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What climate campaigners are getting wrong – and how to fix it

Activists have a stark choice: keep talking their own language and actively put off the wider population, or build a strong popular coalition that goes far beyond their comfort zone

Luke Raikes
Wednesday 16 February 2022 14:42 GMT
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Climate change is no longer the preserve of the middle class, or committed activists. People get it and they want the government to act
Climate change is no longer the preserve of the middle class, or committed activists. People get it and they want the government to act (Getty)

Most of us don’t wake up each morning worrying about the climate crisis. That’s why campaigners often talk up the benefits of green jobs, or promote a green industrial revolution: it’s an attempt to link this global, yet hard-to-grasp threat to more bread-and-butter concerns.

But our new research from the Fabian Society and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) finds that this just isn’t working, showing another way campaigners can reach a broader audience.

As our research, covered by The Independent, shows, climate activists and politicians are failing to reach parts of the population due to the language they use and disengaging people from the movement.

The climate crisis isn’t always at the forefront of people’s minds, but many rate it among their concerns. It’s also no longer the preserve of the middle classes or committed activists burrowing underground to halt the construction of new runways. People get it – they think it’s important, and want the government to act.

However, there are some tough decisions ahead. And in a taste of battles to come, some on the right are already misrepresenting the current energy crisis, blaming green taxes for higher bills and making a case for more oil drilling or fracking – supposedly to lower prices.

This should be a wake up call to politicians, activists and campaigners – anyone with a genuine interest in tackling this threat. Concern about climate change should not be overstated, nor can it be taken for granted.

We need to implement better policies, but also get better at talking about the potential benefits of action on climate change – particularly with groups that remain less convinced that such action is needed.

The Fabian Society and FEPS commissioned an in-depth survey to find a potential way forward. We found that large swathes of the population just don’t believe arguments about the economic benefits of climate action, whether that’s as an opportunity to create jobs, reverse industrial decline or transform capitalism.

We found these messages are only “preaching to the converted” – they persuaded more middle class, Labour and Remain voters, but not working class, older, Conservative and Leave voters.

Sometimes this kind of language even damages the cause. 30 per cent of people had a negative or sceptical reaction to the term “green industrial revolution”, such as: “You live in cuckoo land”, “rubbish”, or “wishful thinking”. Some might find this counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that people are so sceptical about politicians promising to create jobs, or put off by the prospect of a revolution.

So what can we do? We can start by ditching the jargon and dialling down the overblown rhetoric. “Green jobs” mean different things to different people, so the least we can do is be more specific and tangible – talk about secure jobs replacing boilers, or fitting insulation, even if it’s less likely to rally the crowd.

But it seems the strongest messages are not economic at all. People are more persuaded by the link between the climate crisis and non-economic benefits, particularly the “right to a good life” or the need to be in “balance with nature”. People also think we “owe it to our children to act”. Almost all groups responded positively to these messages, including working class, older people, Conservative and Leave voters.

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Strikingly, for Conservative and Leave voters, who tend to be more sceptical, reducing our dependence on foreign countries for energy was the most popular argument for taking action on the climate crisis. We can speculate that this feeling has only become stronger in recent weeks.

Tackling the climate crisis is becoming more urgent and it will be difficult – many of the easier actions have already been taken. But at the same time, we can’t expect it to be a top priority for most of the population. Families are already struggling, and will struggle more, as incomes are squeezed to breaking point. People are, quite understandably, worried about the end of the month rather than the end of the world.

Climate campaigners have a stark choice: keep talking their own language and actively put off the wider population, or build a strong popular coalition that goes far beyond their comfort zone. Such a decision should be easy.

Luke Raikes is Research Director at the Fabian Society

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