Climate change communications have tended to treat the public as 1950s parents would treat their children – guiding and manipulating them into ‘right’ actions. Linked to this there have been concerns about ‘what shall we tell the children?’.
"it is time the public stopped being treated like children"
Some of the awkward truths have been neglected in an attempt to whip up public support for action. For instance you hear little mention that some actions in Britain won’t make any difference to the climate for years, if at all, and that the impact of climate change in Britain may be quite modest. It is time the public stopped being treated like children. Protecting the public from difficult truths about the medium to long term will prove a costly mistake.
And there are things ‘opinion formers’ need to know about the public’s view of climate change. There is widespread awareness of global environmental changes, and how our individual actions are linked to this. The public are not an ‘empty vessel’, simply waiting for good quality information. They won’t wake up and act on the basis of authoritative statements or emotive appeals.
Many people have some understanding of the issues and the need for action to, for example, reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But they are sceptical of individual calls to action and believe that government and business carry the main responsibility to act.
There are also many different publics. I’ve followed media convention in referring to ‘the public’ – but if we want to connect to the range of voices and standpoints we need to refer instead to the plural: ‘publics’. We must think about creating a range of forums and modes of communication to allow all citizens a chance to understand, talk through and respond to climate change.
Everyone should be given the opportunity to consider how climate change demands a rethink not just of travel habits or loft insulation – but the whole trajectory of our economy and society, and our relationship to people distant in both space and time. These debates aren’t all about bad news: increasing the social cost of carbon in the economy would help some of Britain’s biggest businesses compete in what will be the carbon-efficient global economy of the future. But such investments for the future suggest forgoing the pleasures of cheap fossil fuels in the present.
People need good information about climate change at a pitch appropriate to their needs. The creative talent behind David Attenborough’s flagship statement of climate science have shown what can be done in this respect. But there is further to travel.
The media, experts, and our new-found political consensus on the issue can take people into an imaginative landscape to think through the emotional, philosophical and cultural dimensions of climate change. In doing so they need to go much further than telling a science story about climate change, and start to bring publics into a living story about what it is to act in a densely connected world. In other words climate change means it’s time we all grew up.