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Engaging the public with climate change

Sarah Castell argues for new techniques

‘I think if they want us to save energy to save the world then it should be installed free.’

‘Eventually the government has got to say – we think this is the best way forward. We as individuals can’t make that decision…’

I have recently reviewed, for Sciencewise-ERC, thirteen surveys and other studies into public views of climate change.1

Declining concern

‘I’m becoming desensitised to climate change.’

The vast majority of the public believe that climate change is a reality, and are concerned about it. However, recent surveys suggest that people are taking the issue less seriously than they used to. Ipsos MORI reported in 2008 that 88 per cent believed the climate is changing, falling to just under three-quarters (73 per cent) in 2009 and dropping to 60 per cent in 2010.  Researchers from Cardiff University also noted decline in belief in climate change in their 2010 survey - 71 per cent concerned, down from 82 per cent concerned in 2005.

Why is this? There’s plenty of qualitative research on the topic, showing that the public seem unsure what causes climate change and what can be done to stop it. They suspect that the low carbon agenda might just be an excuse for expensive products or high taxes. And they are complacent about what they need to do personally. The studies indicate that people have heard too many ‘doom and gloom’ messages about the risks and impacts of climate change, without hearing a positive ‘call to action’ alongside.

Government lead

The public want the government to lead the way. If new low carbon measures are financially risky and yet could benefit everyone, they feel the government should bear that risk on their behalf. People want to hear what changes will be required from business, and how government is going to change its own behaviour.

‘Drive up the A40 and see all these offices at five o’clock in the morning with all their lights on…you’ve got all these offices with their lights on and they’re talking about saving electricity.’

But there is potential to get the public engaged as consumers.  We need low carbon solutions which meet consumer needs and tell motivating stories.

What people want

People want to save money now, and reduce upfront costs.  They see new technologies as expensive, risky and complicated. They want upfront financial help.

People want to feel in control of the energy use in their homes, to the extent that this is sometimes even more valuable than saving money.  They like the idea of energy metres and micro-generation, which they feel help them take back control over their energy use.

People want to be assured that new products work. Examples and demos are essential.

Aesthetically, new technologies should look high status and mainstream, and not too wacky. Double glazing is a good example. The public say it doesn’t look too ‘leading edge’ but still looks good, and adds to the value of your house.

The idea of sacrifice and worthiness does not motivate the public. People want positive, congratulatory and light-hearted communications. New products and communications should be marketed in a way which promotes intrigue, not guilt.

‘Dare I say, there’s still got to be a slight entertainment element for us to pay attention.’

Strategies for action

The overriding impression from past studies is that the public are waiting for well-designed products and services, for inspiration and for a catalyst.

These might include local and national government incentives; incentives from suppliers; clever, innovative design of aesthetically appealing products; and careful targeting of communication at the right segments of the population.

The next step is to create these ideas and bring them to the public.

1What the public say about designing climate change and low carbon interventions. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2010.

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Sarah Castell
Sarah Castell is Ipsos MORI’s Head of Qualitative Methods.
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