Heroes or monsters: What's the most compelling story to galvanise climate action?

Fresh research from IPPR sets out how campaigners and businesses can best ring fence climate action from culture war divisions

What is the best way to frame discussions about climate change that will be prove most effective at galvanising the public in support of bold action to tackle global emissions? Is it best to focus on risk, or opportunity? Humans, or animals? Green jobs, or extreme weather? On the prosperity of future generations, or threats to present-day national security?

A new paper from think tank IPPR has attempted to tackle this crucial question, noting that the answers are likely to prove crucial to keeping climate action high on the agenda as citizens are distracted by the worst cost-of-living crisis in 50 years and the net zero agenda is assaulted by parts of the media and Conservative party casting doubt on the need to invest in climate solutions.

After testing 10 different “thematic climate narratives” in a series of trials last autumn, the think tank concluded that the most effective narratives for conveying the importance of tackling climate change were simple messages that highlight “shared and concern”.

The narrative that performed best in the randomised controlled trials was a patriotic framing about the potential for Britain to lead the world on climate action, the research reveals. This was followed in popularity by a narrative about the proximity of climate impacts both now and in the future, and a message that appealed to the need to leave a better world for younger generations.

By comparison, more utilitarian narratives around the way the energy transition could unlock a host of benefits for the economy and society – for instance by delivering jobs, energy security or reducing regional inequalities – were found to not land as effectively with trial participants.

The narratives tested for the report, dubbed A rising tide: Strengthening public permission for climate action were judged on their persuasion effects over eight key metrics, including raising issue salience, willingness to bear cost, levels of policy support and opposition, and reducing support for the opponents of climate action.

IPPR admitted its findings presented a dilemma for communicators on the climate crisis, given so-called “co-benefit” narratives that focus on the green jobs and energy security that can result from climate action are popular with local politicians, business leaders, compromising, and civil servants.

The central recommendation of the paper is for “pro-active public messaging” on climate change to focus on global leadership, climate impacts, and future generations, all if which resonated with audiences. “With so many other pressures and world events competing for voters’ attention, this is the best way to maintain the salience of climate change among ordinary voters, and to boost the permission structure for action,” the report concludes.

But it counsels messages around the economic, national security or community benefits associated with climate solutions should not be ditched altogether, given that these narratives are often popular with key decision makers. Rather, these messages should continue to be communicating in “elite influencing” and reactive messaging, it notes.

IPPR said it paid particular attention when analyzing the response to the tested messages from participants in the trial aged over 40 and those without a university education, who are more likely to be “swing” voters both in general elections and on climate issues.

As certain factions of the Conservative party and the media attempt to blame the net zero transition for rising energy bills and pull climate issues into a wider ‘culture war’, the IPPR said its conclusions should be heeded carefully by campaigners, green businesses, and politicians.

It may be demonstrably false, but opponents of climate action have told a “relatively consistent story” about climate policy leaving citizens ‘colder and poorer’, the paper notes. This false narrative needs to be countered not only through careful rebuttals, but through crafting an equally compelling and simple story in favor of climate action, it said.

While conceding there are many factors at play to ensure climate communications are effective, including how messages are delivered and by whom, getting the story at the heart of a campaign right is absolutely critical, the report argues.

“Message still matters,” it states. “A good message alone is not enough to keep an airborne campaign, but not having one at all is sufficient to ensure it never gets offs the ground to begin with.”

As the Tory leadership race continues, the assault on net zero is doubtless set to continue as climate sceptics attempt to influence the incoming administration. Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis is set to enter its most painful phase this winter as wholesale energy prices jump yet again. There will be no shortage of disinformation campaigns erroneously linking falling living standards to the net zero agenda, despite ample evidence that it is soaring fossil fuel prices that are driving inflation and energy in security. It will fall on proponents of climate action to push back against cynical and destructive narratives with powerful stories of their own.

Adding to previous studies which have detailed the groups that need to be reached by climate communicators to help build an overwhelming majority in favor of bold climate action – such as the 2020 Britain Talks Climate report which grouped the British public into different segments based on their attitudes towards climate issues – this latest publication offers campaigners,, and politicians with a solid steer on the narratives they should be embracing.

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