As COP26 began, protesters called for “less talk; more action”. This is a familiar call and one that I have a lot of sympathy with. But, reflecting on what I heard in Green Zone events yesterday, we perhaps should be calling for more talk, more action.
Not more talking between governments, but more talking between people: about what climate change means and about what they are doing about it.
If we want people to actually invest in things like decarbonising their home heating, we need them to ‘get’ climate change, and we need them to trust in the actions that they can take. I’m a scientist by training and so my reaction to this tends to be to set out the logic of the problem and of the solutions. And I’m sure that this will help to convince other people who think like me. But convincing the people who think like us is not going to be enough: we must ask how we can stop preaching just to the choir and instead more effectively communicate with everyone. Yesterday’s Green Zone sessions included two particularly pertinent ideas here.
The first is about how we can persuade people to really take on board the urgency of climate action, and how climate scientists cannot do this on their own. As we were reminded yesterday, the idea that science alone will not solve problems is not a new one: CP Snow was talking and writing in the late 1950s about the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities and how the split between them was hampering the search for solutions to society’s problems. So, who else should we scientists, engineers and economists co-opt into the effort to build support for climate action?
The answer we were offered yesterday was: poets (and artists more broadly). We heard poetry from around the globe, performed by the poets themselves, who had been inspired by conversations with climate scientists. Now, I don’t need any convincing that climate action is urgent, but yesterday’s session nonetheless reconnected me with the issue in a more emotional and powerful way than any of the policy discussions I have participated in. And that is perhaps what we most need to acknowledge: there has to be an emotional engagement, not only a logical one, for people to really understand that we must act, and act now.
And once we have that emotional engagement, who do we work with to help people to act on it?
The second insight from yesterday comes from a session organised by Cardiff University’s Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. We already know that peer to peer engagement builds people’s confidence to take action (to take just one example, ACE Research’s work for BEIS on domestic retrofit supply chains highlighted the value of retrofitting the homes of local influencers who then talk to their neighbours about it). But when people joining the session yesterday were asked what they thought they could best do to help tackle climate change, very few chose the option of ‘speaking to others about the action you are taking’. Which begs the question: if we all know this is effective, why do we not think we could/should be doing it?
Do we in fact recognise that we might not be the right people? That we are the committed, enthusiastic, detail-oriented scientists and engineers who will, to put it bluntly, more likely bore people than inspire them? Maybe we do, and maybe on one level we are right. But surely we can learn to communicate more engagingly! If we want to be as effective as possible in driving change, can we not learn to talk about how taking climate action has made us feel? And don’t worry, I’m not suggesting we should all go out and brag about how righteous we are; I mean we can talk about things like how pleased we are that our home is warm and cosy now that we’ve insulated it; or about how satisfying it is to get free electricity from time to time when we sign up to a tariff with flexibility elements.
Sometimes it may well be better to leave it to the poets or the local community leaders to inspire others, but I suspect that each of us could also commit to a little more talk, to nudge others towards more action.
For more information on poets and climate action, see: https://poetsfortheplanet.org/
For more information on CAST’s work on public attitudes to climate change, see: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/2581272-uk-public-concern-over-climate-crisis-at-all-time-high-as-crucial-cop26-summit-begins
The report on domestic energy efficiency retrofit supply chains can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-retrofit-supply-chains-international-review