Why climate scepticism at a local level needn’t be a barrier to action

This is a guest post by Peter Lefort, Project Officer for the Community Action Group network, an organisation that supports 40 sustainability groups across Oxfordshire. 

Climate scepticism is now a term as pervasive as climate change itself. It is tempting to view the battle as one fought between two sides, but in reality climate scepticism is so broad an idea, covering everything from corporate-funded think tanks to disillusioned individuals, that it is misleading to view it as a single argument, and especially as one that can be defeated by knowledge.

A recent study conducted at Yale Law School concluded that when people increase their scientific and reasoning skills, their previous views on climate change are strengthened; sceptics become more sceptical while those who are concerned become more worried. Knowledge is rationalised into an existing worldview, and so the battle remains a stalemate.

Individuals not ‘sceptics’
Perhaps improved evidence and research can make a difference where scepticism is at its most influential, within politics, but to reach climate change doubters at an individual level it is always more effective to approach them as individuals rather than sceptics.

So what is important to individuals? The term community has been homogenised as much as climate scepticism, but essentially means a group with a shared environment. Time and time again research has shown that it is people’s immediate surroundings that are most important to them. Rising sea levels around Vanuatu will rarely be as important to someone as their rising energy bills.

Look at the smaller picture
The Community Action Group network joins together almost forty groups across Oxfordshire raising awareness and taking action on climate change. Working at a grassroots level, volunteers engage their communities in local food projects, renewable energy share schemes, weekly swap shops and hundreds of other events and initiatives every year. For these groups, climate scepticism is an obstacle which can be quietly side-stepped.

While social science research suggests that climate sceptics are more likely to be politically conservative (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), here in Oxfordshire, we seem to be an exception to the rule. Oxfordshire County Council is under almost 75% Conservative control, so at first glance the area does not seem like the obvious home for an organisation dedicated to catalysing community action on climate change. However, with over 250 events last year attended by around 28,000 people, and a steadily growing network, Community Action Groups are avoiding the unwinnable battle with climate scepticism by looking instead at the smaller picture.

Awareness of the problem is not essential
There are hundreds of reasons why someone might want to attend a swap shop: to get rid of an item which has been cluttering up their home, to pick up a new toaster or pair of shoes for free or to feel involved in a community event. It is unlikely that the primary motivation will be to reduce the need for the production of new consumables, or to contribute towards the 30 tonnes of swapped items diverted from landfill waste across Oxfordshire every year.

Free home energy efficiency improvements, funded by the government’s Local Energy Assessment Fund, help to reduce the county’s fuel use and reliance on ever declining resources. But showing home owners where heat is leaking from their property, or teaching tenants how to save electricity, does not require an understanding or even acceptance of climate change.

None of this is rocket science, but so often the temptation is to engage others with the same arguments that engaged you. And ignoring the bigger picture can be frustrating and demoralising at times. To organise £100,000 worth of community investment for solar panels on a local school while focusing on the financial benefits over the environmental impact could feel like a pyrrhic victory in the long run.

Government policy needs local input
Later this year, the Green Deal will aim to allow people to borrow money for comprehensive energy efficiency measures and repay the costs through savings on their bills. The environmental impact of the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s scheme could be extremely significant, and worth the substantial investment from an austerity-preaching government.

The Green Deal will not work, however, without community groups disseminating the information in a way that makes sense and is relevant to individuals on a local level. If the message is handed down from national government in the language of climate change, climate scepticism could be a significant barrier to engaging individuals in a scheme which stands to help them decrease their energy bills while improving their homes. We cannot underestimate the importance of the conviction and passion of the community groups making a real and sustained difference at a grassroots level.

Community-led action on sustainability delivers multiple positive outcomes, regardless of whether it is motivated by concerns about the environment. Focusing on saving money, improving community cohesion and reducing dependency on dwindling resources is fighting the same battle under a different name, and who could be sceptical about that?

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