Climate conversations: connecting the field

We hosted experts and campaigners from across the climate sector to talk about how we all evaluate conversations as a tool for driving change. Here’s what we took away.

By Alex Evans and Ben Margolis — 23rd May · 9 min read

Conversations are having a moment. The more we’ve been developing our climate conversations project, the more we’ve been aware of how many other organisations are ploughing the same furrow – and doing fascinating work.

Not just the organisations we’ve been partnering with – like UNISON, the Women’s Institute, the Wildlife Trusts, Grapevine, Parents For Future, WWF, The Climate Coalition and Mothers CAN. It turns out that a whole host of other organisations is trying out this approach too, from Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace through to the National Trust

We’re really keen to share what we’re finding and learn from others – which is why, last month, we were delighted to host a brilliant group of experts and campaigners from organisations across the climate sector for a round table to talk about our various approaches to monitoring, evaluating and learning from what we’re all doing. Here are some of the key insights we took away.

Breaking the silence might be the biggest prize

When we first started our project, we saw it as a way to address two challenges: first, that over 60% of non-activists rarely or never talk to others about climate change, and second that the UK is perceived to have the least welcoming climate movement in Europe.

But while climate conversations can achieve multiple aims, in the end different goals entail different approaches. If you want to depolarise local opinion about a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, for instance, then that means different kinds of conversations, with different people, at different scales, than if your aim is to get voters across the country to ask Parliamentary candidates about climate change.

But one point that came up clearly during the roundtable was the idea that simply ‘breaking the silence’ on climate change, and making people feel heard, might be the most powerful end goal in itself. There’s a wealth of social science literature showing that complex issues such as climate change are only ever likely to become political priorities if there is a clear social mandate for action. Conversations are a hugely powerful way of building that social mandate – whereas pervasive social silence makes it much harder to achieve. As Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke put it in their book, Talking Climate.

“There will never be a point where a vibrant and dynamic public conversation about climate change is not a good idea…at present, this dialogue is almost entirely absent, and as a result, engagement with energy and climate change remains shallow, fragile, and superficial.”

Let’s collect more data!

In our last learning blog, we started to touch on the different layers of impact that we’re interested in – not just the impacts of conversation training on the people that do it, but also whom they go on to talk to, the impact on those people, and above all the overall political impact at programme level – and we had a really good discussion about this at the round table.

It’s easy to measure the quantity of conversations. But all of us at the event were interested in how we can also capture data about who they are having conversations with (e.g. where they are on the political spectrum / which segment they fall into), and the depth of the conversation (was this just a quick chat or a really rich conversation?) Clearly, these are harder to quantify than simply how many conversations people are having – but not necessarily impossible to measure. 

We’re really interested in the possibility of developing a simple mobile website – or even a gamified app – that would allow people who’ve done the training to capture quick data on all three of these dimensions, and definitely plan to come back to this idea in future discussions.

On the level of overall political impact, there was lots of interest in how future conversation trainings could include a communications component, to equip local volunteers not only to have great climate conversations, but also to tell local media about the training and the conversations they’re having – thereby helping to make sure that the work shows up on local and national policymakers’ radar.

We also had an interesting conversation about the ‘power of the counterfactual.’ As well as measuring the impact of conversations, the importance of observing what happens where conversations are not happening is also critical. It’s striking how often polarisation flourishes in conditions of ‘low relational bandwidth’ – whether on climate dividing lines like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, Ultra Low Emissions Zones, or pylons, or any other area of policy. What if catalysing conversations before such flashpoints ignite can help to dampen the risk of these kinds of them-and-us dynamics from kicking off in the first place?

Growing the community

We’re really excited to keep growing the nascent community of practice around using conversations to bring people together and build a broader social mandate on climate – and delighted that we’ll be teaming up with our friends at Climate Outreach to do just that (more on that in another blog soon).

As well as sharing practical learning and building out the evidence base for this approach, we’re also especially interested in engaging with two particular audiences that we think are crucial for the future of this work.

The first is funders. There was a lot of discussion at the roundtable around the role of funders and a recognition of the limitations that some funding approaches place on a project such as climate conversations, given that it’s still an experimental approach, which will take time to mature and which doesn’t easily fit into some existing evaluation criteria.

Second, we think that government is a key sector to engage with.  The UK’s government – like many others – has historically under-invested in public communication and engagement on climate, and this will become steadily more important in the future as the shift towards net zero touches more and more aspects of life. While non-profits can do vital piloting work, we also think there’s a critical role for government in this space – as one participant put it, “a government engagement strategy should reinforce what is happening and what can happen”.

We’re really grateful to everyone who participated in the roundtable for their time and insights. Many have followed up with us since with their own key takeaways from the session and much of that is reflected here. We are delighted that all participants are keen for this conversation, and our joint commitment to ‘working out loud’, to continue – and we’ll really look forward to making that happen.

As always, if you want to be involved or have ideas to share please don’t hesitate to be in touch!

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