A few weeks ago, I spoke to my daughter’s year five class about climate change. It was the first time I’d spoken at a live event for almost two years, so I put some thought into it. I decided that, to avoid frightening a bunch of nine year olds, I should focus on solutions to the climate crisis and not dwell too much on the crisis itself. At the end they, and their very engaged teacher, asked some great questions and I thoroughly enjoyed myself answering them. But the questions they asked me – about which solutions were best, the unfairness of limiting people’s choices and the worrying lack of engine noise from electric vehicles – left me wondering whether I should have been a bit more honest.
This exchange reflected a lot of the conversations I have outside work about climate change, not with sceptics, but with people who ‘get it’. The problem is that those of us who get it, and have for a number of years, haven’t always kept our knowledge up to date. Because we also lead busy lives, focused on more immediate challenges of paying the bills, avoiding Covid and worrying about war, we may not have kept up to speed with all the developments. What we knew ten or 20 years ago is now out of date, and we might not have realised what has changed.
This risks complacency. A few decades ago we thought we had options. A lot of people who support climate action still believe we are able to choose which solutions to the crisis will be least disruptive: eat a bit less meat and dairy but keep flying for business trips; or buy an electric vehicle but don’t insulate their home etc.
Businesses also fall prey to this. Huge multinational companies can afford the capacity to keep up to date with the science on climate change and the technologies that offer solutions. Many have set ambitious net zero targets and are now applying their expertise to meeting them. But smaller businesses don’t have the resources to do this and, as a consequence, they aren’t acting quickly enough.
The IPCC’s new report makes it abundantly clear that we no longer have the luxury of time or to choose between options. We have to do everything possible, as soon as possible, if we want to keep warming to manageable levels, even resorting to options where the technology isn’t fully developed yet.
The last sentence of the report says “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the plant. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
How can we overcome the gap between reality and perception? A lot of us working on environmental issues forget just how little bandwidth most people have to engage on these issues. This is where organisations which specialise in engaging the public, such as The Climate Coalition, Climate Outreach and Possible, are so important, as are grassroots networks, such as Mothers CAN, in making climate science and action accessible and relevant. Other environmental organisations need to support and work with those organisations, as well as business support bodies, like the British Chambers of Commerce, with their new net zero hub, the CBI and others.
Hard as it is, all of us in the sector need to make sure we keep ourselves up to date with the evidence and what the IPCC is saying, and keep thinking of ways to relate the urgency of climate action to people’s daily lives. Every fraction of a degree of warming we can avoid will be positive for our future. We must not stop explaining and bringing alive the ways that climate change will affect us all and the environment we depend on. To galvanise action at the scale needed we have to inspire people about the many ways that solving this problem will benefit their lives and their communities.
Those who wish to slow climate action have switched their tactics to exploit people’s immediate worries. We in the sector must keeping giving the full picture, including the costs of inaction and the benefits of changes, relating them to the local environments we are attached to, and the benefits to our daily lives. Over the coming months, Green Alliance will be doing this, linking environmental changes with their economic and social impacts more, while also trying to be sensitive to the economic and global context. Next time I present to one of my children’s classes, I plan to be able to give an up to date, more honest picture of the risks but also the broader benefits of the changes we need to make. In this way, and through drawing on not only the latest evidence but also audience insights and expertise in public engagement, we can keep building and strengthening the broad public support we have for climate action.