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Taking on the ‘social silence’ of climate change

Book review: Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke, Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement (2017, Palgrave Macmillan).

A shorter version of this book review will appear on the NESSE website.


Even in Britain where we talk incessantly about the weather, broader climate change is rarely a topic of conversation. It may make the news occasionally, but it is far from a mainstream concern – despite being, as The Lancet put it in 2009, ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’. In the timely and cogently argued Talking Climate, Climate Outreach's Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke set out how climate change can be brought not only into conversation but into our way of life, breaking the ‘social silence’ that surrounds it.

The book lays down five principles to begin to bridge the gap from established science to everyday reality – establishing a process to engage the public at what is a crucial time for our planet.

First, learn from previous campaigns – which have, largely, failed to make anything other than a fleeting impact. Remember the Make Poverty History campaign? – initially hugely successful, public concern then dropped back to earlier levels within just a couple of years. In the case of climate change, new engagement will have to be permanent.

Next, ‘being right is not the same as being persuasive’, so climate change must connect with people’s existing, established values. This is not a right- or left-wing issue: Mrs Thatcher, herself a scientist, was entirely convinced by the evidence for climate change – and a very revealing excerpt from her speech to the Tory Party Conference in 1989 shows that she framed action as being about responsibility, leadership and safeguarding our world.

We also need to tell new narratives (stories) that speak to actual experience – our visual and verbal language has fallen short. While an image of a polar bear is almost synonymous with climate change, it implies that climate change is distant and downplays the impact on people. Similarly, talking about ‘2 degrees’ may merely beg the question ‘but wouldn’t it be rather pleasant if things were just that bit warmer?’...

Just nudging us into recycling or providing us with short-term economic incentives isn’t going to make the difference. Instead, something intrinsic needs to click: we need ‘climate citizenship' (and taking responsibility for the future) to become part of our individual identity.

Finally, the new narratives must be supported by new and different voices (trusted messengers) – whether sports teams, Mumsnet, trade unions or religious leaders (notably Pope Francis, whose 2015 Papal Encyclical was a ‘powerful … call to arms’).

Even seemingly well-established norms (smoking in public places, gay marriage) can shift surprisingly quickly – but, as the book notes, climate change is of a completely different order of magnitude, something that impacts on myriad areas of our lives. Clearly a shift in public engagement is a huge challenge – but a new social norm (a strong groundswell of public opinion) will be needed if politicians are not to backpedal on commitments made in the Paris Agreement in the face of economic or other crises. This has to be a whole-of-society change, setting us all on our own individual paths to a more sustainable future.

In a previous life I worked as an academic copy-editor – and it is wearing that hat that I note that the book is particularly well written: a combination of clearly-thought-through comment, sensible examples, pithy remarks ('a climate solution is only as good as the story that surrounds it') and an admirable lack of defeatism. Especially pleasing was the lack of jargon, even avoiding – if I recall correctly – the dreaded 'stakeholders', a word that I wince every time I find myself using.

Talking Climate is particularly prescient in the context of the ongoing seismic political shifts in countries such as the UK and USA – shifts that themselves speak to deeply held, intrinsic values but which, all too often, distort the evidence.* The challenge here is to counter this post-truth trend, creating an even more convincing alternative that speaks to values and uses narratives that ring true, despite a context within which expertise is downplayed or simply ignored.

But the one thing that we cannot and must not do is remain silent.

*An excellent book on the background to the individuals who set us on the frightening path to today’s ‘alternative facts’ is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010; Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway).

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