Public engagement is missing from your sustainability strategy

Each year, the polling company IPSOS publishes its Earth Day report, which explores global changing attitudes to the climate crisis, who people think should be leading on solutions, and what actions people are willing to take.

Reading it was my first experience of doomscrolling a PDF.

Some of the most worrying findings include:

  • Conviction on climate change is on the wane globally.
  • Fatalism is on the rise amongst the young.
  • People overestimate the effectiveness of their ineffective actions.
  • People think moving towards renewable energy is too expensive.

If this is how people feel about climate change you can see why climate related sci-fi series of late are all post-apocalyptic doom fests where people have lost sight of the problem, got used to rolling catastrophes, and are too pre-occupied with fighting over resources to do anything about it.

These attitudes (and the premise of those sci-fi series) all stem from a consequence of largely ignoring half the solution to climate change – public engagement.

Since the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, governments, companies, and financial institutions have made good progress on the first part of the solution – working out how we decarbonise the economy. In that same period, no meaningful progress has been made on public engagement.

This is despite the legal duty on governments to engage people in climate change, which is embedded in the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It’s easy to see why public engagement has been the poor relation of climate action. It’s hard to have an honest conversation with the public about required changes and trade-offs – as the French and Dutch governments and EU Parliament have all recently experienced. And those working on complex problems can easily forget about the non-expert world outside. But ignoring the public will guarantee the widespread misunderstanding, or a lack of understanding, about an action, dooming it to failure or at best partial success.

This means that the social licence (i.e. how much a group supports something) that policy makers and companies need to deliver their climate plans isn’t very strong.

So what can be done about it?

Policy makers and governments need develop a strategy for meaningful public engagement. In 2020, I interviewed George Marshall, the founder of Climate Outreach, a leading non-profit in public engagement and he said ‘only governments have the ability to speak across an entire population. But governments need to think strategically about how to do this. Many people are distrustful of governments generally, and specific political parties, so they need to enable and support broad based engagement by many different stakeholders.’

Historically, public discourse on climate change has been left to NGOs, charities, and civil society groups, but today we also need the coalition for public engagement to include businesses and financial institutions. This is important for the tone of the conversation, which can’t just be one of moral duty to do something about climate change, it needs to also be about the pragmatic and urgent need to rewire the economy for the benefit of everyone, now and in the future. You can see how effective Richard Curtis’ Make My Money Matter campaign has been in that context.

Businesses need to first look at how to engage their workforce. Not just to communicate a topline net-zero commitment, but to really explain what they are doing; why they are doing it; what it will cost; the value it will create; the employees’ role in it; what the outcomes will mean for employees and the communities they care about; and, perhaps most importantly, what the trade-offs and difficult decisions are that will be required along the way.

Carbon literacy training can be a good start to make sure everyone has the same basic understanding of the problem, but companies may also want to think about setting KPIs for engagement and reporting on progress as part of other sustainability targets.

In parallel, a business needs to think about their customers and supply chains. A company wouldn’t make big changes without explaining it to investors. The same principle applies here. Companies need to build up resilience for their sustainability strategies or they will splinter when other issues – like the cost of living, or supply chain disruptions – become acute.

This stuff is hard, but the success of public policy or corporate action on the climate and nature crises requires it to be done well. There are plenty of success stories to learn from and no one organisation needs to do this alone. Collaboration on public engagement is a no brainer – be that across a sector or in a region.

If collectively we can crack meaningful public engagement then maybe sci-fi writers would cheer up a bit and start to play back visions of the future that are a bit more upbeat and IPSOS might have something to look forward to next Earth Day.

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