Over the past few weeks, we’ve run a series of workshops with two dozen brilliant strategists to dig into the key question of what success looks like for our project exploring what might happen if campaigning organisations, movements and membership organisations trained their members to have conversations about climate change.
Of course, we know part of the answer to that: having political impact, raising ambition, reaching people far beyond the environmental movement’s traditional base (the ‘persuadables’, as ACT Climate Labs call them).
But that still leaves plenty to work out on what that means in practice! Here’s some of what we learned, and some of what we’ve decided about what happens next.
First, we want to use conversations to build a different climate movement that brings in new people – rather than just equipping existing activists with another tool.
We were really struck by More In Common’s 2022 finding (see slide 107 onwards in this deck) that more people in the UK agree that “the climate movement is not welcoming to people like me” than anywhere else in Europe. Brits are hugely positive about “people who look after nature and the countryside”, but much colder towards climate activists – and fed up with “extreme tactics that prevent people from getting to school, work or hospital”.
We want to find ways to build a climate movement for these people: one that invites and welcomes them in. And we’re especially interested in how to engage three overlapping communities that the environmental movement has historically been bad at reaching: people of colour, working class people, and right of centre voters.
Second, it’s important to be clear that we just don’t know at this stage what conversations are best suited to achieve. It’s not as simple as finding out whether conversations work. Instead, it’s a question of how, where and with whom they can have most impact.
(That said, one thing we do already feel clear about: we don’t think climate conversations are about increasing the ‘salience’ of the issue – how high a priority it is for voters. We recognise that communications strategies with broader reach – advertising, news, social media – are better suited for this goal, and we won’t be pursuing that as an aim for this project.)
So we want to take a highly experimental approach: not just by testing conversations in different places with different partners, but through doing so in a way that learns fast and applies that learning straight back into the pilots (and the climate movement more broadly), so that we adapt as we go.
By extension, third, we want to start this process by listening to people – really listening to them, as opposed to making a big show of listening before we try to persuade them, mobilise them, or organise them in ways we’ve predetermined. Here’s why.
Climate change is personal. It’s not just about who you vote for. It’s about your home, your food, your health, your job, your town, your kids’ futures. All of which makes it about values and stories more than science and arguments. So we need to be asking people about their values and stories, their hopes and hesitations – rather than telling them about ours.
The exciting part is that we just don’t know what we’re going to learn. If our hopes for this project are realised, this will (eventually) be one of the biggest public engagement exercises ever undertaken on climate in the UK. We will learn so much: not just about how to frame the issue, but also about how to inspire action, and indeed what kind of actions we should be taking.
Fourth, let’s be clear: this is going to take time. We know lots of potential partners are focused on the next general election and how to make climate change massive in it. But we see this project as a slower burn process that’s about longer term power building – for three reasons.
For one thing, it will take time to figure out what works and how to scale that up.
There’s also the factor that our challenge goes far beyond the next election: whichever party wins will face huge challenges, competing pressures, and a constant temptation to kick hard decisions on climate down the road, and we need to build power to stop that from happening.
Finally, there’s the fact that the climate challenge isn’t just about national politics – it’s also, crucially, about what happens on the ground, in real places. So many vital decisions about our climate future will be taken locally in the next few years: on local transport, local food, local house building, local nature conservation and local investment.
Which is exciting, but also risky – because local climate issues can get very polarised: just look at low traffic neighbourhoods or ultra low emission zones. But if communities can build shared awareness and shared purpose about the shared future they’re seeking to build, they can not only defuse that polarisation, but also revitalise local politics in the process. Conversations are central to that challenge – so we’re going to steer heavily towards place-based approaches in our piloting work this year.
Another decision we’ve taken about our first round of pilots: we’re going to focus on conversations between acquaintances rather than family and close friends on one hand, or total strangers on the other. This is why.
Conversations with family and close friends can be really powerful (as the school strikers proved). But they’re also a big ask of people. Starting a conversation about climate change with someone with whom you have a close relationship can feel quite ‘high stakes’. Inevitably, there’s other stuff going on in the relationship – and that can complicate things.
Conversations with strangers can be really powerful too (as deep canvassers like LGBTQ campaigners in the US have shown and an increasing number of UK-based organisations are exploring). Our hesitation here, though, is that deep canvassing is so resource intensive: it takes a long time to train people to do it effectively, and depends on sophisticated local organising infrastructure that not all organisations will have – especially not organisations that are outside the sphere of traditional activism.
So to start with at least, we’re going to aim at conversations with people in the middle: neither family and close friends, nor total strangers, but the people we encounter in our everyday lives, our ‘weak ties’. The kind of conversations we have at school gates and water coolers, in waiting rooms and places of worship, over garden fences and post office counters.
Billions of these conversations take place every day. Hardly any of them are about climate change. We’re deeply curious about what could happen if that changed.
So finally – what happens now? For us the next big step is to approach a small number of potential partners and explore whether there’s a good fit for us to work together. By the end of July, we’d like to have a confirmed list of 4-6 partners and places where we’ll do our first round of pilots.
We’ll then work intensively to co-design our conversation training over the summer, with the aim of starting to test it with real people in real places from early October. We’ll then go through successive cycles of testing, learning and adapting over the rest of the year, wrap up before the winter holidays, evaluate the process so far – and take a decision about whether it makes sense to look at a second round of testing at a bigger scale in 2024.
We’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts or comments on our learnings above – or indeed if you’d like to talk to us about exploring a potential pilot project together. Otherwise, we’ll continue to post updates here about how we’re getting on and what we’re learning, and we hope to be able to offer lots more opportunities to get involved after our first round of pilots.
For now, we’re so grateful to the following people who came along to our workshops and shared their insights and experience (of course, this article is a summary of our take-aways from these conversations, and does not necessarily represent the view of the people listed here):
Nafeez Ahmed, Steve Akehurst, Olly Armstrong, Jon Cracknell, Roger Harding, Emma Holland-Lindsay, Anthea Lawson, Laurie Laybourn, Ben Margolis, George Marshall, Kirsty McNeill, Florence Miller, Jessie Nicholls, Rakesh Prashara, Hannah Paylor, Joel Silver, Bronwen Smith-Thomas, Luke Tryl, Chris Venables, Sarah Wiggins, and Nikki Williams.