Engaging the Public with Climate Change

by Bryan Walker on April 16, 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.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), Fishpond (NZ), Amazon.com.]

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Cowan April 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm

My simple idea for nation-wide energy savings – go back to having television close down at a certain time each night (eg at midnight).

bill April 16, 2011 at 11:46 pm

The street lights used to turn off at one stage (at about the same time), too, I vaguely recall…

‘Course, that was back in the days you kept the car keys in the car (ignition) and would leave the front door key in the front door!

You know those shots from space of the earth at night with all the pretty lights? Just what the heck is all that light travelling off into the cosmos achieving. A friend of mine who’s a solar lighting technician is constantly complaining about the massive inefficiency of our public lighting systems.

y-not April 17, 2011 at 9:24 am

Unfortunately Anthropogenic Global Warming and the related global social justice issues are not drivers of most people’s behaviour right now, and are unlikely to be without a major crisis. However, self-interest and financial security are persistent behavioural drivers so we could make significant progress with a focus on promoting sustainable behaviours by appealing to these two factors. We need to align aspirations with good environmental outcomes whatever the underlying motivation.

Energy prices are currently such that public transport, home insulation, smaller cars, efficient appliances, eco-bulbs etc make sense. With better information dissemination and clearly communicated price signals we can improve uptake of these options and then new viable technologies such as electric cars. At a later stage those making changes for self serving reasons can redefine themselves a eco-warriors if they wish.

Gosman April 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Exactly. Use market mechanisms to achieve the end result you desire.

tom April 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm


Above I spotted the term “co-creation” and it begs me to ask whether co-dependency is root to consumerism. If so, perhaps more can be attained in constructively breaking this down for the environmental benefit of all.

Elsewhere – was it the oil-at-sea blog – I’d inferred a need to establish producer obligation/s in tandem with broad or mass resource extractions. I think from correspondence received that Tom Bennion most approached my thesis there, which leaves me hope of more to follow in terms of practical developments.

For instance, an attitude of I’m in business to make money could be quite acceptable to affording users should the goods/services more wholly satisfy their reasons to exist without undue harm to all.

Possible..? Why yes, e.g. removal of lead(Pb) from gasoline etc.

Bob Bingham April 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Despite the despondency over the lack or recognition of climate change problems there is progress being made. Three years ago rising sea levels were only related to the Pacific islands and Bangladesh. Poor people in far away lands. Now Florida and California are often cited.The criticism of the IPCC report and and East Anglia Climate gate have made scientists much more vocal and positive about their findings.
It mat be too slow but it is gathering pace. A week is a long time in politics and the situation can change very quickly. A severe drought in the USA or a very bad hurricane season during the elections could change things dramatically.

MrSmith April 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm

“The happiness-consumption myth is interestingly analysed in relation to neurological mechanisms. The myth is co-created by the marketers and us.”

These couple of lines are very important to my mind.

I used to say to my friends “that if there are people like me trying to sell things to people like you then I would be very afraid!”

The Marketers need to be regulated to the point where they can’t blink without permission, they are what we see and what we feel, even as we walk down the street, they know how to tap into or fears and our successes .

Gosman April 26, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Ummmm… what do you mean “Marketers need to be regulated to the point where they can’t blink without permission”?

Are you suggesting that there has to be severe restrictions put on freedom of expression?

If so, I’m not sure I share your vision for this brave new world of the future.

joe.fone April 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Interesting that the words “global warming” don’t appear once in this article. Why is that I wonder? Answer: it’s no longer about global warming because that’s clearly a dead duck. No one believes it anymore. Not even the warmists. So they have to shift the goal posts.

But in any case you’re way behind the times because the fashionable new term is “climate challenges”, which recently replaced “climate disruption”, which replaced “climate change” which replaced “global warming”.

You need to keep up.

Gareth April 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm

And you need to get your facts right. Look up the meanings of “IPCC” and “UNFCCC”, both 20+ years old.

Please note that further random/off-topic/rude nonsense will get moved to the Twilight Zone.

joe.fone April 19, 2011 at 4:22 pm

A specious red herring Gareth. I never once mentioned “IPCC” and “UNFCCC”. Go read the article. It doesn’t mention “global warming” once! Isn’t that what this is supposed to be all about? So my observation that the warmists shift the goal posts to suit whatever happens still stands. It isn’t about “global warming” anymore simply because no one believes it (for two reasons: alarm fatigue and the obvious lack of such warming anyway). Hence the more politically acceptable terms “climate change”, “climate disruption” and “climate challenges”. That way you have a dollar each way, regardless of what happens.

As for your note, “Please note that further random/off-topic/rude nonsense will get moved to the Twilight Zone”, presumably you mean any comment that doesn’t agree with your warmist dogma? The warmists interpret such disagreement as offensive, hence the term “denial” (ie., ‘heresy’). This is why it is in fact a religious debate, not a scientific one.

Gareth April 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm

You miss the point, Joe, which appears to be something of a speciality for you. “Climate change” has been the term of choice since the IPCC and UNFCC were set up, hence the “CC”s at the end of their names.

You are welcome to debate the subject matter of the post, from any point of view, as long as you follow HT’s comment policy (see here).

RW April 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Still spouting discredited rubbish – what a surprise. You make John D look like a serious scholar, by comparison.

Carol Cowan April 19, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Joe, the term ‘climate change’ is used because it is more descriptive of what is happening – this issue is more than just an increase in global temperature Global warming leads to climate change, and climate affects much of what goes on in the world.

Where and when are these record cold winters you allude to? You did not give any references to support your claim.

An increase in carbon dioxide is only useful to plants if it is accompanied by an increase in other nutrients, such as water and nitrogen.

You are obviously very behind the times in your research, catch up or shut up. Your “arguments” were dealt with years ago and you are obviously way out of touch with the world when you say no one cares.

No one forces you to read this forum, do they? So why bring your rudeness and ignorance here?

Gareth April 19, 2011 at 10:08 pm

(Sorry Carol: moved j.f to the TZ)

Carol Cowan April 19, 2011 at 10:38 pm

He will be more comfortable there, Gareth. You can delete my post above if you want, as it is no longer relevant to the conversation.

bill April 20, 2011 at 6:39 pm

I agree with Carol – let anyone who wants to expose themselves to the toxic, irrelevant ramblings of this sad little man take it up with him over in ‘the Zone’! With luck he’ll give up and drift off when he can’t get the negative attention he clearly craves anymore…

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