2023 saw humanity’s hottest-ever summer and a record-shattering Canadian wildfire season that had global implications.  

While responses to climate change have come a long way in the last 30 years, they have clearly not reduced emissions as well as might be expected despite a near-universal consensus that humans have caused global warming and that there needs to be a concerted and collaborative effort to avoid the worst impacts.  

Yet, earlier this year, participants at a key international meeting to review progress in implementing the Paris Agreement noted that substantial gaps exist in both climate-policy ambition and implementation. What is going on and why does the outlook on emissions reduction remain so bleak 

One important reason may lie in how climate policy and solutions are communicated to the public. Advocates have long relied on the idea that if people knew the extent of the threat or the benefits of policies to combat it, they would get on board.  

The emphasis has been on logic and statistics without taking into account the fact that many people experience the impact of these policies at the level of emotions, values and culture. 

The ongoing failure to explain the rationale for these policies at a personal level has led to several examples of unexpected resistance and missed opportunities. 

Cities can speed up climate action by slowing down traffic 

That must change. Policy ambition can no longer afford to stall upon implementation and must be centred on the values and beliefs of the people impacted by proposed changes. 

This issue is particularly relevant given widespread unease about climate issues. A 2022 study showed that 70 per cent of Canadians were either alarmed (25 per cent) or concerned (45 per cent) about climate change.  

While this is evidently an important issue for the public, there has been a failure to translate this concern into proportionate engagement on policy implementation, according to the Climate Action Tracker. The Canadian Climate Institute says Canada has a credible plan to achieve 40- to 45-per-cent emissions reductions by 2030, but it also believes progress has been insufficient 

“Climate” is often a vague term 

Climate change can be an abstract and distant concept. When we think about climate, we only rarely consider atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations or the amount of energy entering and leaving the planet’s atmosphere.  

Instead, we think of what is impacted by a changing climate. Crises such as mass evacuations because of wildfires, Arctic thawing jeopardizing food security, or access to shade in extreme heat are easy to understand because they acutely impact how people live. 

Another example is public-transportation infrastructure, which is a crucial aspect of emissions reduction but is enmeshed with narratives about the right to own a vehicle and move freely. 

Failing to acknowledge and address this not only inhibits policy implementation but also risks provoking backlash as a city council in Oxford, England, discovered when it sought to work toward a traffic-reducing system at the same time as it introduced elements of the 15-minute city – whereby all essential services are within walking or cycling distance of one’s home.  

The plan was presented mechanistically, overlooking the imperative of relating the idea to the daily lives of the people impacted. The resulting narrative void was readily filled as resistance mounted, with critics misinterpreting the ideas while labelling the initiative “dystopian” and “deeply illiberal.” 

That meant considerable effort had to be directed toward debunking the myths that had emerged surrounding what the urban-planning measure would mean for residents. In the end, the city council voted to keep the measures in place but not without a huge controversy. 

Similarly, Vancouver’s 2020 climate emergency action plan (CEAP) aimed to disincentivize the use of cars in favour of public or active transport with the imposition of road tolls and other things, with the revenues raised being directed toward the cost of the CEAP.  

Though the idea was extensively researched, too little attention was paid to how it was presented to the public. The resulting information vacuum precipitated a backlash fueled by misleading public statements and policy platforms, which undid any progress. 

Engaging on climate 

These examples show some of the risks incurred by ineffective communication and the resulting lack of public engagement or outright opposition to policy reforms. 

What is needed instead are positive narratives on how specific policies will affect the things that people care about.  

The approach should be framed around how individual values and priorities are supported and confirmed by climate policies. Through such a lens, water usage or home-energy efficiency are not just environmental pragmatism, but also an expression of personal identity and values.  

Communicating well at a personal level not only offers a way to avoid the failure of important policy changes but also promises to centre citizens as individual social and political agents of change 

Meaningful public engagement can increase support, ownership and commitment to policy interventions while facilitating greater understanding on how climate shows up in people’s lives. 

An example of this approach is the “narrative workshop methodology employed in the “climate conversations framework used by the Scottish government in building support for some of its climate policies, which are among the world’s most ambitious. 

These dialogues are peer-led group discussions intended to engender positive, contextual dialogue on climate and climate policies while exploring attitudes, values and narratives surrounding them. 

In a time characterized by the looming possibility of climate tipping points such as ice-sheet disintegration and Amazonian dieback, we must pay greater heed to the power of social and relational approaches. Failing to communicate the social elements of climate policies could result in them becoming “stalling points,” not turning points. 

Not paying due consideration to the way policies are communicated to the public may lead to further opposition to such actions. 

This is a problem created by an ambivalence toward our relationship with the planet and one another. It is time that we learned from this mistake. 

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Timothy Linsell is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia’s school of public policy and global affairs. He is also a sustainability scholar at the UBC sustainability hub. 

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