Sustainability Talks: Interview with George Marshall

George Marshall is the founder of Climate Outreach, a non-profit specialist in public communications and engagement around climate change with an international reputation for its work on visuals and developing narratives for new audiences. Their clients and partners include the World Bank, UNFCCC, IPCC, the BBC, plus over 25 universities and governments around the world.

George has 30 years’ experience in communications, research, and environmental advocacy, held senior management positions in Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation, and is the author of a widely acclaimed book on the social psychology of climate change, titled ‘Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change’ (Bloomsbury 2016).

The UK has legislated to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but yours and other research has shown there is little understanding of what that means amongst the general public. Why is it important for that to change?

Our research suggests that public awareness is becoming broader but is still shallow. Substantial majorities of people are concerned or very concerned, and increasingly they’re accepting that climate change is happening now. However only a few people recognise the scale or urgency of the issue, the level of scientific consensus, the major changes required to achieve our targets, and the degree to which they personally will have to change their own lifestyles. Even more worrying, our research in low-income countries suggests that people have little understanding of how climate change will directly impact them, and are therefore not taking informed decisions that would help them to prepare for those impacts. We would argue that low engagement is therefore a threat multiplier – especially for people who are most vulnerable.

In addition to this clear moral reason why we need increased communication, there are clear pragmatic policy reasons for greatly increased public engagement. All public policy is underpinned by a strong public mandate. You can see that clearly with Covid. If people understand the reasons for a policy, they are more likely to be supportive of it – not just intellectually, but through their personal day-to-day actions. It’s been a major mistake for policy makers to think of public engagement as being peripheral to technological and policy developments. A breakdown in the social mandate can destroy climate policy – we’ve seen that happen in the US and Australia.

There is also a legal duty on governments to engage people in climate change. Specific articles in the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change require signature nations to educate and inform their citizens. We haven’t seen that happen much at all, which not only effects the strength of the public mandate but also neglects the moral duty of governments – people have a fundamental right to know what is going to happen in the future.

Whilst there is no doubt about the importance of public engagement, there are levels of understanding here. It’s not necessary for everyone to understand the technical, scientific pathway behind the concept of net-zero. For the most part it’s enough for people to know climate change is happening, we’re causing it and we have a plan to stop it which requires everyone to play a part. Again, you can see that in the Covid situation. No one needs to understand the epidemiology of the virus in order to understand the problem and what we can collectively do about it.

You’ve mentioned a few parallels between climate and Covid. What other lessons has the pandemic revealed for communication on climate change?

I think Covid will change the game plan for public communications. As I’ve said, governments have failed to deliver on their legal duty to engage with the public on climate change, so there is widespread misunderstanding, or a lack of understanding, about the problems and the transition we need to make. I think government’s will now better understand from the Covid experience that public understanding is essential to successful policy. I also think it’s shown that trusted voices are essential to achieve the public mandate I’ve spoken about. Climate Outreach has written a report that explores these themes and how Covid will affect climate change communications.

What are the respective roles of governments and companies in helping the public to understand the changes that need to happen in the net-zero transition?

Strategically and financially governments are essential for climate communicators. For a long time, they have left this role to NGOs, the media and companies. Those organisations will only reach specific groups of people which leaves some people ignored or even actively alienated. That approach cannot create a public mandate for net-zero policies. It’s only governments that have the ability to speak across an entire population.

But governments need to think strategically about how to do this – enabling and supporting, but not necessarily leading communications. Many people are distrustful of governments generally, and specific political parties, so this is not simply about governments carrying out a public information service. Governments need to enable and support broad based engagement by many different stakeholders, and businesses play a very important role in that.

Business that are engaging with their own stakeholders on climate change tend to focus on, and a do a good job with, their supply chains and customers. But for me the interesting thing is communication with the workforce. This is a group which often has shared values and an identity formed around their work and therefore constitutes a community. We know peer-to-peer discussions on climate change are very effective and this seems to me to be a very powerful place to engage people on climate change.

I’d like to see businesses set targets for building awareness and understanding about climate change with their employees. Businesses have a huge opportunity to step in and show leadership and engage with workforces to show them what the transition will look like. At Climate Outreach we are working on developing standards and indicators for engagement and awareness raising and we welcome partnerships with progressive businesses interested in applying them.

What can the private sector learn from the challenges facing governments that you’ve described?

The point about successful policies requiring a public mandate is as true for businesses as it is for governments. If a business develops an ambitious ESG or sustainability strategy which requires employees to change behaviours, that will only happen if there is a mandate for the strategy. That can only come from engagement with, and participation from, the workforce. We have seen that clearly with requiring employees to adopt safety equipment and practices.

For example, if you take an energy reduction policy, the success of that relies in large part on shifting both the work culture and the individual decisions of employees on things like using vehicles, deciding when to fly, or choosing which industrial processes to use at what times. It’s hard to monitor those things and if the policy doesn’t have the buy-in then the reality of it will fall short of its expected impact.

What are the principles for effective communication with the public on climate change?

We’ve done a lot of research on this question including large-scale public consultations around the world. Consistently we find effective communications requires a respect for and validation of people’s values and concerns, and the formation of a shared narrative within which they see their own identity reflected. And, of course, that any country, social network or audience requires a tailored approach. This is one of the key reasons that adopting different trusted communicators for the different audiences is so essential.

It also crucial to understand why climate change is a very challenging issue for people to grasp.

We have an innate tendency to think of it as a problem for someone else, somewhere else, some other time – even as individual concern about climate change is rising. This means that we can’t assume communication around climate change works in the same way as for other issues. For example, we have found through testing in our Climate Visuals programme that many iconic images of climate change perform poorly for achieving that broad-based social mandate.

The image of a polar bear on an ice block for example is an iconic image that everyone recognises, but we know that it encourages people to think about climate change as something that is far away and not happening to them. Climate change advocates picked a symbol that worked for them, without asking if it would work for different types of people. As I’ve said, we have to engage the whole public, not just sections of it.

How can governments and companies use COP26 as a key moment to engage the public on the issues?

A major international event will provide a focus for media coverage and a public conversation on a scale we’ve not really had before. It should provide a good moment to start a conversation about starting the conversation! We’ll be pushing the government hard to fulfil their legal obligation to engage the public.

There is however a danger that COP just gets fed into common media narratives of success and failure or struggle. That isn’t helpful as it keeps the conversation at the level of nations and misses all the great work being done in cities and in companies.

COP will be important, but it is still a moment in time. What really matters is the long-term public engagement. That won’t happen if we rely on annual conferences to provide momentum. You know in 2018 Coke spent $4bn on marketing. In the same year the IPCC, when it released its seminal report which said we 10 years to act, spent $158k on communications. We need a Coke-scale initiative on climate to make sure everyone in the world understands how serious this is, how quickly we need to change and how this affects us all.