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: email@example.com.
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
 Quoted and summarised in Odell, Jenny (2019). How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy. New York, Melville House Publishing. Pages 164-165.
 Bolton, Matthew. (2018.) How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power. London. Bloomsbury Publishing. See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35668862-how-to-resist
 Gates, Bill. (2021) How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need. Penguin Random House UK.