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Climate change communication: why aren’t we shouting about it?

September 2015

If one chooses to spend their free time trawling the internet for news about climate change, it is a challenge not to be disheartened. A quick Google search at time of writing produced stories that would alarm even the most optimistic environmentalist – megablazes and amplified drought, farmers battling rising temperatures, mosquitoes invading the Arctic, even the brainwashing of Australian children…(see above, I was surprised too). Yet in 2014, it was reported that although 99% of the UK population had heard of climate change, levels of concern had dropped dramatically in the past decade. Years of surveys have demonstrated that climate change fails to captivate peoples’ attention, being viewed as a ‘distant threat’. And understandably, a philanthropic focus on shorter-term, humanitarian crises (Ebola, refugee crisis, terrorism, war) masks the long-term but equally serious impending environmental disaster of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. However there are unavoidably political reasons as to why climate change is not high on our national agenda. In these months prior to the Paris UNFCC summit in December, a passive population is not going to generate the social momentum needed to steamroll this much needed step in global climate change mitigation. A 10,000 person UN survey[1] has added to this, proclaiming that educating the masses is our best bet for cutting greenhouse gases. So why is our population not being appropriately educated to engage in fighting climate change? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

Potential protagonists of a passive population:

 

1. A missing top-down agenda

In our fast-paced, distraction-driven society, keeping climate change in the public eye requires strong leadership. Our government has missed notable opportunities in recent years to demonstrate that climate change is actively impacting British people’s lives (where was the rousing speech stirring people to environmental consciousness following the extreme flooding of winter 2013/2014?). Yet more alarming than a lack of action is a poor choice of actions. Cameron’s latest stint in power has seen an alarming wave of environmentally disastrous decisions – from the uproar of scrapping zero carbon homes, removal of pre-accreditation tariffs for renewable energy to the highly contentious support of fracking. If our government are not prioritising – or even advocating – environmentalism, it falls out of the psyche of the population. Not what’s needed before the forthcoming universal climate change agreement.

2. Failing to engage the young

It would appear that the lack of environmental concern in Westminster is an inter-departmental epidemic – the Department for Education are also showing symptoms. In a decision widely critiqued and ultimately overthrown, climate change was removed from the Key Stage Three Geography syllabus in English and Welsh schools in 2013. Teacher jargon aside, essentially this move meant there was no compulsory framework that guaranteed teenagers were taught the human elements of climate change. Although climate change was reinstated several months later, vital topics including sustainable development and global citizenship are still being overlooked in todays ‘slim-line’ syllabus.
The trend of school academisation has further removed any commitment to communicating about climate change. Academies are empowered with a greater degree of flexibility on what to teach prior to GCSE – fantastic for creativity in the classroom, but unfortunate in meaning the messages passed on to today’s students are not nationally consistent. In today’s educational set up, children (in England and Wales) are no longer guaranteed an education about climate change should their GCSE and school’s exam board choices not coincide. The next generation are going to bear the brunt of our carbon addiction, so why are we not mobilising them to learn how to deal with it? Yes, it may be valuable for children to be able to code video games, but not at the cost of their awareness of the impending environmental challenges facing their generation.

3. Too many voices, not enough noise

It is almost ironic, given the lack of direction on environmental education in English and Welsh schools, that our nation is world-leading in terms of environmental research – notably at the Exeter-based Radley Centre which routinely produces research for UNFCC reports. However, the incredible potential of utilising this world-class research is squandered by a lack of clarity about whose responsibility it is to communicate about climate change with the population. DEFRA, the Met Office, the Environment Agency and the Royal Society (amongst others) all stick their oar in in some way in terms of communicating climate science to the masses. However we lack one centralised voice whose primary role is to keep climate change on the public agenda. Equally important is the way that climate change is communicated. The Met Office has some great information tucked away on its website, but with print, television and social media dominating the way we acquire information the opportunity to engage with the masses is being wasted. In 2013, ‘What is global warming?’ was the eight most searched ‘What is…?’ question on Google. People are clearly interested in climate change. We need to harness that interest to engage behavioural change.

Easier said than done perhaps. But there is a lot that can be done. We need to put pressure on the government to delegate climate communications to a trusted non-governmental body, such as the Met Office’s Public Weather Service. We need a cultural overhaul in which climate change is ingrained in the arts, in our education system, and reported regularly in traditional and social media. Climate change needs to be taught in every classroom, and we need public figures to raise the profile of climate change. Lord Stern and David Attenborough are inspiring academics and environmental figureheads, and they need voices united with them to provide accurate, informative information to the public.

Admittedly these solutions are somewhat beyond the remit of the average blog reader (unless of course you are a major celebrity, in which case, get in touch). However with the UNFCC summit in Paris looming, this truly is the time for our population to make it clear that these are questions that need to be answered. Individual empowerment and community-led behavioural change is possible for all – whether it be crowdfunding renewables, grassroots education programmes, business schemes, office activities or even just an occasional Twitter rant. If education is indeed our best bet for cutting greenhouse gases, then it’s time for us all to go back to the classroom. And this time, you’re being encouraged to shout out.

About the Author:

Catriona recently joined XCO2 as a Sustainability Consultant from a background of secondary school Geography teaching. Having spent her previous years ranting at teenagers about climate change, she now hopes to contribute to XCO2’s vision of a low-carbon built environment sustaining a world without warming.

(1) http://newsroom.unfccc.int/unfccc-newsroom/surprising-citizens-views-on-climate-change/

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