Picture: Russell Cheyne/REUTERS – Activists take part in a protest during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 8, 2021. Most of the climate movement uses language, evidence, and arguments that speak to the young, white, urban, female, and left-wing: essentially the people who are already engaged with climate action, the writer says.
By Harriet Kingaby
What do people across the UK really think about climate misinformation? Outright denial that climate change is real is waning, but there are still real barriers to engagement and effective climate action. Today, most people are neither climate activists nor climate deniers. Confronted with ever-worsening climate impacts, the majority believe that climate change is real — but they aren’t actively engaged in trying to create change to tackle it.
According to a 2022 Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) report, 55 percent to 85 percent of people in surveyed countries believe some form of climate misinformation. This group, the majority that we call the Persuadables, are particularly susceptible to climate disinformation, which is being actively targeted at them by malicious actors. Often the disinformation isn’t about denying climate change, but rather casting doubt on its solutions—for example, the suggestion that heat pumps are expensive and ineffective, or that policies to reach net-zero are too expensive.
Often the disinformation isn’t about denying climate change, but rather casting doubt on its solutions.
The expert and authoritative International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of leading scientists from all over the world, has warned that the spread of climate misinformation threatens effective climate policy. Disinformation campaigns, backed by well-funded actors, exploiting marketing techniques and networks of power, are actively seeding doubt and denial over climate science and solutions. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his 2023 priorities, we need:
“No more greenwashing. No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.”
Disinformation and greenwashing are meant to, and will, delay effective climate action: In democratic countries, where popular support informs government policy, it is a huge barrier. With an ever-shrinking window to meet climate goals, every delay will cost lives and bolster vested interests who profit from the status quo.
The climate movement needs to get ahead of these delay narratives. However, simply pointing to the wealth of scientific evidence that supports climate action and its solutions is not enough to cut through to the Persuadables. We need to reach this group, with well-framed and innovative arguments to support climate action and build their resilience against false climate claims, in order to better ‘inoculate’ them against climate misinformation.
To understand how to do this, ACT Climate Labs commissioned a three-month qualitative research project to find out what Persuadables in three regions of England think and feel about climate change. We found that most of the climate movement uses language, evidence, and arguments that speak to the young, white, urban, female, and left-wing: essentially the people who are already engaged with climate action.
Data shows that women are more concerned about climate change than men; young people are more worried about climate change than older people; people on the left of the political spectrum are more worried about climate change than those on the right. By continuing to mainly speak to these audiences that are already engaged, the climate movement is failing to effectively communicate with people who are susceptible to climate misinformation. This will only solidify the lack of support for climate action.
To reach the Persuadables, we need to discuss climate in a way that appeals to them. Using frames that focus on the jeopardy of climate change, especially emphasising the likelihood of bleak futures, is off-putting. For many, the sheer volume of information on climate issues — especially where different sources offer conflicting views — is too overwhelming to engage with. This is particularly true when most people have more immediate, pressing concerns on their minds: the cost of living, employment worries, and health in a post-Covid world.
Persuadables also don’t necessarily trust the climate movement to have their best intentions at heart. Our research showed that they often think we’re out of touch, ‘buzzkills,’ or snobby. Our British Black and South Asian respondents also complained that the climate movement feels too white to either represent or include them. Great efforts are being made to change this, but the perceptions remain. The climate movement needs to change how it discusses climate issues, and who acts as messengers to cut through to the Persuadables. ACT’s research offers a few clear insights.
Firstly, lead with how people can personally benefit from climate solutions, or how their families or places they live will benefit. This will help them connect with these issues, rather than thinking that this only affects people on the other side of the world. We’ve found framings which emphasise local pride, jobs, and skills effective with some groups, while for others, health and community benefits work well for example.
We need to reach the persuadable majority before the climate disinformation campaigns do, and earn their trust and engagement, for the sake of the planet and humanity.
Secondly, avoid communications that require high levels of environmental knowledge: Use straight-talking language and avoid environmental buzzwords like “carbon neutrality” or “loss and damage”. Emphasise how climate action should work for everyone — but avoid calling it a “just transition” because it’s not a term everyone understands.
Thirdly, use cultural codes that align with Persuadables’ identities. Create narratives and images that make climate actions appeal more to men; spotlight stories of climate action that benefit local areas and feature familiar people, places, and culture to increase impact. Work with people who Persuadables know and trust, or with spokespeople such as farmers, who Persuadables feel have a high level of knowledge about the environment, rather than actors who they trust less.
Fourthly, develop a diverse approach to communications and outreach. Think beyond traditional PR efforts and advertise in places Persuadables trust — video-on-demand, apps, influencers, and more traditional out-of-home advertising like billboards — can be extremely effective in breaking out of silos and doesn’t have to cost the Earth.
Finally, offer concrete, positive stories of climate action that Persuadables can identify with. Climate action at every level — planting in a community garden, cycling to work, joining a recycling group — should be celebrated and supported to create the sense that everybody can get involved.
We have a narrowing window to put the world on a different track toward a low-emissions future. We need to reach the persuadable majority before the climate disinformation campaigns do, and earn their trust and engagement, for the sake of the planet and humanity.
Harriet Kingaby is an activist, working at the intersection of advertising, climate change, and misinformation.
This article was first published on Common Dreams