Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change

‘Real’ public engagement must be prioritised for path to net zero to succeed


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A coalition of leading experts warn today that without prioritising people, our ambitious net zero policies are in danger of failing, and they call on the government to urgently publish its strategy for public engagement on climate change. 

The UPPER coalition – made up of organisations working on climate response in the UK including Climate Outreach, Involve, Ashden, and the Climate Citizens initiative at Lancaster University, jointly published the report and assert that: ‘without an informed and engaged public, our world-leading net zero goals risk either being downgraded to placate a vocal and unrepresentative minority of the population, or not delivered as planned. The UK’s global reputation for leadership on climate change is at risk – and the economic benefits that come with it – if the government does not prioritise engaging the public to accelerate the path to net zero’. 

‘Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change’, pinpoints public engagement as a key missing piece of the climate puzzle for the UK government, communities and local authorities. It sets out a number of key recommendations for this strategy. 

This report comes at a time when, according to the latest Ipsos Issues Index, although one in four Britons (25%) see the environment as an important issue for the country, (up by 13 percentage points since July), there is increasing division among the population and among political parties, about the necessary policy and behavioural changes needed for the country to reach net zero. Disagreements about the rollout of ULEZ and alternative forms of domestic heating such as heat pumps are two cases in point. 

The evidence-based report states that a public engagement strategy should be led and held by the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero – fulfilling the commitment it made at COP26 in 2021 to do produce a public engagement plan – and should be prioritised alongside policy development and regulation as a key lever the government can pull to deliver on its net zero ambitions. This recommendation is in line with recommendations from both the Climate Change Committee and Chris Skidmore MP’s Net Zero Review.

It calls for national ambition but a regional and local delivery model, with local authorities, business, civil society and grassroots groups all playing a key role, and which is flexible enough to change and adopt learning over time. The strategy should be ‘properly resourced’ by government and have ambitious yet deliverable objectives to deal with the urgency of the climate crisis.

The UK government has world-leading ambitions to reach net zero by 2050, but the government isn’t involving its citizens nearly enough. As we’ve seen around the world, if people don’t feel part of the design and delivery of climate policies, they may reject them. Without an informed and engaged public, ambitious climate policies are in danger of going against public concerns about fairness, facing public backlash, requiring costly adjustments, and wasting valuable time. 

 Rachael Orr, CEO at Climate Outreach, and co-author of ‘Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change’, said: “The UK has set world leading net zero policies. Now we have to prove we can deliver them. We need people power to do this. We need all of us, led by an ambitious public engagement strategy. The time to start driving this is now.”

The report details four key asks: a nationwide strategy, impact measurement, sector-specific strategies, and a leadership role in international cooperation. 

The authors state that bringing people in is the best way to mitigate their fears so that they feel agency and can see themselves in the story of the transition: ‘It is vital that we invite people to help shape our ambitious policies – as opposed to them feeling that policy is just ‘done to them’.’

Projects must be co-designed by a diverse range of people and groups in acknowledgement that different values, worldviews and identities are central to how individuals and groups think and feel about climate as an issue. This is particularly true where behaviour change meets climate-critical but culturally loaded issues like whether and how people travel, heat their homes, or what they eat. People’s ability to change is also hugely affected by private and public resources available to them.

The report puts forward six examples of successful co-designing and collaboration with local citizens. Delivered by UK councils. 

Camden Think & Do’s programme, funded by Camden council, set up community hubs in housing estates which have engaged hundreds of local people in climate action from re-use and recycling initiatives, cycling training, providing vegetarian meals and running ‘Fix and Do’ workshops. Climate solutions charity Ashden works with them to share their learning across multiple local authority networks.

Kendal Town Council supported the local community to set up Kendal’s Climate Jury which led to the implementation of a range of recommendations on areas including energy generation, transport and food. It also had significant positive impact on participation in climate issues locally, including the creation of a permanent Eco Hub (a one-stop shop for accessible information about climate change), the Zero Carbon Kendal website, and a network of 256 community volunteers who have since helped the council with activities as varied as its solar audit and communications activities.

Insights and learnings from projects like these should be discussed at an annual public engagement summit, co-hosted by the government, the Local Government Association and the voluntary sector, state the report authors, and a standing working group of cross-disciplinary experts to measure the impact of this work should be set up. 

Alongside the strategy, the government should convene supporting the development of an ambitious, successful and fair policy agenda and have a joined up approach across all relevant government departments. 

Finally, the report suggests the UK should play a leadership role in international cooperation on public engagement – engagement that the UK government committed to in the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Our fossil-fuel hungry and nature-destroying lifestyle is life-threatening, and requires rapid action to get out of danger. But the general public are hit by a multitude of counter arguments – from the media, government, business and peers,” Cara Jenkinson, Cities Manager at climate solutions charity Ashden. 

“So if we are to make the changes needed to reduce the threat to life by climate change, we are going to have to bring the public along with us or change will be impossible to implement.” 

A companion report, authored by Involve and published by the same coalition of organisations. ‘What role for Government? A practical guide to the types, roles and spaces of public engagement on climate’ is a practical how-to guide for those responsible for putting together climate engagement strategies or frameworks at all levels of local and national government. Author of the report, Sarah Allan from Involve said: 

“Public engagement on climate is a proven necessary step to all parts of the country tackling climate change and adapting to its effects. Lots is already known about how to do it well and what roles governments do and do not have to play. Now we need governments at all levels to step up to the challenge and unlock the potential that engagement holds.” 

Both reports emphasise that climate action can be a win-win – improving our lives dramatically in terms of comfort, reduced energy bills and ability to cope with erratic weather which hits extremes of hot, cold, wind and rain – but they are changes that must happen quickly if we are to reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide and other climate-damaging gases in our atmosphere which are causing the planet to warm and natural systems to become unsteady and collapse. These reports make clear that bringing the public along with the policies is the only way to make progress. 

‘Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change’, written by Climate Outreach, published by UPPER Coalition.

‘What role for Government? A practical guide to the types, roles and spaces of public engagement on climate’ written by Involve, published by UPPER Coalition.

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