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Engaging the Public with Climate Change

In an edited extract from the introduction to Engaging the Public with Climate Change, Lorraine Whitmarsh and Saffron O’Neill describe the need for public engagement with climate change and the challenges posed.

Engaging the Public with Climate Change

Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited By Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill, Irene Lorenzoni with a foreword by Susanne Moser (Earthscan, Nov 2010)
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Background and rationale for public engagement with climate change

In recent years, there has been growing international acceptance that climate change poses a serious threat to human well-being and ecological stability.

Governments, businesses and other organizations are beginning to respond to the dual challenge of mitigating climate change – through reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change to which we are already committed. Several nations are starting to develop policies to address climate change. The UK was the first nation to develop a policy response to climate change, through the implementation of the Climate Change Act.

Responses to climate change have profound implications for individual choices and behaviour, as well as for the social contexts and governance structures within which these take place.

Significant reductions in carbon-intensive energy demand amongst developed countries are required, along with redistribution of energy consumption to address global inequity and injustice. With over one-third of many developed nations’ carbon emissions coming from private travel and domestic energy use, individuals and communities clearly have a key role to play.

An individual can act in several roles towards promoting a low-carbon society, including as a low-carbon citizen (e.g. voting for a ‘green’ policy), as a low-carbon consumer (e.g. buying energy-efficient appliances), as a member of a campaigning group to promote a low-carbon society (e.g. Friends of the Earth) and as a low-carbon employee (through the knock-on effects of individual engagement with climate change on businesses and government).

Policy attention has primarily focused on mitigation, while adaptation to climate change is a more embryonic policy issue. Nevertheless, it is clear that even with a strong mitigation agenda, impacts from climate change will be unavoidable. Again, there are major implications for individuals. Understanding and evaluating the risks associated with climate change are prerequisites for informed decisions about where and how to live.

The rationale, then, for public engagement with climate change is multifaceted.

From the perspective of policy, effective and democratic climate change governance involves societal engagement. Public support for, and enactment of, climate change policy is a key concern of political organizations and world leaders. Such policies may directly call for public action – such as information campaigns and economic policies designed to encourage individual behaviour change (e.g. conserving energy in the home); but even policies which focus on developing technologies and adapting infrastructures require public support.

More fundamentally, most Western governments have an interest in engaging the public in debate about the type of society they want to live in and empowering communities to bring about change to that effect. Here, the focus is on public participation in policy making, community decision making and grassroots innovation. Climate change offers new ways and new vocabularies for challenging assumptions about quality of life, economic development and consumption, and can be approached as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.

Contestation – which often reflects divergent beliefs, values and interests – over climate change and attendant social, economic and technological responses implies a role for deliberative as well as analytic input to policy.

For other groups there may be different reasons for being interested in the public’s understanding of and responses to climate change. Businesses may be involved with formal climate change communication as part of a corporate social responsibility or a product marketing agenda (and often both); and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may do so because climate change intersects with their existing environmental and social concerns and interests.

However, communication is not restricted to formal communication campaigns aimed to achieve some predefined end. Climate change has become common parlance within print, broadcast and new media and in everyday conversation. A range of interests, discourses, frames and languages influence how climate change is communicated and understood, and whether (and how) it is responded to; and the methods and media used to communicate the issue are no less diverse than the range of communicators or audiences. The heterogeneity of audiences – or ‘publics’ – and of messages, media and contexts of communication undermine any presumption that communicating climate change is a simple task, or indeed that communication will lead to any (or predictable) outcomes in terms of understandings or behaviours.

Challenges for engaging the public with climate change

Despite the clear implications of climate change mitigation and adaptation for individual values, choices and behaviours, public engagement with climate change is currently limited.

On the mitigation side, energy demand for both domestic uses and transport is rising in most developed countries. Although a large majority of the public now recognizes terms such as ‘climate change’, understanding and emotional buy-in are far lower. Pro-environmental behavioural responses to climate change are even more limited; few people are prepared to take actions beyond recycling or domestic energy conservation.

At the same time, few are taking actions to adapt to climate change; indeed, awareness of the need for adaptation is very low. Even flood victims rarely associate flooding with climate change, and are no more concerned about or likely to take action to tackle climate change than other people.

In respect of both mitigation and adaptation, then, there is a lack of meaningful engagement with the issue of climate change.

In part, the lack of engagement around climate change is one of understanding: there is a general lack among the public of knowledge about the emissions impacts of different actions, including which activities produce the most emissions. However, research and practice in science communication clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of assuming that information can either change behaviour or produce public support for policy.

Currently, however, much of the public is poorly equipped to deal with scientific uncertainty and tend to be confused by expert disagreement; for example, most people in the UK agree that ‘there is so much conflicting information about science that it is difficult to know what to believe’.

There is also a lack of personal connection with an issue which is global, long term and complex: most individuals see climate change as distant both spatially (caused by and impacting other regions or countries) and temporally (impacting future generations).

Many are also sceptical about the human influence on climate or uncertain about the implications for individuals. Concern about the issue also fluctuates in relation to other, more immediate, problems, recent events or media coverage. Denial about the reality or severity of climate change may be a psychological reaction to the uncomfortable dissonance individuals experience when confronted with the impact of their (carbon-intensive) lifestyles and their reluctance (or inability) to change their behaviour.

However, there are clearly broader structural constraints and disincentives to adopting a low-carbon lifestyle, which reduces individuals’ motivation and ability to change their behaviour. These include perceived social inaction and the ‘free rider effect’, inadequate or unattractive alternatives to energy intensive activities such as driving, as well as the broader ‘systems of provision’ which feed and respond to consumption and ultimately shape lifestyles. Individuals differ in respect of their perceived ability to influence these systems, but there are also cultural differences in norms and opportunities for individuals to influence the structural context in which they live.

These barriers to public engagement with climate change are addressed only very partially through current climate and energy policies. The limited attention given to behavioural change in most developed nation’s climate change policies focuses primarily on voluntary reduction of energy use by individuals, encouraged through provision of information and economic measures – an approach which has had little impact on the behaviour of individuals, as evidenced by continued growth in energy demand.

Frustrated by a perceived lack of political action to adequately tackle climate change, grassroots movements, such as Transition Towns and Carbon Reduction Action Groups, are emerging to pioneer social innovations for addressing climate change and demonstrate real-world experiments in lowcarbon living at the community level. Many political leaders support this grassroots change, perhaps because it provides a mandate for more concerted and ambitious policy response to meet the climate challenge.

A free webinar and slides on ‘Communicating Climate Change’ featuring Lorraine Whitmarsh and Chris Rose is available from Earthscan.

Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited By Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill, Irene Lorenzoni with a foreword by Susanne Moser (Earthscan, Nov 2010)
More information and buy online… (for a 20% discount, enter Defra20 in the voucher box)


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