. The thinking here is that only governments can pass laws to restrain the fossil fuel corporations and other polluters, creating a ‘level playing field,’ and to convert infrastructure to prevent carbon emissions.
The climate scientist, Michael E. Mann, warns that the new strategy of the fossil fuel lobby, now that denial is a difficult position to uphold, is to give the message to citizens that they should focus on changing their personal carbon footprints, because this distracts them from the greater truth that systemic change is required.
I share and discuss some different approaches to this matter in my post Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
This is such an important frame that I have written a separate post about it. It only comes at the end of this list because all the other frames above can be seen as falling within a common ‘gradualist’ approach which emphasises being accessible to different audiences and not scaring or overwhelming them. The emergency mobilisation approach is far less reassuring; in fact it is all about telling people just how serious the situation is – with a view to galvanising them into determined action. I go into the pros and cons of this approach in my other post; for now, the brief summary is that climate communicators need to learn how to convey both urgency and agency (the latter overlapping with my comments on empowerment and motivation above.)
So, which of all these frames should your group focus on?
The purpose of these posts is to throw that question back to you – both your steering group and the comms practitioners on your team. Each of the frames has its merits but also its downsides. Probably, as skilled climate communicators, you would want to work in more than one frame, in order to maximise your effectiveness, but you need to be led by consideration of your audiences and your high-level aims and objectives.
In Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, I have tried to synthesise the communications advice proffered from many different quarters into a single set of recommendations. This may seem a mistaken project, because of the differences between the frames. But my take on climate communications is pragmatic; I assume that a variety of different methods will be needed to reach different people in different situations at different times, and that the essential attribute of the good communicator is summed up in Stephen Covey’s aphorism, “Seek first to understand; and then to be understood.”
And despite the differences in emphasis, it seems to me that a number of shared concerns run through many of the frames, e.g.
the importance of engaging citizens in conversation and reflection
the importance of understanding each audience and adapting your approach to suit
the need for sensitive and skilful facilitation with individuals and groups, including ways of countermanding disavowal and supporting people with eco-anxiety
the importance of balancing urgency with agency
Finally, one other shared perception gets to the heart of what we are doing as community-based climate communicators: wider public engagement is needed. This is so for at least two reasons. Firstly, the society-wide political and economic changes that we need can only be put in place by governments. But, as Sheffield politician Paul Blomfield has emphasised, MPs are elected to represent their constituents’ concerns; if their constituents are not pestering them about climate change it is hard for them to prioritise taking action on it. But secondly, and more profoundly, the changes will not be possible without widespread public support; no government can order radical change from above if the people do not understand the reasons why and see the benefits to them individually, and to their communities. This is not to lay the emphasis on individual change when clearly our loudest call must be for system change led by government; however the two are symbiotic, as a recent report by Climate Outreach asserts.
There are many different ‘lenses’ or ‘frames’ though which to look at climate communications, including: Information; Persuasion; Conversation; Emotion; Reason; Choice; Storytelling, Imagination and the Arts; Action; Empowerment; Motivation; Leadership development; Political mobilisation; and Emergency mobilisation.
Each frame has its strengths and its weaknesses; some frames will align better with your own audiences, values and priorities.
The most commonly used frames share the gradualist approach. However the emergency mobilisation approach is important and has become stronger in recent years.
As skilled climate communicators, you will probably want to work in more than one frame, in order to maximise your effectiveness, but you need to be led by consideration of your audiences and your high-level aims and objectives.
A number of concerns unite many of the frames, including: engaging citizens in conversation and reflection; understanding each audience and adapting your approach to suit; the need for sensitive and skilful facilitation with individuals and groups; and the importance of balancing urgency with agency.
An over-arching concern for all community-based climate communicators is that wider public engagement is needed.
 Green and Ethical checklist supplement in The Guardian 03.04.21
 See Appendix C for some notes on appealing to particular audiences’ values.
 Corner, Adam and Clarke, Jamie. (2017) Talking Climate, From Research to Practice in Public Engagement. Oxford. Palgrave Macmillan.
 Climate Conversations pilot course run at the University of Sheffield November/December 2020, facilitated by Nick Nuttgens and coordinated by Alice Potter. A summary of the evaluation is available upon request.
 Rosemary Randall, Scientists for XR webinar “Beyond Optimism or Doom”, April 7th, 2021.
 I owe these tips to Re-evaluation Counseling, a political therapy organisation I was involved with in the 1980s. I left it because I decided it had cultish traits but it did/does provide an excellent training in engaging people at the emotional level.
This is one of a series of blogs entitled Principles and Advice for Grassroots Climate Communicators, in which I share and reflect on a range of ideas within the field, with a view to helping grassroots activists and groups communicate effectively. For an overview of approaches and challenges in the field, please see my post Climate Communications – An Overview.
I have not provided a summary at the end of this post because there simply too many detailed suggestions. Instead I am providing an index so that you can scroll through to find ideas relevant to your current communication needs. I would encourage you to dip in every now and then as there is far too much advice to absorb in a single reading.
I’m aware there are some repetitions; that has occurred because I am emphasising different aspects of related points. If you prefer to go to the original reference documents, which are usually more succinct, you will find them listed in the bibliography attached to my post Climate Communications – An Overview.
Index a) The purpose of a communications strategy b) Some guidance on designing a communications strategy c) A repository of tips and models for climate communicators (centred on the ‘gradualist’ approach), organised under 6 headings:
Approach: be clear about the intentions and values that run through all of your communications Engagement: get people’s attention / invite them in Rapport: connect / build a relationship Conversation: listen and learn Messaging: deliver reliable information appropriately / persuade Empowerment: inspire and enable people to take action
Mention is also made to a 7th topic, Politicisation. I have discussed this in more detail in a separate post – Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
Case studies highlighted in boxes in the text include: Hope for the Future Climate Outreach: Britain Talks Climate Carbon Literacy John Cook’s work on inoculating people against denialism Carbon Conversations
Emergency mobilisation: Please note that this post does not include practical guidance on emergency mobilisation strategies including, for example, direct action. I compiled this document when I was reviewing the literature a few years ago and the emphasis at that time was on the gradualist approach. Now, in 2021, after the enormous success of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion in boosting the climate and nature emergencies up the political agenda, this seems like a serious omission. I would point grassroots climate communicators wanting advice on more confrontational approaches to look at the Extinction Rebellion website and similar. For a discussion of the pros and cons of the emergency mobilisation approach, please see my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.
a. The purpose of a communications strategy
Definition and purpose of a communications strategy
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NVCO) provides a useful guide to developing a communications strategy on its website. It says the purpose of a communications strategy is “to help you and your organisation communicate effectively and meet core organisational objectives.” This means that the starting point is to be clear about those objectives. It seems to me that they are likely to include:
Letting people know that you exist and why
Letting people know about things that you are doing
Inviting people to participate in different ways
Disseminating accurate information about the climate emergency and its implications for people in your area
Countermanding misinformation (errors in understanding), disinformation (incorrect information deliberately promoted with the intention of deceiving) and denial (rejection of climate change science)
Provoking discussion and reflection
Persuading or encouraging people to take notice and take action
Sharing and celebrating successes
My key recommendation to practitioners on the ground is to embrace a learning approach; to try out different messages and approaches with different audiences, and give time to evaluating them, thinking critically about both successes and failures, and adapting practice accordingly.
A fundamental principle: think critically when planning communications
Below I list some of the ‘gradualist’ principles that many people working in this field think work best. However, there are no one-size-fits-all rules. Before engaging in any piece of climate communications, ask yourself the ‘question word questions’:
WHO is my audience?
WHAT do I want to communicate to them?
WHY? What result do I hope for? (Behaviour change? Policy change?)
HOW? What content, vocabulary and tone would be most persuasive for the recipient(s)?
WHEN and WHERE is that communication likely to be best received?
WHO would be a good person to make that communication?
b. Some guidance on designing a communications strategy
Most of these recommendations are taken directly from: Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide. Insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (Climate and Development Knowledge Network 2019.) This is an excellent resource written by somebody working in the field and I strongly recommend that grassroots climate communicators study the whole document. Although it is aimed at practice in developing countries, where people may be living on the front lines of climate change and climate impacts may be more salient, many of the principles apply in the UK too.
Below you will find the main headings/recommendations from that guide. There is much more detail in the original document. (Please note that I have added a handful of additional suggestions to the list below, taken from other documents referenced later in this post.)
Develop a good communications campaign
Identify and understand your audience
identify the stakeholder group(s) who can affect positive change, what information and analysis they need and how you can help meet their knowledge needs.
segment the audience and tailor communications to the specific concerns and needs of different target groups, to make the content as useful and relevant as possible.
understand the intended audience’s knowledge and values. Use framing and language that will resonate with target audiences and evolve their understanding of, and contribution to, an issue.
Work to identify who the best ‘messengers’ are for your content: Who is most likely to capture the attention of your intended audience?
Request audience feedback often, and revise and update messaging, content and engagement activities to improve when things aren’t working well.
Learn lessons from previous public information/ advertising campaigns and be prepared to test your assumptions.
Tailor knowledge products and use multiple formats
Craft knowledge products and services that frame the information in ways that are tailored and relevant to the stakeholder group(s).
Use appropriate language: Translate literally into different languages and/or use more or less technical language according to the target group’s needs.
‘Layer’ the message: Start with simple, eye-catching headlines, and signpost to more complex levels of information and analysis: 5-second read, 60-second read, 10-minute read, 30–60-minute read.
Produce diverse formats when the budget allows: Tell the same story, where possible, in multiple formats to cater to people’s varying personal preferences. For example, use text, pictures (picture galleries, photo essays, etc.), slide packs, films and animations, as well as multimedia products that combine all of the above.
Make content easy to access, easy to use, easy to share. Make sure content can be readily understood, applied and distributed by your intended audiences.
Recognise how digital and face-to-face communications can amplify each other
Devise digital outreach campaigns that elevate serious climate change messages in the midst of huge online ‘chatter’ by using well-tested tactics – such as high-quality imagery, innovative infographics, clear copywriting and even memes – to make content compulsively shareable.
Give audiences at face-to-face events (meetings, conferences) the digital tools to spread content to their networks, for an ‘amplifying’ effect on your communications campaign.
Combine face-to-face engagements in smaller groups with digital outreach via larger broadcast communications, as a way to achieve both depth and breadth.
Get the climate change framing right: Learn how to develop one or several story angles that will resonate with your target audiences:
> General audiences
Find the ‘human interest’ stories – in other words, people’s own words about their own experiences – that tell how climate change has negative impacts.
Use the most authoritative statistics and analysis you can find to back up your stories.
Find the stories about iconic cultural and historical assets that could be negatively affected by climate change.
Look out for the insidious, small-scale impacts of climate change that are weakening people’s resilience over time and affecting their ability to ‘bounce back’ and fulfil their human potential.
Highlight that action on adaptation can prevent the loss of livelihoods, assets, health and well-being – even loss of life – from climate change impacts.
Show the power of positive solutions. People don’t want just bad news, they want inspiration!
> Business and economics focused audiences
Look for examples of risks to company profit – or to a company’s entire business model – posed by climate change impacts on assets, work force, production systems and supply chains.
Find the stories of risk to competitiveness – of company, city, region, country – from inattention to climate change impacts.
Highlight that action on adaptation can create a resilient firm with long-term prospects for business growth and stability.
Demonstrate that assessing climate risks to the business demonstrates a robust vision and strategy to shareholders, aimed at ensuring the firm’s long-term value. It is about being ‘ahead of the curve’.
For more detail of the above recommendations, please see the original document.
A note on the limitations of mass media campaigns
In Talking Climate (2017), Corner and Clarke argue: “Although mass media promotions are often the most cost-effective ways of ‘reaching’ large numbers of people, one-way communications have been most effective when combined with more interpersonal or community-based initiatives to support individuals [e.g. in quitting smoking] and to visibly shift social norms.” Research on the effectiveness of HIV campaigns points to the importance of fostering environments where ‘the voice of those most affected by the pandemic can be heard.” (Panos London 2003.) They conclude that: “Targets are important and necessary, but they should follow (rather than precede) a process of public engagement.” (page 23)
This proposition echoes one given to me by a venerated community drama practitioner, Noel Greig, who told me not long before he died: “It’s all about shoe leather.” What he meant was that there is no replacement for getting out there, having one-to-one conversations and building trust through authentic dialogue. Your community group (like ours here in South Yorkshire) obviously cannot hold one-to-one conversations with every person in the region but I think we should be realise the limitations of remote and generalised forms of communication and we should maximise the opportunities for authentic dialogue in whatever we do.
That said, it is also important to take on board that we now live in a digital world. The social media aspect of communications is not my strength so I would recommend that you look elsewhere if you want further advice to supplement that given above.
In Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?, I give a few examples of digital and creative approaches to communications. Stephen Duncombe, in particular, makes the point that nowadays many people are ‘prosumers’, not just consumers but producers. In suggesting that authentic, face-to-face conversations should be at the core of our communications ambitions, I may be reflecting the perspective of an older generation. You and your organisation may be well advised to come up with digitally-based projects that will capture the imaginations of the video-game generation.
c: A repository of tips and models for climate communicators (centred on the ‘gradualist’ approach)
In this section, I have gathered principles and tips from a number of different sources, in the hope that they will be helpful for practitioners on the ground. The sources used largely agree on taking an optimistic approach and avoiding triggering fear, guilt, anxiety and disavowal. As noted above, this section lacks guidance on more confrontational, ‘emergency mobilisation’ tactics.
I have organised the gradualist principles under six roughly chronological but overlapping headings. I was thinking about the process a person might go through with a grassroots organisation or campaigning group, from when they first encounter it through to (perhaps) becoming a committed activist or leader themselves.
Approach: be clear about the intentions and values that run through all of your communications
Engagement: get people’s attention / invite them in
Rapport: connect / build a relationship
Conversation: listen and learn
Messaging: deliver reliable information appropriately / persuade
Empowerment: inspire and enable people to take action
Politicisation: support people into campaigning
Detailed practical tips for politicisation are currently lacking from this post. I hope to fill that section out later. For a discussion of some of the issues around politicisation, please see my post Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
1. Approach: be clear about the intentions and values that run through all of your communications
Align communication objectives with the overall aims and objectives of the programme
Be clear about the top communications priorities:
Breaking the silence and starting the wider conversation is the primary objective of climate communication. This is necessary in order to build the social mandate for the radical changes that are needed.
It is more important to establish, build and keep the relationship than it is to get a particular message over. Better that people are engaged but disagree than that they don’t engage at all.
Understand and countermand (a) the psychology of disavowal and (b) the politics of denial.
Adam Corner of Climate Outreach claims that denialism has had its day. There is no point in fighting last year’s battles, he says. But the impacts of denialism are still with us and may surface within our conversations on the ground. Communicators might be well advised to prepare themselves to handle such moments confidently.
Disavowal and denial
Disavowal. Disavowal, used in the climate change context, means an attitude of disconnection from the issue of climate change, and how serious it is, and a lack of a sense of responsibility for taking action. Although concern about the climate and nature emergencies has risen exponentially in recent times, we are all still prone to disavowal, to differing degrees.
Why so? One explanation advanced by people like George Marshall is that, for most people in developed countries, global warming doesn’t yet feel either urgent or scary, so both politicians and the general population keep putting off taking effective action. The theory is that we human beings evolved to respond to immediate threats. We switch to alarm mode when we hear a sudden danger signal, such as the crack of a twig in the undergrowth or a smell of burning. But climate change isn’t sudden; it’s gradual. It is often invisible. To us, in the global north, it often seems remote, and we cannot easily see what we should do about it. You can’t just point a fire extinguisher at a warming ocean and cool it down in a few seconds. Climate change requires us to use our brains, to look at the gradually accumulating data, predict how things will develop and take preventive actions. It will never feel urgent until it is too late – and we are perilously close to that point now.
Psychoanalysts such as Sally Weintrobe point to a different possible explanation. Human beings cannot tolerate too much reality, they say. We hide uncomfortable truths from ourselves; we dream of omnipotence and live in denial of our own mortality; global warming triggers ‘annihilation anxiety’. Rosemary Randall emphasises that disavowal has the purpose of trying to protect oneself from such difficult feelings.
A further possible reason, advanced by Feinberg and Willer in 2011, may be that “dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs.” A just world belief is the belief that everyone ultimately gets what they deserve. These beliefs may be more common in people with conservative, authoritarian political values, and in religious people.
Denial. The burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – is the main cause of global heating. There is evidence that some of the corporations that produce fossil fuels have deliberately suppressed accurate information about their impact on the atmosphere. Even now, there are wealthy corporations and individuals spending millions each year to sow confusion about the science of climate change in the media. Climate communicators therefore need to be ready to confront misinformation (errors in understanding), disinformation (incorrect information put out by climate sceptics) and denial (rejection of the whole global warming threat.)
At the time of writing, in 2021, it seems that explicit denial has become much less socially acceptable. However writers such as Michael Mann warn that the proponents of fossil fuels are still trying to delay action behind-the-scenes, using a range of tactics, including encouraging the view that it is too late to make a difference. Mann calls this ‘inactivism’. Others sometimes use the term ‘delayism.’ It should be noted that some ‘climate sceptics’ reject the term ‘denier’. They believe that their scepticism is founded in good evidence and isn’t just a cynical attempt to maintain fossil fuel profits. Your group will need to decide whether it wishes to engage in such debates or not, and on what terms. For more on confronting denial, see the box below on ‘Inoculating’ people against denialism’.
Explain and countermand the psychology of disavowal
Blaming people for their disavowal won’t help at all; better to explain how natural it is and to design your communications to countermand it as in the table below.
Acknowledge the complexity but promote scientifically recognised levers for effective decarbonisation (e.g. reducing beef consumption, using public transport, insulating homes)
Slow moving and invisible
Help people to notice changes that are happening now
Engage with young people whose lives are likely to be directly affected by rising temperatures
Challenges our way of life
Seek solutions that enable people to have a satisfying, if somewhat different, quality-of-life Ensure that the necessary transition to a sustainable economy is well-planned, well explained and that everybody’s needs are thought about fairly
Proceed with confidence based on scientifically sound information
Surveys show that concern about climate change is now high in developed countries and overt denialism seems to be in retreat. Climate communicators can therefore assume an acceptance of the need for action in the abstract but should recognise that specific decarbonisation objectives will need to be repeatedly explained and justified.
Extinction Rebellion scientists have produced a paper that aims to present the crucial facts about the climate emergency. Even the short version runs to several pages, however, so grassroots climate campaigners will need to select a few key points that they want to emphasise, or bring in at appropriate moments. (Drawing this list up might be an important early job for your comms team.)
Adopt a flexible approach based on continual learning
Climate communications is not a perfect science, but an on-going process of learning through doing.
Climate communicators should research and learn lessons from previous campaigns (their own and others’).
ii. Engagement: get people’s attention / invite them in
People are more likely to be drawn in by activities that look fun, intriguing, non-threatening and heart-warming.
I include this principle on the basis of personal experience with arts-based projects and festivals. Most people enjoy simple, non-threatening activities such as cutting and sticking, drawing and photographing as well as seeing performances – music, drama, poetry, stand-up or film. It doesn’t always have to be artistic. Many Transition groups have run events such as cider-making days or seed-swap days. In the past, Tupperware parties were very popular with women and Ann Summers parties still take place.
However, Stephen Duncombe warns that engaging younger people in the 21st-century may look very different. He advises communicators to think in terms of video-games and exciting spectacles, and to recognise that many young people are now producers themselves, e.g. with their own YouTube channels.
With each new person or group, ask yourself ‘What is their entry point?’
This includes politicians. (See the advice of Hope for the Future on how to research the interests of your local MP and what might be the best way in to a constructive dialogue with them.https://www.hftf.org.uk/)
It can be useful to focus on things people can visualise and care about, e.g. changes in Nature near where they live.
Make and remake a clear contract with each new person or group.
When somebody agrees to engage in an activity, there is always an implicit contract. Communicators should make clear what they are offering or asking for. People will back away if they feel they are being pressurised into something they don’t understand or don’t want to commit to. It is important to gain consent and to regain it regularly. It is easy for people to burn out or feel overwhelmed. This is why Extinction Rebellion has adopted the ambition of developing a ‘regenerative’ internal culture.
Utilize ‘trusted messengers’ and promote new voices to reach beyond the usual suspects.
Messengers are often more important than the message.
People hear the music not the words; the non-verbal aspects of communication are the most important.
Some sections of the population are venomously opposed to people they see as left-leaning, white, middle-class environmentalists. They are more likely to listen to somebody they can identify with, who they believe understands their lives and perspectives.
Peer-to-peer approaches are the best; it is worth investing time and money in finding, nurturing and training potential communicators within target areas and communities.
Engagement should be targeted at social networks, thus enhancing social capital and increasing the likelihood of peer-to-peer learning.
Including people with conservative values is essential for building effective public engagement.
Climate communicators must embrace those who identify with the centre right and with different faith groups if they are to have a sufficiently wide impact to bring about the new social mandate. For more information on communicating with these groups and others see the excellent guidance documents on the Climate Outreach website.
iii. Rapport: connect / build a relationship
Rapport is a word for when you are ‘in tune’ with somebody – or to use a different metaphor – when you feel you’re ‘walking in step’ with them. Often you can spot from a distance friends who are enjoying each other’s company because they are sitting, standing or walking in similar ways and adopting similar tones of voice, whether laughing together or having an earnest conversation. With some people you have an instant rapport; but in public communications, you will often have to work at it a bit, especially in the first few moments of a conversation. Being warm, open and attentive, and listening respectfully are crucial.
Communications should be tailored to specific audiences, local cultures and local needs:
Geert Hofstede has defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” A down-to-earth definition of culture that is often used nowadays is ‘the way we do things around here’.
Do careful research into the culture, worldview, values and beliefs of the person or group you are planning to approach.
Start from where they are at – their current state of knowledge and their immediate concerns.
Climate communicators might want to be aware of such elements of culture as values, language, symbols, heroes and rituals, as well as more salient aspects, such as religion, food and music.
Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and align your climate messages with:
their values: what is important to them in their lives
the specific issues that matter to them
Be sensitive to context, especially the pressures that people are living with
Pick your time and place.
Be aware of people’s limited ‘worry bank’ (i.e. we can only worry about so many things on any given day!)
Be sensitive to the context of the pandemic (2021); this is an uncertain and worrying time.
Choose words carefully to respect and reflect the interests and values of your audience
This is not a matter of trying to manipulate your audience by using ‘magic words’, which would very likely seem inauthentic. It is more a matter of knowing which words not to use – words that might come over as disrespectful or patronising or which might sound like the vocabulary of a different social group.
Hope for the Future: Apply the above principles to politicians too!
Hope for the Future is an organisation that advises and trains constituents in how to most effectively lobby their local MP around climate change. Their approach is based on Non-Violent Communication (NVC) which emphasises the building of empathy through understanding the other person’s fundamental psychological, physical, social and spiritual needs, such as appreciation, safety, respect, choice and inspiration. They run training courses on their approach which has been effective in building relationships even with politicians who are apparently opposed to action on climate change.
They emphasise the importance of doing research beforehand, going in with the intention of building the relationship, and having a range of ‘asks’ in mind which are things that the person could reasonably do, starting from something very simple that aligns with one of their own priorities. If you want to write to or visit an MP, Hope for the Future can help you with the preparatory research and can even advise you on the best approach.
Communications should be sensitive to gender and other protected characteristics
Sensitivity to gender is crucial not only when approaching some faith groups but there can be gender-based differences in attitudes to the technical aspects of cutting your carbon footprint e.g. in my experience of running Carbon Conversations groups, the men and women sometimes had different entry points and interests. This is just one aspect of a much larger discussion about being respectful of different groups, and sensitive to the pressures they may be under, including economic and social discrimination in their various forms. At a global level, it is worth noting that the Project Drawdown suggests that the education of girls may be one of the most important decarbonisation strategies, as educated women tend to have fewer children, thus slowing down population growth.
If you have never done any training in unconscious bias, it might be a good thing to do – though I would recommend seeking out a highly experienced and empathetic trainer as this can be quite a challenging experience.
Public engagement should start from people’s values.
People are motivated by shared values and identity, and the joy of belonging. People hear only what confirms their beliefs so they need to hear:
This is who you are (someone who cares about these things)
Other people like you agree with this/you
When you embrace this you belong more to your group (not less)
And the world becomes more how you want it to be (not less)
Some notes on speaking to an audience’s values, taken from a presentation by George Marshall from Climate Outreach at the University of Sheffield, November 2017.
Consider both the language you use and the narrative you tell.
FAITH: Use language that works across the five faiths: e.g. · The world is a precious gift · Climate change is a moral challenge · We care for the poor and vulnerable · We preserve the legacy of our parents · We provide for the future for our children · The world is out of balance; climate change is a message that something is wrong. · We need action at all levels
TRADE UNIONS: “Climate change is the biggest social justice issue of all time. We’ve sat out this issue and let it be dominated by middle class environmentalists. We need to be involved and doing what we do best – we need to stand together to protect our communities and our jobs!” [solidarity]
Case Study: Southern US Christians The audience: conservative evangelical Christians Values:Biblical truth, responsibility, protect innocents, not-liberal, not-green
Case Study: Preventing litter The audience: general public but especially young disaffected men Values: male pride, tough, macho, anti-authority, defensive/insecure, peer pressure
Because people hold very different values, mixed groups can be hard to handle; look for shared ‘communal’ values or a common enabling narrative.
Communal values that cross party-political divides might be such things as a concern for nature or a dislike of waste.
The Common Cause Foundation have led the way in the UK in researching values. They distinguish between extrinsic values which rely on external approval or rewards – such as wealth, power or public image and intrinsic values such as community, love for friends and family and creativity. They have also researched kindness as an important value to promote across the political spectrum.
Segmenting your audience: Britain Talks Climate
George Marshall and Climate Outreach have undertaken research with a variety of social groups, seeking to understand their values and perspectives and exploring which climate messages chime with them (if at all.) Their reports cover the Centre Right, faith groups, young people, rural councillors, work in Europe, Tunisia, India, Canada, etc.: https://climateoutreach.org/reports/
Directly relevant to grassroots communications planning in the UK is Climate Outreach’s 2020 survey, Britain Talks Climate, which segmented the UK population into seven groups or attitudes who could well be considered when planning particular projects or campaigns:
Progressive Activists – Vocal and passionate, politically active but pessimistic about the direction society has taken, climate change is central to Progressive Activists’ identity and politics. They are despairing about governments’ moral failings on the issue, which they believe will make all other challenges and inequalities worse.
Backbone Conservatives – Conservative, patriotic and optimistic, Backbone Conservatives take pride in tangible success stories about British environmental achievements and care deeply about food, farming and the rural economy. But they are more sceptical about grand claims of global leadership, or the ‘virtue signalling’ of (what they sometimes see as) symbolic lifestyle changes.
Civic Pragmatists – Moderate and tolerant, Civic Pragmatists are anxious about the future, with climate change contributing to that fear. They try to follow a low-carbon lifestyle, but feel demotivated by a lack of political ambition on climate change and other social issues. Reflecting their pragmatic nature, they are likely to look past their opinion of the government of the day and support progressive climate policies when they see them.
Established Liberals – Confident and comfortable, Established Liberals have a global outlook driven more by their professional networks than a sense of solidarity with communities around the world. They don’t necessarily view climate change as something that will affect them personally, but they do want to hear how low-carbon solutions will drive economic resilience and growth.
Disengaged Battlers – Feeling unheard and unrepresented, Disengaged Battlers are nevertheless broadly convinced of the need to take action on climate change. However, they do not yet believe the transition will benefit them, and are too busy surviving from day to day to give it more of their attention.
Disengaged Traditionalists – Disillusioned and sceptical, Disengaged Traditionalists recognise tangible environmental risks like air pollution, but are far from ‘sold’ on the need for action on climate. They are more likely to see it as a problem for foreign governments to deal with.
Loyal Nationals – Traditional and proud to be British, Loyal Nationals feel threatened and are galvanised by issues such as crime, immigration and terrorism. They believe the UK is already living with the reality of climate change, but they understand it as an issue linked to localised (rather than global) inequality and environmental degradation. Their relatively high political participation is driven by moral outrage about a system that supports corporate greed over everyday working people.
The #Talking Climate Handbook produced by Climate Outreach proposes the mnemonic REAL TALK as a set of guidelines for holding productive climate conversations:
Respect your conversational partner and find common ground
Enjoy the conversation
Listen, and show you’ve heard
Tell your story
Action makes it easier (but doesn’t fix it)
Learn from the conversation
Keep going and keep connected
For shorter training sessions, I have used just the first four letters – REAL (which may be more memorable too.)
It may help your climate conversations to have a cue sheet
In the Climate Communications Hub in Sheffield, we have developed a foldable pocket ‘cue sheet’ to support people with initiating and structuring climate conversations. First collated by Tim Allen coming out of our group conversations, it has evolved over time, e.g. Thame COP took it and adapted it for their community engagement programme in the lead-up to the COP 26 conference in 2021. You may find it useful to adapt too.
Authenticity is critical for building trust
Tell the real stories of real people, not PR spin.
Tell your own story of concern. Strong communication says who you are, what you care about. Use ‘I’ to make it personal. Why is this important to you? What are your own feelings about the climate emergency? What do you find difficult about reducing your own footprint? How have your own views changed over time?
It is important to be authentic, but your communication probably won’t go down well if you are currently feeling desperate or hopeless; better to let somebody else do it (and get some help for yourself.)
Vocalise your thoughts about climate change; talk about the things that you are doing to reduce your own carbon footprint.
Stories of and from people who have experienced the front line of climate change can be very powerful in bringing the reality of it home.
Be ready to have tricky conversations e.g. about eating less meat and dairy or travelling differently.
When people express views different from yours, take them seriously; ask questions, listen and avoid blaming. The Braver Angels program in the USA offers some very helpful resources in this respect. One of their guidelines is to ‘Connect before you disagree’ (which is another way to say ‘build rapport.’)
Take on board Hope for the Future’s advice about talking to politicians: engage them in conversation, don’t just give them a presentation. But do ask difficult questions. Reject ‘stealth strategies’ (when politicians say they would rather address climate change behind-the-scenes); ask them to make the issue upfront and explicit.
Based on her psychotherapeutic experience, Rosemary Randall warns that you may have to deal with ‘projections’ onto you, people saying you’re trying to make them feel guilty. She suggests using the technique of reflecting their comments back to them, e.g. “You seem to see me as a kill-joy! I don’t like that.”
Where appropriate, help people to develop their skills in thinking critically
The literature on climate communications repeatedly emphasises the non-rational nature of human beings and the primacy of emotion. But this does not mean that there is no place for rational argument or for challenging logically invalid arguments. The challenge is to do this with sensitivity and rapport.
When trying to connect understand and connect with people’s worldviews, Critical Thinking practice is good to fall back on. Good practice, led by a spirit of generosity, revolves around trying to understand (‘reconstruct’) your opponent’s argument before you propose a different point of view.
George Lakoff has written extensively about political values. It might be worth noting that he claims that some people are attracted to the right because it seems to assert a straightforward morality and it engages powerful emotions such as anger and pride; in contrast, the left, he says, comes across as intellectual and equivocating. If you agree with him, you might want to think about keeping your messages simple and direct, with a strong emotional appeal.
v. Messaging: deliver reliable information appropriately / persuade
What do we mean by a ‘message’?
I put together this checklist based on a quick internet search. Brief as it is, I think it makes some important distinctions.
Marketingmessaging represents how a brand communicates to its customers and highlights the value of its products. “Messages” refer to not only the actual words and phrases used by a brand in advertising but also the feelings and emotions associated with what they say.
A political message is a short, truthful statement that lays out for voters why they should vote for you. Crafting and consistently using a compelling message is essential to persuading targeted voters to vote for you.
What then is a climate message? By extension of the above definitions, a climate message could be said to be a short, compelling statement that persuades citizens to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This is relatively straightforward when we are aiming to promote specific behaviour changes. However, we know that the climate and nature emergencies are complex and our messaging is complicated by needing to break through the insidious, multilayered veils of disavowal and denial. So our climate messages may also be about informing, educating, encouraging or provoking thought. And even when a person is reasonably well-informed and reasonably – or even passionately – committed to taking action, there are many questions about which kind of action would be best to take, and bewildered citizens may welcome advice about risks, realities and relative impacts.
It is said that the test of a good political message comes when a campaigner can give a concise, persuasive reply to the question, “Why should I vote for you?” With specific decarbonising behaviour changes, there is a clear parallel. We need to have succinct, persuasive replies to such questions as: Why should I drive less? Why should I eat less meat?
But we might also need answers to questions such as: How do we know for sure? Why should I be bothered if their island goes underwater? How am I supposed to get to work if I don’t use the car? Isn’t it all too late anyway?
Realise that behaviour is complex.
Climate communication is not simply a matter of stating facts clearly; it means engaging with emotions, beliefs, values, etc.
Accept that giving correct information is crucial but, on its own, it is not enough.
It may even be counter-productive, serving only to provoke people to defend their incorrect views. However, feeling confident about the key facts may help people to engage in conversations about the climate emergency. Many people worry that they do not know enough or do not understand the science. This was one of the points made by students feeding back on the pilot climate conversations course I ran at the University of Sheffield in December 2020 and points to the value of providing Carbon Literacy training. (See box below.)
Focus on key messages
Simple messages that connect with daily life
You don’t need much data (too much data can be off-putting)
Promote local activities that will make a difference to the global challenge. This combination is more likely to promote self efficacy: on the one hand the activity is local and therefore accessible; on the other hand, it seems worthwhile in the bigger picture.
In addition, I would suggest that behaviour change messages should:
be scientifically sound
make sustainable behaviours seem easy and the ‘new normal’
address disavowal (seek to make climate change salient and relevant)
promote communal values and/or be tailored to specific groups
communicate both urgency and agency
seek to provoke critical thinking and dialogue
be aligned with your organisation’s long-term strategy
and ideally be imaginative too.
Produce your own list of pertinent information messages
We discovered when practising and facilitating climate conversations through the Climate Communications Hub in Sheffield that people often felt insecure about their level of knowledge. So, in terms of information messages, your group might consider producing a ‘crib-sheet’ of key facts – perhaps sorted into ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’ and definitely made as relevant as possible to your target audience and your locality.
Sense when people are glazing over
Rosemary Randall points out that people switch off when they reach information overload (which could be after a sentence or two!) At this point, they need help to process what they have heard. If you don’t stop and give them time to do that, you may lose them for the rest of the session.
Always test your messages (with both supporter and opponent audiences.)
In theory, it is good for people to know the basic facts about global warming (and to correct any misinformation they may have.) The Carbon Literacy Project therefore proposes that every citizen should have one day’s training covering these essential points: · What greenhouse gases are, and their relationship to weather and climate · How climate here and elsewhere is likely to change, and how we know this · How changes in the climate are likely to affect us in our region, in the UK and in other parts of the world · How our actions impact on the amount of greenhouse gases produced and the impact that they have · What we can do to reduce our impact and the benefits and disadvantages of taking action · What we are already doing locally and nationally · Where we can go to get help · How we can motivate others to take action, including gaining the confidence to express our Carbon Literacy to others
Phil Korbel, one of the project’s founders, says that citizens need all three of: awareness, ability and motivation. However, he and his colleagues emphasise that carbon literacy training should be delivered in ways compatible with the rest of this document e.g. tailored to the particular group and/or organisation – their interests and needs, delivered in an engaging, interactive way and ideally delivered by peers.
Those who have completed the training get a certificate which means that there is a certain formality about it and it can work well to deliver it in workplace settings, especially when the standard content is made relevant to that organisation or business. (I think of it as being like ‘doing your First Aid.’)
The Carbon Literacy Project has produced free training materials for public sector organisations such as universities and is currently exploring the possibility of creating a similar module for community-based training. Recently it announced a new partnership with a consortium of trainers called Speak Carbon whose role will be to train trainers in order to spread carbon literacy more widely.
Be wary of abstract nouns / define your terms
When designing messages and giving presentations, climate communicators would be well advised to consider whether the meanings that they give to certain words or phrases might be differently received by their audience. For example, two key words in political discourse are ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’. These are understood differently by the political right and the political left. One way round this might be to explain your own meaning and/or to ask the audience what they understand by contentious words.
Contextualise individual behaviour change so as to avoid individual blaming
Individual behaviours matter, but only as part of a more integrated and holistic approach, where personal actions have a clear relationship to the bigger picture on energy and climate change.
Relate the day-to-day questions to a bigger purpose and vision
Build a shared sense of purpose by asking about the future: how can we live differently and better in ways that meet the need for CO2 reduction?
Put climate change in a wider context. The media still tend to see the climate emergency as a self-contained topic not as systemic. In all climate communications, we can make clear how the climate and ecological emergency is affecting every industrial sector and every aspect of our lives.
Make climate science meaningful
Tell stories and anecdotes, rather than presenting graphs and statistics
Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas
Translate scientific language and use no acronyms
Use familiar concepts to help people understand science and statistics
Make climate change “us, here and now”; not “them, there and then.”
Use images and stories to make climate change real and human
Communicate on a human scale
Talk about what is already happening
Use attractive images
Use images that inspire and empower
Show people, not pie charts
Use multi-pronged strategies
Use video games and digital technologies
Use storytelling to strengthen engagement
For more on using stories, digital technology and creativity to engage both ordinary citizens and politicians, see my post Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?
Give clear messages about the most effective actions for ordinary citizens to take
Climate communicators should ensure they are disseminating clear messages about which actions make the biggest contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is easy for people to get confused about which sources of greenhouse gases are actually the worst and therefore which actions are most effective to take.
Very commonly, when asked about climate change, people will quickly talk about recycling. Now, Greening Steyning near Brighton have decided to accept this is where people are at, so they run days for people to bring all their recycling into a centre and put it in different bins. The days are popular and serve as a way to make contact with new people, which is great for engagement!
However, the bald reality is that, whilst recycling is an important aspect of developing a circular economy, it will not bring about significant reductions in carbon emissions. The urgent task is to rapidly reduce the greenhouse gases that are being pumped into the atmosphere, preferably to zero.
Broadly speaking, I see four main strategies to achieve this, that I think it would be helpful for all citizens to be aware of:
Drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the biggest polluters, such as the energy, cement, steel and beef industries.
Change the infrastructure around us, such as transport and buildings, moving away from systems that produce greenhouse gases.
Maximise carbon sinks. Call for radical conservation and restoration policies for natural carbon sinks, as well as exploring the possibilities of carbon capture and storage through artificial means.
Persuade ordinary people to change their behaviours in ways that might be small in themselves but would make a big cumulative difference if everybody did them.
All four strategies will have more success if governments take the lead. We need massive structural changes if we are to get from ‘two-planet living’ to ‘one-planet living.’ Only governments can pass laws to make emissions reductions compulsory and to create a ‘level playing field’ for businesses. They can also set up systems that will incentivise change (such as taxing carbon emitting industries or providing subsidies to encourage householders to insulate their houses and cut their energy use.)
However, MPs who want to take action on climate change say they can only do so when they have enough constituents pestering them to do so. So when we are talking to people about what they can do, actually one of the most effective things would be for them to put pressure on their MP and local councillors to pass laws that require or incentivise reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Another meaningful thing that they can do is to set an example in their own lifestyle and encourage family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to follow suit. If nothing else, they/we can help to create what Climate Outreach calls a ‘social mandate’ for change by getting as many people as possible talking about the issues.
Many books and websites recommend specific actions that ordinary citizens can take. My own list of the five most decarbonising actions, in addition to political action, that people can take is: 1. Switch your energy supplier to one that uses only renewable energy. 2. Better insulate your home and turn your heating down. 3. Eat less meat and dairy foods. 4. Drive less; walk and cycle more. 5. Fly less or not at all.
However, Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition) at the European Climate Foundation gave me a different list when I interviewed him (in 2014.) He saw individual behaviour change as a distraction and said the most important changes to get people to support were strategic, e.g. · Accept new technology (e.g. wind farms) · Get out of coal · Divest pensions from fossil fuels · Learn about the relative impacts of different sources of emissions
Margaret Klein Salamon (Climate Mobilisation) also emphasises the systemic nature of the problem. The over-riding message she promotes is to call for a “World War II scale transformation of the economy and society.” (For a full discussion of her viewpoint, see my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.)
And not everybody may understand that, as well as reducing our own emissions of carbon dioxide, we need to be adding, maintaining and increasing natural carbon sinks, including oceans, peat bogs and woodlands. Similarly, it is crucial that we preserve the Amazonian rainforest, the so-called ‘lungs of the planet’. This is where the ecological and climate emergencies compound each other and need to be tackled together. Again, most of what needs to be done is at the larger scale, national and international, but ordinary citizens can call for radical conservation and restoration policies, and landowners can model good practice.
Finally, I note that fashion blogger, Alden Wicker, points out that many actions recommended for individuals to take as ‘conscious consumers’ (in order to reduce their carbon footprints) are little more than gestures. What counts, she says, is politically led infrastructural change.
Develop your self awareness
Reflect on your own values and influences, how you came to hold the beliefs and views that you do.
Be aware that your own biases and hidden agendas may come over implicitly, undermining the messages you are attempting to convey.
Avoid ‘green’ messaging when speaking to ‘non-greens’. (It’s not their identity.)
Practise what you preach
Climate Outreach says: “People taking action in their personal lives are more likely to persuade others that wider change is needed. When interacting with others, people tend to strongly dislike it if they think someone else is being inconsistent or hypocritical. Climate communicators, advocates and researchers are seen as more convincing — and their advice more likely to be acted upon — if they themselves pursue low-carbon lifestyles.”
Approach scepticism carefully
Understand why some people doubt climate change.
Acknowledge genuine uncertainty, but do show what you know.
If you have good trust and rapport, you may be able to engage people in reflecting critically on their own and others’ arguments; without trust and rapport, all you can do is disagree politely but firmly.
Learn how to inoculate people against misinformation, disinformation and denial.
‘Inoculating’ people against denialism
John Cook has produced a number of resources about how best to spot climate science denial. He bases his approach in critical thinking practice and uses the mnemonic FLICC: Fake experts Logical fallacies Impossible expectations Cherry picking Conspiracy theories
He suggests that the best response to somebody who has been seduced by misinformation, disinformation or denial is to ‘inoculate’ them by explaining these five tactics used by denialists.
It may be of interest to some that Cook’s approach seems opposed to that of George Lakoff who claims that contesting your opponent’s argument is usually counter-productive, you just give air time to their position and you never change their point of view. I think the distinction is that Cook isn’t getting drawn into all the pros and cons of the ‘evidence’ or arguments put forward by climate sceptics; instead he is explaining the tactics they are using.
The climate scientist, Michael Mann, claims that a surplus of misinformation is more of a problem than a deficit of good information. Although many denialists have now abandoned outright denial, their strategy is to discourage action, to promote ‘inactivism’. Mann says that campaigners need to call this strategy out and take bad faith politicians to task.
He is also suspicious of techno-optimism, as exemplified by Bill Gates in his recent book. He accuses Gates of advocating “dangerous prescriptions and supposed solutions which assume a continuation of business as usual rather than the dramatic and immediate transition off fossil fuels that we actually need.”
With sensitivity, build on people’s learning from the Covid 19 pandemic
The opportunity of the current unusual situation (2020-21) may be that people are already living outside established norms and may therefore be more open to seeing things differently. When talking to people, it may be possible to draw parallels between the pandemic and the climate emergency e.g. some threats can grow exponentially if rapid action isn’t taken; governments can move rapidly when they need to, including finding money; just as it is hard to prevent an infection from spreading in a globalised world, so global warming crosses all state boundaries; etc.  However sensitivity is required to prevent this from seeming tasteless or manipulative.
Public speaking and rhetoric.
In both this and the next section I would ideally have more advice on public speaking skills, rhetoric and persuasion. If you would like to direct me to some concise relevant resources, please contact me at email@example.com.
vi. Empowerment: inspire and enable people to take action
Be optimistic (crazily so, says environmentalist, Aaron Thierry!)
Give inspiring examples of innovative thinking and successful projects
Present the fight as winnable
Don’t guilt-trip, panic or overwhelm people
If people remain pessimistic, tell them that:
Climate scientists such as Michael Mann say there is “still time to make sure it doesn’t get much worse“. When describing where we are at, the appropriate analogy is not a cliff edge, he says; it is better to think of it as a dangerous highway that we have to get off as soon as we can. If we don’t get off at 1.5°, we need to try to get off at 1.6° or 1.7°.
The situation is indeed challenging but even if the chance of success is small it is a moral imperative for us to go for it, to make it more likely.
Be action oriented
Help people know what they can do
Help people to connect with others through doing interesting and useful things together – possibly outdoors, in the natural world
Promote activities where people can see a tangible result
Promote self efficacy (agency) – help people to believe that they can make a difference
Support national and community initiatives which are changing the rules, trying to do things differently
Lead with solutions and benefits
Tell people about exciting new technological developments: “Have you heard about…?”
Highlight the benefits and co-benefits of taking action (e.g. active travel – walking and cycling – brings health benefits as well as reducing emissions from vehicles)
Ask questions that look to a positive future, e.g. “How would you like the world to be in 20 years’ time?”
Make behaviour change easy and rewarding
Suggest simple actions with genuine impact
Make climate-friendly choices the default option (e.g. at events)
Highlight the “green Joneses” i.e. that lots of other people are making changes too
Incentivise behaviour with appropriate rewards – including fun
… about what you/we can do within our sphere of influence.
…about what our target population can do within their sphere of influence.
Think in terms of individual actions making a contribution to a society-wide cultural shift over time / being part of a movement.
Promote the concept of the ‘activist’s sweet spot’: take actions (1) that you have the skills for, (2) that will make a difference, (3) that are feasible for you, and (4) you would enjoy taking.
Prioritise target groups (e.g. faith communities) who are more likely to write or speak to their MPs.
Be kind to yourself.
Be aware that people have different levels of agency in relationship to decarbonisation,
e.g. many people do not own their own homes. Even people who have some kind of political, financial or social power have limited influence and they, like the rest of us, are human beings prone to disavowal. Whatever the audience, therefore, actions should only be recommended after consideration of the situation of that audience and the possible obstacles to their taking particular actions.
Think in terms of a ladder or progression in understanding and engagement and plan accordingly.
It might be useful to find or create a model for approaching people with different levels of understanding, engagement or responsibility. This might correspond to the population segmentation in Climate Outreach’s Britain Talks Climate report, for example. Or it may be, that in approaching an MP, using the Hope for the Future model, the initial ‘ask’ is moderate and later ‘asks’ are more challenging.
Climate Outreach’s research shows that “more people undertake low impact individual environmental behaviours in their lives (like recycling or turning off lights), than high-impact behaviours (like eating a plant-based diet or avoiding flying)… People may be undertaking small behaviour change actions not because they think it is the best answer to climate change, but because they can see no other way of reflecting their beliefs and values in their day to day lives. If they can access the knowledge, community support and confidence, they may be prepared to take more significant actions… Once someone adopts a more difficult behaviour, they are also then more likely to adopt other significant impactful behaviours.
‘Communicating lifestyle change (a chapter in the UNEP Emissions Gap Report)’ gives more detail and can be found on the Climate Outreach website.
Channel the power of groups / social norms
People are motivated by sharing and belonging.
Mobilize social groups and networks
Focus on ‘communal’ rather than ‘self focused’ values.
Get kids in on the game
Engage Conservatives and people of faith
Exclude nobody; we really are all in this together.
Shift from ‘nudge’ to ‘think’ in order to build ‘climate citizenship’
Campaigns focusing on ‘simple and painless’ behaviour changes, such as switching off lights, have not lead to more significant lifestyle changes. Climate Outreach says that social marketing based strategies like the ‘nudge’ approach have not lead to sustained changes in behaviour because they do not involve people reflecting on why the changes matter. Instead, they encourage climate communicators to promote participatory conversations that build a sense of climate citizenship.
Present individual and systemic change as symbiotic / be a model yourself
While it is true that we need policymakers to lead on requiring and incentivising structural change systemic change, individual awareness and behaviours contribute to the cultural shift needed to support those policies. Small-scale personal and community actions help people to engage with the larger project; denigrating them is disempowering.
Personal lifestyle changes by climate communicators also convey a sense of authenticity, they restore a sense of integrity when communicating with others.
Carbon Conversations is an approach to climate education that centres on the idea of supportive group work. Founded in 2006 by psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, Carbon Conversations takes a ‘psycho-social’ approach. Members of a local community meet as a group for six sessions of two hours, over a number of weeks. The groups “combine exploratory participative learning with psychological understanding of how people deal with difficult issues and make changes.”
The group members discuss different aspects of decarbonisation, such as home energy, travel and shopping; they play board games that help them to explore the topic more fully in an engaging way; and they make action plans for reducing their own carbon footprints.
Randall emphasises five principles of the project: · The importance of the personal · The necessity of connection · The power of creativity · The richness of diversity · The translation of the technical
These five principles align well with the approach adopted by many grassroots climate groups. Here I would like to emphasise the second principle: we are trying to bring about a cultural shift, to establish new social norms, and to do that you have to connect with others. Consciously or unconsciously, people look to the messages in the society around them as to what is acceptable. Grappling with the information and the challenges of the climate emergency becomes easier if you have the solidarity that comes from being with others. It seems to me that climate communicators at the grassroots should always think in terms of nurturing solidarity, of supporting and developing cohesive community groups, rather than trying to persuade individuals.
That said, it is my own view that not everybody wants to join a ‘course’ or a ‘psycho-social’ group and that many of the messages we need to put over can happen through pro-environmental activities which are less explicit.
Carbon Conversations remains a wonderful model and a great reference point. The course textbook, In Time For Tomorrow, is an excellent resource for climate education projects.
The challenges with the course itself, I have found, are (a) recruitment and (b) wariness about deep psychological work. The groups I have run have worked best when they grew out of an existing community organisation or faith community and when they focused on practicalities. But I have never run one that dug in very deep.
Curiously, the one session that got nearest was when none of the women in the group turned up and we had an impromptu men’s group for the evening. I agreed with the men not to proceed with the course materials that evening but rather just to talk about where each of us was at in a relationship to the climate emergency. And then we did have a quite deep conversation. What are the lessons here? That excellent materials such as Carbon Conversations has produced provide a safe, containing structure, but they might also prevent wholehearted reflection and self-disclosure; that the men had built up enough trust by then to feel safe to open up; and that a skilled facilitator knows how to use the materials as a springboard for deeper discussions.
vii. Politicisation: support people into campaigning
I don’t feel that I have enough experience here to include a section of practical tips. What I have done is to explore some ideas and references in a separate post: Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
 Keith Allott is critical of activists and campaigners who do things but don’t actually know what result they want to get. (See my post Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people to move into campaigning?)
 Recent surveys (2021) show that public awareness of climate change is high and a majority of people in the UK want to see the government taking action. See Britain Talks Climate launch webinar: researcher Adam Corner says, ”Climate denialism is really dwindling” (38 mins)https://climateoutreach.org/media/britain-talks-climate/
Emergency on Planet Earth – Overview & Key Facts:
 In From What Is to What If (2019) gives an example of the creative workshop methods of Ruth Ben Tovim. It was from Ruth and her colleague Trish O’Shea that I learned this concept of ‘inviting’ people in. It’s a homey, welcoming idea – not pressuring.
 See my post Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?
 Donna Haraway quoted in: Willis, Rebecca. (2020) Too Hot To Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change. Bristol. Bristol University Press.
 Braver Angels focuses on transcending Republican/Democrat polarisation in the USA, not specifically on the climate emergency. However, the skills it teaches looks very useful for us too. Membership is very cheap and they offer free/cheap training and free recordings of debates that they run. See:https://braverangels.org/
 I am fully aware that I am describing working within the mainstream. In fact, as I write this, the international COP26 conference has just come to a close with a widespread feeling of disappointment that the world’s governments haven’t gone far enough. There is a feeling amongst activists, as Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is not going to come from inside there [the official conference].” (Nov 1, 2021) So I’m not saying that putting pressure on your local MP and councillors is the only effective action to take and I completely accept that protest and direct action are also needed, along with the training up of skilled and committed leaders for the future. I am also aware that there is a wider – and worrying – debate under way about the limitations of democracy as we know it. At one of the COP 26 events, Prof.Herman E. Ott, a former politician in Germany and now a climate activist, asserted that democratic politics does not allow the radical action that the climate emergency demands because not enough people will vote for any government that takes it. My response to that gloomy proposition is to say (a) let’s improve the quality of our democracy (b) let’s improve the quality of our campaigning, drawing citizens into collaborative critical thinking whenever and wherever possible. (ECOCIDE LAW AND CLIMATE JUSTICE – Partner event at COP26 – 52mins in: https://www.stopecocide.earth/cop-events/ecocide-law-and-climate-justice)
 Wicker, Alden. (2017.) Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world. Accessed 05.03.21 at:
The climate wasn’t the top priority in the Queen’s Speech. What can we who want to see rapid decarbonisation do now?
The purpose of this blog is to share principles and practices that may be helpful for developing constructive political debate in this time of crisis. In my previous post I argued that what the country and the planet needed was a majority of MPs committed to addressing the climate and nature emergencies and competent to take on the complex task of planning and managing the transition to sustainability. But what is the outlook now? Johnson has made some public commitments but how deep do they go?
In the Queen’s Speech, Johnson announced an Environment Bill, as had been trailed in the Conservative manifesto. It repeats the government’s commitment to net zero carbon by 2050, a target Johnson reinforced in his election victory speech to his supporters: “In this election, you voted to be carbon neutral by 2050, and we’ll do it!” Knowing that he will be hosting COP26 in Glasgow in November, one might hope that Johnson genuinely wants to be seen as a world leader tackling the big issues of our times. The manifesto stated that the environment would be his top priority in his next budget. An increase in finance for the environment, a commitment to working with global partners to tackle deforestation and marine pollution, carbon capture and storage, £9.2 billion to invest in energy efficiency, a promise not to restart fracking unless science can show categorically that it is safe… all that looked good and is testimony not only to the impact made by climate activists but no doubt also to hard work behind-the-scenes by concerned Conservatives.
But there are reasons to remain wary. Johnson didn’t turn up for the leaders’ debate on climate change on TV. He has reportedly given cabinet positions to climate sceptics. Brexit and his plans for the NHS may take priority over climate action. The target of 2050 is widely held by climate scientists to be far too late and in any case it is only for ‘net zero’, assuming that carbon capture and storage will be effective by then.
Moreover, even if Johnson is sincere in his intentions, he made clear in the manifesto that his approach would be market based: “Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.” He certainly wasn’t accepting the proposition made by climate activists such as Naomi Klein and Kate Raworth that major systemic change is needed.
And if environmental action is really to be the top priority for the next budget, why didn’t he present it as the defining aim of his administration which, of course, is what it should be? An optimistic reading of his mixed messages (and his jokey reference to carbon neutrality in his victory speech) is that he knows full well how important climate change is but dare not say so too loudly because the electorate is still more worked up about Brexit. A less optimistic reading is that he is merely trying to placate voters who are worried about the environment.
But we have to start from where we are. Undoubtedly activists will be stepping up the pressure with increased non-violent direct action. But there will also be manoeuvres within the system. For us as constituents, one thing that we can do is to hold Johnson to his promises by lobbying his MPs, drawing on the best communication skills we can muster. If indeed we want to see more constructive dialogue in politics, our starting point might well be that advocated by Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
The top priority is to build a good working relationship.
An inspiring model of how to lobby MPs is being developed by a small but significant organisation, Hope for the Future, based in Sheffield where I live. They have been training constituents how to lobby their MPs using methods derived from ‘Non-Violent Communication’ (NVC). The core idea of NVC is that the way to build constructive dialogue with another person is to seek to understand their ‘needs’ – to see the situation from their point of view. Over the last six years, Jo Musker-Sherwood, Sarah Robinson and their colleagues at Hope for the Future have been teaching constituents how to build a working relationship with their MPs, looking for overlaps between the MPs’ interests and the green agenda and they claim: “We have a proven track record transforming MPs’ hearts and minds on climate change – 100% of the MPs we work with go on to take one tangible climate-related action.” One of the things that they do is to research an MP’s interests carefully before going to meet them. They prepare a short list of ‘asks’ but only produce them when and if they have managed to establish some degree of rapport; the top priority is to build a good working relationship, even if that means progress is a little slow.
The approach is realistic: you may not like or agree with this MP but that’s who you’ve got. Being aggressive won’t win them over, so you’d better look for interests in common. You may not get a climate denier to switch to whole-hearted support for the Paris climate agreement but you might find that they are willing to work on reducing air pollution from cars; at least that would be a shift in the right direction. And if you build a mutually respectful working relationship, there is a chance that you will be able to talk through your differences in due course. It’s a wise approach, and it’s tried and tested. (If you would like to know more about it, there is plenty of information and guidance on Hope for the Future’s website.)
Following the Conservative win, and the influx of tens of new Conservative MPs to Westminster, I would suggest that Hope for the Future convene a conference for constituents from every Conservative constituency in the country to train them up for a country-wide effort. It’s worth a try. Environmental tipping points are looming and we’re going to need to get as many MPs on board in the next few months as we can. Another useful resource that could be drawn on is the research undertaken by Climate Outreach in Oxford into the attitudes of the centre right and the messages to which they best respond.
If, despite such efforts, the new government doesn’t put a credible plan for achieving sustainability in place within the next six months, those wanting to see a policy on the environment that is rational, moral and effective, may have to shift from the slow-burn NVC approach to something more assertive. Hope for the Future make clear that building rapport does not mean abandoning assertiveness; the skills are complementary. One of the texts that they quote from is “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, a former FBI agent who has worked extensively as a hostage negotiator. Interestingly, his approach is compatible with NVC in that he starts from the premise that you need to understand the emotions of a hostage taker and to build rapport with them. But clearly he also has a strong desire to influence the person and to get the result that he wants i.e. the release of the hostages with no loss of life. Many of his techniques can be applied in other situations and the environmental movement may well be advised to take note of them. What with the fires raging in Australia, perhaps at last climate change is acquiring the salience, and thus the urgency, that it has long lacked. If our political representatives persist in dragging their feet, we may indeed need to call in the negotiators, people who have honed their skills in situations of intense conflict. After all, we couldn’t just let a mediocre and incompetent administration take us down the pan, could we? If Johnson doesn’t get a credible plan rapidly in place, he may find that he is dealing with assertive negotiators.
The need to bridge the disconnect between skilled experts and our elected politicians has never been stronger.
It is a strange thing that through all the argy-bargy of the last three years, there has been so little constructive reflection on the dialogue process itself. There have been honourable exceptions. But in general there has been too much noise, too little calm analysis, too little mature reflection.
Why is this so? There are thousands of people – skilled experts! – who work as facilitators, negotiators, mediators, conflict resolution experts, social psychologists, counsellors, political analysts, political historians, etc. whose skills could and should be drawn on. The need to bridge the disconnect between these people and our elected politicians has never been stronger. Certainly in terms of the environmental crisis, and probably in terms of the social unrest we are witnessing across the world, democracy is going to have to be renewed if it is to survive and be squared with the necessity of rapid, coherent, international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop sustainable infrastructure – long before 2050.
If you share my interest in promoting constructive dialogue in the political arena, do follow me and let me know which individuals, organisations and campaigns you are finding most thoughtful, skilled and heartening.
You can find an entertaining discussion about what to expect from the new government in the Sustainababble podcast #161: Five More Years, recorded the day after the election.