Social science can unlock progress in tackling climate change

  • Climate and sustainability
  • Election 24

Rachael Orr, CEO, Climate Outreach 

In this piece Rachael Orr, CEO of Climate Outreach, demonstrates that climate change is in many ways a social problem with social science solutions and that people need to be at the heart of the story. 

The story of climate change is often told as a pure “natural sciences” story: temperatures rising on terrifying charts, changes observed in our weather patterns, future greenhouse gas emissions models.

At Climate Outreach we know that climate change is, in fact, a story that’s all about people. It’s about what we value and why and how we respond to threats and challenges. It’s about how we come together or are driven apart. To be able to address climate change, we desperately need answers from the social sciences.

Because right now, our climate story is stuck. Politicians are walking back from their climate commitments. The vast majority of people around the world care about climate change, but many struggle to see a way out of the crisis. And we struggle to believe in each other – we don’t think our fellow human beings really care, and we don’t think they’re willing to act.

To break the impasse, we have to change the story. We need a new story of people, progress and potential. A story that involves everyone, and sees us getting this done, together.

Our twenty years of research and practice point to two absolutely critical ways the next government can put social science to work to underpin everything they do to tackle climate change.

Put people at the heart of the story – and the process

Countless studies reveal the power of framing climate change in terms of our responsibility to young people, and future generations. We all need to see ourselves in the climate story, and we need to connect with it via our values, norms and everyday concerns.

The overwhelming majority of people now care about climate change. But as we move from awareness to action, there is much to do to ensure everyone is part of the process. Reducing emissions across our whole society is a mammoth task. As citizens, we all need to know what’s changing, and how we can play our part.

Sustained and ongoing public engagement is key to our net zero transition. We must tap into the goldmine of social science research to ensure everyone is engaged and involved. This has two dimensions:

  • Empathetic, clear communication on the need for and benefits of transition, tailored to different audiences, brought to life by trusted messengers. We need to see and feel that things are changing for the better. We need to hear day-to-day, ‘common sense’ stories from those we trust most in our lives.
  • Dialogue and conversation, in particular with those directly affected by particular policies.

Evoke agency and efficacy, not fear and fatalism

Fear is a poor motivator, frequently evoking inaction and failing to inspire widespread action. And yet crisis and futility are often the prism through which climate change is filtered. A review of how a year’s worth of climate research was presented in the media concluded “If the goal…is to have a societal impact, it seems that we are pushing all the buttons that don’t work.”

Depictions of a catastrophic future don’t just fail to ignite action and change, they are harming young people’s mental health. According to a 2021 study half of young people think the future is doomed, three quarters are frightened for the future.

Our need for agency and collective efficacy is palpable – and unmet. It is vital that we’re able to see what can be done, and how we can all play our part in moving forward. This doesn’t mean sugarcoating the reality of climate change and dialling down the urgency of the situation. It means combining that urgency with agency and possibility. It means showing that change is possible and that some of what we need to do is actually already underway.

And what can this mean for a government’s policy platform?

The next government must invest in a national strategy that reflects the social science of climate change.

The next government should shape and implement a comprehensive, nationwide strategy for public engagement with climate change. We recently outlined what such a strategy should contain together with our friends at Involve, Ashden and the University of Lancaster.

We call for engagement at national, regional, local and community levels. Approaches should be designed and spearheaded by a range of people and groups, including businesses, public bodies, civil society organisations and community groups. We need sector-specific engagement strategies for the harder to decarbonise areas like transport and housing. To track and constantly improve the impact of this work, the government should convene a standing working group of cross-disciplinary experts.

The second crucial plank of any policy platform must be to make the transition fair – and to show how you are doing so.

One of the most important factors shaping public support for net zero policies is the extent to which they are seen and felt to be fair. Fairness means different things to different people, but we know that experiences and stories that feel unfair have a huge impact on people’s views. A recent paper from Climate Outreach and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) sets out two of the most important dimensions of fairness in the context of climate:

  • Procedural fairness: in the case of net zero, whether people feel that broadly speaking they have had a say and people like them have consented to what is happening. Dialogue and involvement matters, as does making sure people can see that policy improves as a result.
  • Impact fairness: whether people feel that they, or those they care about or feel they speak for, are being disproportionately impacted by a particular policy. Fairness matters not just on its own terms, but it is core to wider public acceptance. Britain Talks Climate research (2022) found cross-societal agreement that the poorest in society should not have to pay more to help the UK reach net zero.

If net zero policies are not fair, or are not felt to be fair, it will invite backlash that risks derailing wider efforts. Fairness must be central to all decision making and policy design.

Just as we need to invest in technical innovation – the engineers and designers who are redesigning our energy and transport sectors – we need investment in the all-important ‘people bit’. We need brilliant communication and ongoing involvement. This work needs to be properly funded and the government should commit a percentage of its climate budget to it. Because our ability to make progress is contingent on people, and the extent to which they’re involved and active in what comes next.

About the author

Rachael is the CEO of Climate Outreach. Rachael has spent her career in the voluntary sector in leadership roles combining a deep commitment to social justice and to public engagement. She has run campaigns for Shelter, led programme and campaigning work at Oxfam and currently serves as Chair of Trustees at the Refugee Council.

Image credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash