Engaging the Public with Climate Change

By Bryan Walker 16/04/2011

Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and CommunicationClimate scientists and those working in associated fields have established a clear picture of human-caused climate change and what it is likely to mean in the future. The basic information is readily understandable. It’s alarming in what it portends and a rational human society would by now be well on its way to the change of direction which would reduce the need for alarm. But we are not well on the way and there’s little urgency in our approach to the issue. Wide public alarm is rarely even voiced, let alone a stimulus to determined action. The science may be clear, but its appropriation by society at large is obviously no straightforward matter.

Can the social sciences help us? I was attracted by the title of a recently published book, Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited by three academics, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni. In its twelve chapters a couple of dozen social researchers and practitioners look at how climate change can be constructively woven into public perception and action. The writers are clear about the urgent need to tackle climate change, but the book doesn’t offer strong advocacy so much as close investigation of the dynamics at work in obtaining and supporting positive public engagement.

Its twelve chapters cover a wide range of societal response. Old habits die hard, says one of them. Information alone seems not to easily change habitual behaviour. The writer wonders whether legislation-driven changes may be necessary, instancing the success of smoking bans in producing marked and finally widely accepted changes in behaviour.

The book has a strong, though not exclusive, focus on the UK.  There is certainly a good deal happening there which makes it a useful area for attention. The UK government’s climate change programme sees engagement with the public as vital, ’both to encourage specific behaviours to reduce carbon dioxide emissions directly and to gain acceptance for more ambitious Government policy’.  The chapter in which this is quoted explores the connection between private-sphere and public-sphere actions. The private actions such as domestic energy conservation, use of public transport, and so on, are obviously useful, but it is when such actions merge into the public sphere that they take on the kind of edge that Ed Miliband looked for when he was climate change minister and called for the creation of a global popular mobilisation campaign to pressure political leaders.

Major campaigning organisations are recognised but not closely analysed in the book. Grassroots organisations like Transition Towns, Carbon Rationing Action Groups, Low Carbon Communities and EcoTeams receive attention for their ability to engage people locally and establish supporting communities in action to reduce carbon usage. Local solutions are very much part of building what one chapter describes as the ’collective desire for a low-carbon future’. Grassroots organisations have, as Ed Miliband said, ’got stuck in and made things happen’. They can also help move participants to environmental citizenship and engagement in the political process.

The happiness-consumption myth is interestingly analysed in relation to neurological mechanisms. The myth is co-created by the marketers and us. The chapter discussing it is concerned with how the myth can be dismantled, and considers how the development of mindfulness, the ’ancient practice of ‘being aware of one’s sensory experience in the present moment’’ maybe helpful in countering the strongly implanted feeling that our happiness is linked to consumer goods. Incidentally the writer also wonders whether mindfulness might be helpful in enabling us to pause and reflect as we cope with the strong sense of fear that climate change can arouse.

Some chapters discuss quite specific practical ventures such as the Energy Savings Trust in the UK which offers effective household energy advice. A chapter investigating the potential of new smart meters stresses the need to configure them in such a way as to give simple graphic messages to users and to design them for demand reduction, not only the smooth operations of the supply business. Eco-home open days are found to provide compelling incentives for individuals to take up new ideas. The part played by new digital media in providing information, facilitating engagement and widening participation is hailed, though the writer of that chapter points also to their role in spreading disinformation about climate change.

It’s heartening to get a sense of the size and variety of climate change engagement already taking place in countries like the UK.  One writer remarks on the incredible variety of initiatives and the passion and commitment of the individuals attempting to drive changes in behaviours or lifestyles in a pro-environmental direction. He notes that within their own small spheres they are often making a long-lasting difference to the individuals their programmes reach, but regretfully adds that all that energy, passion and busyness is not yet resulting in an observable effect on mainstream society and culture. For that to happen he looks to a large upscaling of behaviour change programmes, and also mentions regulation.

It’s the reference to regulation which identifies for me the limitations of voluntary engagement with climate change, significant though it is as far as it goes.  A book like this one is very useful in helping to identify what may work best in the great transition which society must make if dangerous climate change is to be avoided. It reassures those who see change to current habitual behaviour in terms of restriction and loss. It points to the positive community life which can accompany low carbon living. Human life is more enriched than diminished by the change.

But a clock is ticking. The gradual spread of less energy-demanding habits and more ecologically aware lifestyles does not look at all likely to alter society’s direction fast enough to make a difference. Governments must lead the public engagement and must use their powers to hurry along the radical changes required. If they are wise they will take all the advice the social sciences can give in the process, but they can’t wait until something different has slowly evolved. And most of the groups investigated by the book wouldn’t want them to. They may be focused on the local and the achievable but it is the alarming prospect of global climate change which drives their action.

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