Tell the truth
We need a public education campaign focused on the climate emergency. And we need it now!
“Keep Britain tidy”, “clunk, click, every trip”, “protect and survive”. Whatever our ages, we can all look back, sometimes with fondness, sometimes incredulity, at one public education campaign or another. During the last war we were extolled to “dig for victory”, “make do and mend”, and “keep calm and carry on”. In the 1980s it was “aids: don't die of ignorance”, and in noughties the anti-flu drive to “catch it, bin it, kill it”. Most recently, the appeal to “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” has become ingrained in the national psyche.
Love them or hate them, such crusades have been around now for more than a century, and have become the go-to means by which a government seeks to inform and educate the public about a particular risk or safety issue. All the more strange then that there has been not a whisper in response to the greatest threat to the British public since the emergence of our nation. I speak, of course, of global heating and the associated breakdown of our once stable climate. While carbon emissions continue to climb remorselessly, and temperatures follow in step; as countries across the world, including the UK, are battered by ever more violent extreme weather, there has been not a murmur from this government about what the public can do to help address the threat.
Even as they prepare to host the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, at the end of October - arguably the most important meeting in human history – Boris and Co. appear to have next to no interest in engaging with the public in any serious way so as to promote behaviour change in the face of a peril that may yet prove to be existential.
As the recent IPCC report made shockingly clear, there is effectively no chance now of the world dodging the onset of dangerous, all-pervasive, climate breakdown. Even achieving net zero carbon by 2050 is not going to help. We all have to face the fact that the world of those who come after us is going to be harsh. This doesn't mean it is too late to act. Far from it. We can still stop bad becoming even worse, and there is plenty we can do as individuals, but we need help and guidance from the centre, from government. It beggars belief that none has been forthcoming.
Even should this change, government vacillation during its handling of the Covid crisis doesn't build much confidence that a Boris-led climate education crusade would fare better. The first rule of any such campaign is that it must engage, but simply engaging is not enough. Poorly thought out, a campaign can engage but make things worse. Psychological studies have revealed that the factors determining whether or not a public education campaign is successful are complex and manifold, but one thing that is agreed upon is that there is no mileage in scaring the bejesus out of people, so that - like rabbits caught in a car's headlights – they do nothing at all.
Instead, research shows, campaigns need to be carefully crafted to encourage, cajole, even shame, individuals into making the behavioural changes needed. The messages presented must be consistent, utilise all media channels and should never patronise. Critically, they have to be designed so as to be noticed, persuasive and remembered.
One thing that can speedily derail any campaign is mixed messaging. And this is where we arrive at the gist of why the Tories have shown no interest in even attempting to make us all greener. How can we be urged to drive less one minute and implored to buy the newest SUV the next? Encouraged to fly just once a year, but at the same time bombarded with ads promoting plane seats for just a tenner each. The answer, according to this government, is that we can't. Nothing, in other words, can be allowed to get in the way of unfettered, free-market capitalism.
This is nonsense of course, and something will have to give if we are ever to transition to a green society and economy. So please, yes, let's see the double-page spreads encouraging us to limit our flights to once a year, and the escalator posters telling us to switch to a green energy tariff. Let's have the banners on the sides of buses extolling us for leaving the car at home, and the radio and TV shorts petitioning us to cut down on meat? We need these - now! But only if, at the same time, there is a blanket ban on the high-carbon products responsible for the climate emergency in the first place. Some may think this harsh and punitive, but, take it from me, our children and their children will thank us for it.
A version of this article was published in The Independent on Thursday, September 2nd, 2021.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, and was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC SREX report on climate change and extreme events. His debut novel, Skyseed – an eco-thriller about climate engineering gone wrong – is published by The Book Guild.