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Communicating to change behaviour

Jonathan Porritt reflects on tone, trust and transparency

Our politicians face a huge challenge: understanding what it will take to produce a massive shift in the way UK citizens understand and act on climate change.  Many people are still uncertain about the issue. Nor do they know whether what they’re being exhorted to do will have any effect.

Tone, trust and transparency are the watchwords we need to use as the basis for seeking accelerated behaviour change.


In attempting to mobilize the population to change its behaviour, tone is everything. There is a continuum of views, from James Lovelock at one end to Jeremy Clarkson at the other. Lovelock thinks we should relax because it’s too late to do anything anyway. He sees global warming already set to bring about the end of human civilization as we know it. On the other hand, Jeremy Clarkson thinks we should relax because it’s all being over-hyped and the planet is ‘just fine’.

We don’t want to disempower people through despair.  We have to acknowledge the urgency, and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of not acting in the time available to us.  But we have to do it in a way that persuades people there’s a game in town.

Happily, there is a better tone in this debate now than there has been in previous science-based controversies, such as the GM debate. We hear far less of the ‘deficit model’ of science education, where ‘experts’ look upon each individual citizen as an ignoramus waiting to be filled by the knowledge scientists have to impart.  There are still people who think that is the best way of doing it, but they are much less prominent in the climate change debate.


It’s impossible to persuade people to change their behaviour unless there are high levels of trust between the persuaders and the persuadees.  Take energy efficiency, for instance.  Unfortunately, the government still relies on energy companies as their primary vehicles for persuading citizens to live more energy-efficient lives.  But these same companies can only meet their obligations to shareholders by making increased sales of electricity or gas!

Surveys show that only a tiny percentage of consumers trust the energy companies to do other than make more money out of them – which is what they’re charged to do, in terms of their basic fiduciary duties.

The government has not thought through the importance of trust as an effective part of advocating behaviour change. It needs to be much smarter about working with those parts of society (such as Non-Governmental Organisations and academics) where there are still high levels of trust.


We have to be prepared to shine light on murky areas of public policy which some people would like to put beyond the pale of rational discourse.  

For example, the arch-taboo territory of economic growth.  It seems a perfectly uncontroversial statement to say that the pursuit of consumption-driven economic growth, indefinitely into the future, for a global population of nine billion people, is literally impossible!  But this in itself seems to be unacceptable to a lot of people.  

The Sustainable Development Commission has just issued a new report under the title Prosperity Without Growth? (the Treasury was particularly keen that there should be a question mark in there!), and this has been very well received by anyone with an interest in this area – apart from the government itself! 

Trying to close down on critical discussions about such key issues is unlikely to provide the kind of realistic, permissive environment in which citizens are empowered to start thinking about how different our lives are going to be in future.  And that is an absolutely critical responsibility for all science communicators.

This is a summary of the keynote address given by Jonathan Porritt to the British Science Association’s Science Communication conference

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Jonathon Porritt
Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, and author of Living Within Our Means, 2009, available through Forum for the Future website
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