A million climate conversations

We’ve been thinking a lot about climate campaigning. And wondering: What if there was a massive national push from campaigning orgs and movements to equip their members, volunteers, and ordinary people to have climate conversations? Here’s why.

By Alex Evans — 19th Mar · 6 min read

We’ve been thinking a lot about climate campaigning, and wondering: What if there was a massive national push from campaigning orgs and movements to equip their members, volunteers, and ordinary people to have climate conversations? Here’s why.

Ramping up UK climate action is urgent. To do that, we need to grow both broader and deeper public demand for climate action. The kind that will make climate a top 3 issue – and keep it there.

Sure, UK polling shows broad public support for climate action. But it’s what pollsters call a ‘thin yes’. Nominal support isn’t the same as active engagement, and nor does it mean the issue will be a high enough priority to count at election time.

UK climate activism is concentrated among ‘Progressive Activists’ and ‘Civic Pragmatists’ (see here for an explanation) – 13% each of the population. For victories that last, those activists need to excel at building bridges to people who may have very different values.

And we also need to reach and energise new supporters – from segments like ‘Loyal Nationals’, ‘Established Liberals’, or ‘Backbone Conservatives’ – all of whom will have their own roles, identities, and forms of engagement.

We need to defuse them-and-us dynamics on climate, too. Populists like Nigel Farage have so far failed to provoke a ‘culture war’ on net zero. But with worse to come on cost of living – and many climate activists themselves keen to polarise the issue – it could happen.

We think that would be a disaster. Look at France, where the Gilets Jaunes drew a dividing line between “elites talking about the end of the world and people trying to make it to the end of the month”. Or look at the US, where polarisation has led to decades of flip-flopping.

Instead, we agree with Climate Outreach founder George Marshall that “climate change is far too big to be overcome without a near-total commitment across society”. So what would it take to secure that commitment? We think a crucial part of the answer has to do with conversations. LOTS of them.

Conversations are a massive deal politically. What our friends and family think has a huge impact on how we vote. Conversations can bridge divides, too: the biggest factor in the seismic shift in US attitudes on equal marriage was people having gay friends or family members.

And change-makers are increasingly recognising – and harnessing – this power. The last decade has seen many incredible examples of how conversations can unlock political change.

Like deep canvassing on equal marriage in California, where transformative doorstep conversations with committed opponents helped bring about one of the fastest values shifts in American history.

Or Ireland’s abortion referendum in 2018, where conversations avoided Brexit-style polarisation and instead brought the country together around a new settlement.

Or the Radical Love campaign in Istanbul in 2019, where the moderate CHP party used conversations and unifying stories to head off a populist, culture war campaign by Erdogan’s AKP party.

Or on climate, the impact of school strikers’ conversations at their own dinner tables as young people changed their parents’ views on climate, with the biggest shifts seen among white conservative parents.

Yet for the most part, we aren’t talking about climate. 57% of us in the UK discuss climate infrequently, rarely, or never. Maybe we don’t think it’s urgent. Maybe we feel overwhelmed. Maybe we just don’t think we have the power to change things.

All the more surprising, then, that even as change-making orgs invite us to eat less meat, donate £10 a month, sign petitions or even get arrested, they overlook the least expensive, most effective and most human intervention of them all: Getting us to talk about the climate.

So what if a bunch of different orgs and movements, from across the political spectrum, worked to catalyse a million conversations about climate action with the goal of making climate action a top 3 issue?

Imagine if we worked together to pilot, test and scale an approach to climate campaigning that’s uplifting, empowering and builds belonging among members and supporters. That bridges political divides as a way of reaching voter segments beyond our usual base. And above all that spurs ambitious climate action by broadening and energising public support.

We’re not saying we know this will work . Instead we’re saying we think there might be something really impactful here, given evidence from campaigns in other contexts… …and we think it’s really worth doing some testing to see whether it could work on climate in the UK. And if it does, then applying it to other issues too, like international development or safe migration.

Update: our climate conversations project is now up and running and into its prototype phase! You can find out more about what we’re up to, where we’re testing the approach, what we’re hoping will happen next and how you can get involved here.

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