Commentary: As citizens, we must educate and inspire our peers to act on climate change through positive and inspiring campaigns.
Today’s report by climate scientists from the IPCC has made headlines for issuing what has been called a “final warning” on climate change action and a “strong call” for a massive acceleration of efforts to combat climate change in all time frame and in all countries. Hidden within it is important guidance on what this means in practice.
The report states that “a focus on fairness and broad and meaningful participation” can build “public trust” and thus “deepen and broaden support for transformative change.”
Speaking in non-IPCC language; in climate policy, people matter. The radical societal change that this report is supporting—demanding—simply will not happen without the consent and participation of citizens around the world.
But the reports, brilliant and terrifying as they are, do not inspire action. This falls on us as citizens, led by our governments around the world.
For years, this critical part of the response to climate change has been strangely neglected. Socially marginalized and economically vulnerable citizens, as well as those who are more affected by temperature changes, remain excluded from the conversation.
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The result is uprisings against climate policy. Governments pay lip service to the idea of communication and citizen engagement. But, as the UK Climate Change Committee has acknowledged, there is rarely a blueprint for how to do this.
Governments around the world have, in fact, a formal obligation – enshrined in Article 6 of the UNFCCC – to inform their citizens about climate change, involve them in policy development and provide them with all the information they need.
The UNFCCC Climate Empowerment Action (ACE) consists of six elements: education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information, and international cooperation. All of these six principles are key to engaging with the public and, most importantly, holding governments accountable.
States are legally required to implement many elements of ACE, but many do not yet know about it. It is vital that we continue to prove to them the importance of public participation if we are to prevent climate deterioration.
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Governments are important not only as politicians, but also as educators. Today’s report highlights the importance of “education, including capacity building, climate literacy and information delivered through climate services and community-based approaches” to “increase risk perception and accelerate behavioral change and planning.”
What does this mean in practice? Providing more and more frightening information about the coming effects of climate change can be as overwhelming and frustrating as it is helpful.
So instead, we need bold, positive campaigns that support a sense of “effectiveness” — give people the feeling that something can be done about climate change, and that something can make a difference. This applies, for example, to campaigns aimed at getting football fans to talk about climate change and call for action in this area, change their travel habits or participate in Fridays for Future.
Climate change messages show that people take action when they see their values, identities and concerns reflected in the story being told and can watch and hear their peers take action.
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Citizens who are about to change their lives need support to do so in communities of collective action, whether it be communities in big cities expanding access to green space or social housing tenants discussing housing upgrades.
This is not easy to achieve. At the government level, doing it right means bringing together social science, communications and policy experts with businesses and citizens involved in tackling climate change in their lives and communities. This means that public relations should become a core function of government and should be properly funded. This means introducing a climate policy that treats everyone the way they should be treated.
This is a big challenge. But attitudes and concerns about climate change are changing rapidly. Climate Outreach research shows that people are hungry for change and aware of the need for profound social change, but in many cases are desperately looking for support and information on how they can get involved. Active engagement with the public means pushing through an open door.
I will end with a few more words from the IPCC: “Climate resilient development moves forward when participants work in equal, fair and inclusive ways to reconcile divergent interests, values and worldviews to achieve fair and equitable outcomes.”
Bringing people together to take action on climate change requires a genuine bottom-up approach, listening and engaging with different people in different societies. Achieving this is not the task of scientists. They did their job. Now governments and all of us must do our part.
Robin Webster leads outreach communications for the UK-based NGO Climate Outreach, a team of sociologists and communications professionals that seeks to create a social mandate for action against climate change.