To avoid dangerous climate change, we need engagement from across the political spectrum. Our editorial team has asked Adam Corner, expert on climate communications, how to reach out to traditionally disengaged audiences. In his blog, he explains how to “talk climate” and build bridges rather than walls.
Reaching out beyond the ‘green bubble’ is something that drives a lot of our work. We believe that everyone has a right to shape how society responds to climate change, and without engagement from across the political spectrum, progress on policy and the take-up of low-carbon technologies will always be vulnerable to changes in the political winds. The problems that Donald Trump is causing for the US (domestically and internationally) are a good example of what happens when a society is polarised on climate change: there is no political cost in simply walking away from climate change (whereas he has found it much harder to undo progress on healthcare, because there is better bipartisan support on that).
Trump’s position on climate change has rightly provoked a lot of anger, and more generally, it is incredibly frustrating when people deny the risks and reality of climate change, or want to downplay them. The question though is what do we do in the face of reactions like this? We can shout and scream, and spend a long time scrupulously ‘debunking’ their arguments, but this doesn’t get us far (although maybe makes us feel better).
What we need are constructive strategies that attempt to build bridges rather than walls, and that’s essentially what our work on engaging conservative audiences is about.
Over a number of years, in the UK and more widely at a European level, we’ve worked with audiences, decision-makers and communicators with centre-right values to better understand how to have climate conversations with people on the centre-right. We’ve identified some core conservative values, such as ‘maintaining a sense of balance’, ‘continuing the status quo’ and being frugal, and used them as the basis for developing narratives on energy and climate change that build on these values.
For example, we’ve explored narratives on decarbonisation that focus on a ‘balance’ of energy options, and the idea that changes in the energy system reflect a positive continuation of a direction of travel (rather than a radical break with the past). One narrative which was well-received by people on the left and right of the political spectrum was around avoiding wastefulness in energy use, as something that is ‘common sense’ and a sensible, ‘conservative’ thing to do (rather than the more grandiose notion of ‘saving the planet’).
This kind of approach has seen some significant UK campaign organisations (such as the Climate Coalition) adjust their approach to public engagement, and widen their appeal and political traction as a result, with the Conservative Environment Network now emboldened once again and working to build a strong conservative voice on climate change in the UK.
The German political context is very relevant now following the 2017 elections, and subsequent challenges in establishing a coalition agreement. Ensuring that the ambitious goals in the Energiewende don’t get derailed by conservative coalition partners who don’t have a positive vision of decarbonisation in Germany is crucial, so taking the approach we’ve developed in the UK and extending it to Germany would be a really positive step.
In a context where populist parties have made ground in many countries across the world, it is more important than ever that climate change does not become (as it has in the US) part of the ‘liberal elite’ discourse. For many people, climate change is something that is being dealt with through elite political meetings, or through advances in technology, with no obvious role implied for them - but in fact public engagement underpins it all, and provides the momentum and support for politicians to stick to their guns on climate change.
Part of the problem is that media coverage of the UN climate conferences does little to spark public interest - one recent study of German media found that the Paris conference in 2015 actually left people feeling less motivated to engage on a personal level, because they assumed the work was being done elsewhere!
So this is a crucial time for building public engagement across the political spectrum. Part of the deal agreed in Paris was a provision for every nation to engage in dialogue and engagement with their citizens on climate change, to strengthen and help shape climate policies. Very few countries have done much on this yet - although the works of the Scottish Government, establishing a framework for public ‘climate conversations’ is one positive exception.
‘Talking climate’ is a crucial part of how we respond as a society - and that means working with audiences and groups who have not been engaged as a priority, rather than producing more of the same campaign material that only reaches the usual suspects.
Adam Corner is Research Director of the British think tank Climate Outreach.