Is it wrong to campaign on climate change?

There’s a debate that’s just resurfaced about the value of public campaigns about climate change. Roughly speaking, one side is arguing that the only way to get people to take long-term sustainable action on climate change is to persuade them that it’s a really important issue, and if they don’t take action, very bad things will happen to the world’s climate, and this will make life miserable for a lot of people.

The other side says that even though these conclusions about climate change may be true, there’s no chance that everyone (or even nearly everyone) will go along with this, and it makes far more sense to persuade most people to adopt low-carbon behaviours for reasons not to do with climate change – usually because it’s cheaper, or reduces the need to rely on nefarious foreign places for energy supplies.

The latest round of this argument has come in the November edition of the Campaign Strategy newsletter, which takes issue with the recent Common Cause report, published by WWF in partnership with others. Roughly speaking, Common Cause takes the second view, and Campaign Strategy the first.

The Campaign Strategy authors draw on a New York Times article about energy efficiency in Kansas (well worth reading), to make the point that in areas where climate change disbelief is high, behaviour change is best framed in terms of other benefits, rather than in terms of the environment. The article even suggests that using fear of climate change as a motive for adopting low-carbon behaviours may in fact hinder action for some people. The environment has become so politicised as a topic, some will actively reject any argument in which it is mentioned.

This chimes with some of what we’ve seen in previous data. Earlier this year, an Angus Reid poll showed that, of those who had said they thought global warming was an unproven theory, nearly two thirds were still satisfied with attempts to cut worldwide emissions:

So is evidence that the subject of the environment and climate change has become such a symbolic issue that many will assert their rejection of it… but at the same time, still welcome action to tackle it. In this case, it may seem reasonable to take the Campaign Strategy view, that it is futile or counter-productive to attempt to persuade large majorities to agree to change their behaviour on the basis of the moral imperative of tackling climate change.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the two schools can’t co-exist effectively. If the Campaign Strategy argument is that campaigners should appeal to people as they are now, and the Common Cause argument is that they should try to change people’s values, the objectives don’t seem mutually exclusive.

As Campaign Strategy argues, most people’s dominant needs – what they look for in life – don’t change very quickly, and certainly not on the basis of short-term campaigns. But the way they seek to meet those needs do change over relatively short periods according to what’s available and what’s fashionable (which, for Campaign Strategy, are where campaigners should target their work).

But over longer periods, people’s dominant needs themselves do also change. This seems be where the Common Cause approach has most credibility, and greater impact. In fact, since different societies’ values differ from one another and over time, it would surely be a failure if campaigners were not trying to change motives over the long-term as well as actions in the short-term.

  1. Rupert Read says:

    Exactly right. Well done, CS. This is the argument that I have in fact made face to face recently to Chris Rose (of Campaign Strategy). We badly need Chris’s stuff for the short-term; but we also need Tom Crompton’s stuff (CommonCAUSE etc) for the longer term, for leadership, to shift the agenda in ways that market segmentation can’t offer.
    Matt Wootton and I are writing this up in our forthcoming book on framing. For a taster of the kind of thing we are offering, goto

  2. I am generally more predisposed towards the more instrumental approach (the second of those you mention in the post), and remain unconvinced by the Common Cause analysis, which I think relies far too much on psychology and not enough on the role of sociological factors in shaping values and attitudes.

    But a wider point is that this debate is being carried on largely in the absence of any evidence. It’s slightly dated now, but back in the autumn of 2009, we did some polling in 157 marginal constituencies, precisely trying to test whether non-climate framing would make people more disposed to climate policies than a climate framing, You can find the results at (click on “Climate of Opinion”). The top line is that framing seems to matter for some policies (expanding renewable energy), but not for others (financial assistance to developing countries). On renewables policy, an energy security frame does better than a climate change frame, but a jobs and investment frame (which is currently emerging as a dominant narrative about climate policy in many parts of the world) does surprisingly badly.

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