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Why We Need to Keep Searching For a More Effective Climate Change Narrative

By George Marshall, 4th January 2016

The agreement reached at COP21 signals a level of ambition that exceeds what many battle-weary campaigners believed was possible. But a great deal of sustained political will is going to be needed if we are going to turn the rhetoric into reality. This is inconceivable without support from across all of society. Now more than ever we need a coherent, comprehensive and credible strategy for public engagement that is based on research-based evidence rather than the received wisdom of past environmental campaigns.

Climate change present us with a massive problem – not just the scale and impact of the issue itself, but the continuing lack of public conviction and commitment to action. Granted, in opinion polls two thirds of Europeans say that they are very concerned and 16% consider it to be “the most serious problem facing the world as a whole”(1). However, when asked to name the most important issues for their own country, hardly anyone mentions climate change. Even after 25 years of ever more alarming scientific warnings, in no country do polls find climate change listed among the top ten national issues for governmental action. This in turn keeps climate change permanently on the political sidelines: as a distant global problem that someone else, somewhere else, needs to deal with – sometime.

There is now extensive research seeking an explanation for this disconnection. It is clear that climate change has few of the qualities that capture people’s attention – it is distant, intangible, uncertain and complex. It requires change and sacrifice, which people always resist, whilst lacking the clear external enemies that would mobilise them to accept such sacrifices in times of war.

Research shows that while our rational intelligence knows from the scientific evidence that we face a major threat, we can only accept and feel it when it is converted into a narrative that speaks to our values and identity and is shared by people we know and trust.

The narrative that will give climate change the overruling priority it requires need to go further still. It must convince people that climate change threatens their most sacred values and that taking action will reinforce their core identity: whether that identity is political, cultural, national, religious, occupational or just being a parent or a sports fan. Put simply, people need to believe that action on change is a fundamental proof that they are the person they believe themselves to be.

The problem is that we have not yet found a way to speak to the majority of people that energises these values or feelings. The 5 to 10% of people that truly accept climate change tend to come from a very narrow social demographic of middle-class, educated, left-leaning, environmentalists.

I am one of them and I fear that we have been all too successful in promoting the narrative that speaks best to our own values: of global environmental justice, protection of wild ecosystems, and an enthusiastic embrace of new technologies. Our language, packaged with images of polar bears, African famine, and solar panels, dominates the issue in every newspaper report, documentary, and call to action.

At Climate Outreach we spend much of our time finding people who are not in the usual climate change community and listening carefully to their concerns and values. We have consistently found that they are not engaged by these conventional narratives and are sometimes actively repelled. For many ordinary people, struggling to keep up with daily life, climate change seems distant, irrelevant and even elitist. As people told us repeatedly in focus groups, why should they get excited about a battery-powered car when they could scarcely afford to keep up the payments on the current one? And as for the much-vaunted millions of new jobs promised in the low carbon revolution? Well, this just sounded like another empty politician’s promise. They will believe it when they see it.

In recent years a stronger left-wing narrative has emerged that emphasises the relevance of climate change to social justice, workers rights, racial and gender equality, and argues that the issue contains a radical challenge to corporate capitalism. At last we are starting to see the mobilisation of people across the left against the common threat to their core values.

But here lies another danger. There is already a political divide between the left and right on this issue. Across the European Union as a whole (2), but especially in Britain, France, and parts of Scandinavia, there is a very marked scepticism among conservatives. In some US polls, attitudes on climate change are now a stronger predictor of someone’s personal politics than their position on any other issue, including the hot button topics of abortion, capital punishment, and gun control (3).

For conservatives a week and intangible narrative is being replaced by a far more compelling one: that climate change has been exaggerated (or even invented) by their traditional enemies on the left to undermine their interests and extend the power of the state.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it does. It is possible to generate political change on many issues through conventional activism but I cannot see how we can possibly generate the level of social and economic transformation required to deal with climate change without having support that crosses all society. We live in democracies and can only move forward through a shared commitment to action.

If the left is finding the narrative that speaks to its values, it is just as important that conservatives do too. Many of the values held by the centre-right have direct relevance to this issue: among them a belief in self-reliance, personal responsibility, a resistance to intergenerational debt, a support for enterprise, and a strong personal investment in local community and place.

I doubt that there is any middle-ground compromise about how we deal with this problem, and am certain that, even if it could be found, it could never mobilise the enthusiasm or energy we need to find. I would anticipate that, if left and right were both adequately engaged it am could generate some difficult, but nonetheless fruitful, struggle between the different political worldviews.

Nonetheless, for all its contradictions, society has always managed to resolve such conflicts and find grounds for cooperation and mutual interest. Left and right can still find common ground around the need to defend our way of life, livelihoods, jobs and cultures from an existential threat. There is no need for us to settle our differences – in fact we need to recognise and respect those differences in order to find the creative solutions we need. But we also need to tap into something deeper: our shared humanity and our immense capacity for empathy and cooperation.

(1) Special Eurobarometer 409 (March 2014). Europeans’ attitudes towards climate change. TNS Opinion & Social, European Commission. Available at:
(2) Special Eurobarometer 313 (July, 2009). Europeans’ attitudes towards climate change. TNS Opinion & Social, European Commission. Available at:
(3) Impacts of politics on scientific attitudes (Spring 2014) Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire

George Marshall is the joint founder of Climate Outreach and is currently the Director of Projects. He is currently focused on engagement programmes with centre-right audiences and faith communities. He is also author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

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