Malcolm Powers writes about the importance engaging local communities in the fight against climate change

Please note – this blog was originally published in October 2019

If the UK is to meet the goal of net zero emissions, whether the deadline is 2030, 2040 or 2050, widespread behavioural and lifestyle changes are going to be required. Moreover, whilst the implementation of policies at a national level will catalyse some change, winning over hearts and minds and attaining majority consensus will only be achieved by significant engagement and dialogue with communities.

Local government is uniquely placed to lead these conversations, with its understanding of the challenges faced by local people, local business and industry. And it is Labour Councils like Bristol, Camden, Lambeth, Leeds and Oxford that are already leading the way and facilitating this dialogue.

As Labour Councillors, when framing these local conversations, it is worth considering where we are and where we need to be. From 1990 to 2018 UK greenhouse gas emissions fell by 40%, largely as a result of the decarbonisation of electricity generation. As such, the work of emissions reduction has largely been out of sight and out of mind. But as set out in the Committee on Climate Change report from May this year and in their forthcoming report, to meet net zero by 2050, we will need to change the way we heat our homes; diets will need to change, with less red meat and dairy; we will need to walk and cycle more; use public transport more frequently; take fewer flights; consume less and reuse and recycle more.

Delivering this process of engagement will pose a number of challenges. In particular, three key challenges for Labour Councils will be: the perception of climate change as a specifically left-wing issue, how to make the potential impacts of climate change real for people and how best to engage your audience. But firstly, which audiences we should be focusing on?

Challenging climate deniers with a reasoned scientific and political argument can appear to be the right thing to do, but the climate emergency is, by its very nature, urgent. There are always going to be some people who are wrong on the internet, and surely it is far more productive to focus on people who are persuadable. Our job shouldn’t be to feed a fringe conspiracy theory, but to “depoliticise the scientific debate and repoliticise the governance debate”.

  • Overcoming climate change being seen as a left-wing issue: Leo Barasi in his book The Climate Majority argues that there is still a widespread view in the UK that concern about climate change is associated with the political Left, influencing how people respond to messages about taking action. To overcome this bias, using different messengers – trusted voices within the community scientists and business – to communicate can result in more positive engagement.
  • Making the potential impacts of climate change real: The impacts of climate change are often seen as remote and someone else’s problem, and this can be reinforced by the examples and images that are used to illustrate those impacts – think polar bears on melting ice floes. Work by Climate Outreach suggests that the use of ‘local’ images and examples of climate change impacts is far more effective in engaging audiences.
  • Engage don’t educate: Mike Hulme in his book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, argues that trying to educate people about climate change has limited impact, as their views are a product of their values, beliefs and experiences. To overcome this, two-way dialogue is crucial, as is building a sense of optimism and helping your audience to realise the actions that they can take to make a difference.

Communicating the urgency and scale of change needed to meet net zero will require innovative thinking and new ways of engaging with local communities. And the context for reaching net zero in each locality will be different. So, with the climate emergency upon us, it is crucial that Labour Councils and Labour Councillors share experiences and good practice to meet the very present challenge of building consensus.