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What does the British public really think about climate change?

What do you find out when you run focus groups on climate change across the UK?

Christopher Shaw
2 December 2015

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Photo: Adam Ramsay, CC2.0

A lot of effort has been expended getting climate change back into the public eye in the lead up to the upcoming United Nations (UN) Climate Summit in Paris. Many involved have declared the ‘eyes of the world will be upon’ the meeting. Those promoting this perspective aim to build a groundswell of public understanding of and support for the goals of the summit, in the hope that this will generate strong pressure on political leaders to reach an ambitious deal at the conference.

Research we have just recently completed into UK public engagement with the UN climate process demonstrates that efforts to build awareness of the climate talks have largely failed - but there is much potential to engage the public if we do a better job. Our findings represent the only social research in the UK focused specifically on public engagement with the issue at this crucial political juncture.

People care about climate change but current discussions are disempowering

The people we spoke to in Bristol, Cardiff and Edinburgh had little or no knowledge of the efforts to reach a global deal on limiting climate change. Yet they told us they were concerned about climate change. This concern was accompanied by a sense of apathy, despair even, as the messages around climate change that participants were aware of meant they couldn’t see what they could do about climate change. They didn’t believe small actions normally promoted as ‘solutions’ like changing a lightbulb would make much difference. But nor could they go out and build their own offshore windfarm. And so people are left feeling powerless in the face of this problem which they feel threatened and unsettled by.

The UN process sounds like a good solution

While discussing the UN process, we saw a shift in participants’ perspective on the issue with a sense of engagement emerging, a desire to know more. There seemed to be an almost palpable sense of relief that the organisations and institutions with the power to make a difference were actually trying to do something about climate change.

There is a sense of mistrust that needs to be overcome

However, this enthusiasm was tempered with some significant misgivings, which can be boiled down to a sense of mistrust. Firstly, people didn’t believe it would be possible to measure and monitor global emissions accurately enough to know who was emitting what; people also wondered if enough was known about the relationship between emissions and temperature rises to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Secondly, we encountered widespread incredulity at the idea that it would be possible for 196 nations to reach an agreement. And even if there was an agreement, there was little belief that it would be stuck to, that there was an organisation powerful enough to police such an agreement. And thirdly, there was suspicion that politicians and business would be entering into negotiations with their own short term interests at heart.

What emerged as a result of these discussions was a sense that the participants wanted reliable information about the science behind the talks. There was also a widespread desire for the government to take the lead at the negotiations, rather than leaving it to business to take responsibility for the problem.

On 12th November, Climate Outreach held a launch event for the report at University College London – there's a recording of it here. This unparalleled event drew an audience of people with a wide range of experience of climate communication and public engagement with climate change - as one panellist described it, a ‘gathering of the tribes’. Having such a large group of knowledgeable and expert people together meant the meeting provided a great opportunity for people to share their experiences, successes and challenges of communicating climate change. Whilst there was broad recognition that we couldn’t hope to, nor should we want to, turn everyone into climate negotiators, there would be great value in building greater public awareness of the risks posed by climate change, and what dangers the negotiations are trying to avert.

We need to allow people to talk about climate change from their perspectives

We were particularly pleased to hear from the audience and the panel an agreement of the need to build greater engagement by encouraging people to talk about climate change from their perspectives not ours, something we at Climate Outreach have been championing. Many delegates were able to share their own experience of how giving people the chance to sit in a room together and discuss problems and solutions makes participants feel empowered and engaged.

The lack of public interest sometimes reported in opinion polls therefore is clearly a socially constructed phenomenon, rather than the expression of any deeply rooted or inevitable indifference. The climate summit in Paris is not the end of the policy process, but it is a building point. The decisions will not guarantee a future free from climate change impacts or an end to efforts to limit emissions. Far from it. Previous summits have shown that such optimistic hopes are unrealistic. But it could be a positive step and the main way to turn this step into the jump forward we need is to ensure ever broader and deeper social engagement with climate mitigation and adaption so that negotiators really do have the eyes of the world on them. We must therefore continue to try and break through this socially conditioned climate silence by making it possible for people to talk about the changes they see happening around them, and share their hopes and ideas for how society can best respond to these challenges.

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