Strengthening public support for climate action
What's our best message in uncertain times? My new IPPR report out today
The story of UK public opinion on climate is large – it contains multitudes.
On the one hand, despite breathless coverage to the contrary, attempts by culture warriors to polarise public attitudes to climate have not worked. Support for Net Zero policy remains resolutely high, including in key electoral battlegrounds. The climate sector’s narrative on energy security prevails with voters over the fossil fuel industry’s.
At the same time this is clearly a moment of some danger. So much else in the world competes for attention. And while all is left to play for, it’s not obvious the next PM will have as much instinctive sympathy for climate as Johnson.
For that reason it’s never been more urgent that public permission on climate be sustained and renewed.
In some new research for IPPR out today I try and provide some small part of the answer. The report (‘A Rising Tide’) rests on a straight forward mental exercise. If, theoretically, we were to spend a decent amount of resource on a big pro-active campaign aimed at sustaining public permission for climate action, what thematic story should we choose?
Message, of course, is not everything. As a sector full of humanities graduates we sometimes overly focus on words to the detriment of more important stuff - like our ability to reach people in the first place, or who is doing the talking.
Nevertheless message does still matter, not least because disagreement on it can divide or dilute common effort.
Below then is a summary of what the research did and found, and some thoughts on its implications.
Methodology and approach
Ten pro-climate messages were tested via YouGov with a large sample of UK voters in April 2022. I also did some basic polling of potential messengers.
For message testing, Randomised Control Trial (RCT) testing was used. This split our large sample up into eleven demographically identical sub-groups, or ‘message groups’. Ten groups were each allocated just one of our ten messages. A control group saw nothing.
Afterwards, all eleven groups took a survey on their attitudes to climate action. Because statistically the only thing differentiating each group is the message they’ve been exposed to, any significant attitudinal difference in a given message group vs. the control group can be attributed to the message they’ve seen. In this case, significant is anything 6% and above.
I am evangelical about RCTs because they allow you to observe persuasion at scale - unlike focus groups - and not just gauge notional agreement, unlike conventional polling (we agree with lots of things that don’t move our underlying beliefs/priorities).
In précis, the ten messages were:
Climate impacts. The impacts of climate change are here now and will get worse if we don’t act. But it’s not too late.
Levelling up/community regeneration. Climate policy can help re-make or ‘level up’ communities.
Future generations. We have a duty to help younger generations avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Jobs. Climate policy can create good, secure, well-paying jobs.
Natural world. Climate change is destroying natural habitats and species, aka the ‘David Attenborough narrative’.
Consumer benefit. Amid a cost of living crisis, climate policy can help bring down people’s bills.
Energy security. Climate action helps us kick our dependence on gas from rogue foreign governments.
Global leadership. An upbeat, patriotic narrative about what Britain has done on climate thus far, and our potential to lead the world on it going forward.
Make the polluters pay. My best approximation of the left-populist climate narrative: big corporations are responsible for climate pollution – let’s make them pay.
Social norms. Leaning into nudge theory, ‘other people care about climate change – so should you!’
You can find the full text of each in the Annex of the report.
In analysing outcome survey responses, each message was given one point every time it scored a statistically significant persuasion effect vs control on eight key metrics, among (a) the public at large (b) over-40s or (c) non-graduates. Extra attention was given to these last two because they are the swing on both climate and in the electorate at large. They are also more vulnerable to our opponent’s messages.
The metrics we tested performance on was the ability of each message to: increase salience/prioritisation of climate and theoretical willingness to bear cost for action; decrease support for our opponents; increase support for, or reduce opposition to, key Net Zero policies, and increase support for the green side in three key narrative divides.
Results: uncomplicated stories of common destiny or concern beat co-benefits
Tallying all of the scores up over all persuasion metrics, a fairly clear picture emerges. Global Leadership performs the most consistently across all metrics, especially with non-graduates, but Climate Impacts and Future Generations also do very well.
There’s no space here to show you performance on every metric (go and read the full report!) but I’ve picked out a few below.
For instance, exposure to the Climate Impacts message led to 12% more people choosing climate as a top 3 concern. We see an echo of this in how the recent heat wave momentarily put climate back on top of the media agenda.
Elsewhere, we can see Global Leadership and Future Generations are among those performing well at reducing support for Net Zero Scrutiny Group’s core message that “climate policy will do nothing other than leaving us colder and poorer”. All three boost swing group’s support for the UK going above and beyond on climate.
Perhaps you’ll have noticed the ones that did not perform as well in the overall tally: Levelling Up, Jobs, Consumer Benefit, Energy Security. These are loosely what we can call ‘co-benefit’ narratives: stories which make the case for climate action through other issues.
These did ok, but they didn’t perform consistently.
It's not clear why, but it tallies with previous research. These messages often generate high levels of agreement but, right now at least, are probably not emotional or values led enough to move people. They are a bit jam tomorrow and transactional, falling into what David Axelrod famously lampooned as the ‘vote Labour and win a microwave’ space.
It's also possible that talking to ordinary voters about climate through other issues just requires too many extra layers of engagement or understanding. In fact it can actually backfire: for instance, the Energy Security message decreased people’s willingness to bear cost for climate action - presumably because it reminded people of rising bills.
These results are somewhat counterintuitive to a lot of current wisdom on climate communications. Generally speaking, the idea that you sell the public on climate action by pointing to all its associated benefits has taken hold. Yet more orthodox messages, done well, do better.
What accounts for this misdirection?
Some, like the excellent More in Common recently, argue it’s just not possible to raise the profile of climate on its own terms when big issues like the economy or health dominate. While on balance I disagree, I at least see the logic.
But I’ve simply never seen any credible evidence that, given the choice, co-benefit messages are our best card to play with the public.
I think it’s simply likely that what is happening here is a conflation of elite opinion with public opinion. Co-benefit narratives do well with politicians; they do well with activists, donors. And they do well at keeping climate relevant with journalists.
All of these audiences matter, of course, they just aren’t the same as voters. But we assume they are.
I do not argue that we should bury all co-benefit narratives and never speak of them again. No matter what we do or want climate will continue to get dragged into cost of living, economy and energy security debates. After all, words aren’t magic.
It’s simply that we should be more discerning about when we engage these types of messages and why.
With politicians or elite media, fine. And even in mainstream media if we are invited to speak on cost of living, say, we should take the opportunity. At least so there’s then a pro-climate voice in the discussion. Our counter-arguments can at least fight things to a draw.
It’s just that these are arguments to be neutralised, not majored on, in my view. The vast bulk of our pro-active resource should be spent on bringing to life – through great creative, interventions, infrastructure, messengers - a much broader story: reminding people of why climate action matters, through one of Global Leadership, Climate Impacts or Future Generations. These just work better at creating permission structure for continued government action.
Finally, it’s worth noting the number of times non-graduates or over-40s were persuaded to our side in the experiment. Partly this is because they start from a lower base. But partly it’s because they are less engaged. When they actually hear a pro-climate messages that aligns with their values, they can be moved into our column.
We should take heart from that. They are not owned by Steve Baker, The Sun or anyone else who claims to speak for them.
As we face up to an uncertain next decade of climate campaigning, then, in my view there should be no further prolonged discussion on what our best message is - or who can be moved and how. The evidence is there. The question is: what are we going to do with it?
The full report is here.
Many thanks to everyone listed in the acknowledgements from ECF, IPPR, YouGov and elsewhere who helped knock this into shape. Thanks especially to ECF, my employer, who funded it. All interpretations and opinions offered are mine alone, so if you disagree please shout at me not them!