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Rosalind Skillen

Talking about the climate isn’t the best way to build change

Rosalind Skillen

We must do a better job of relating fears to everyday concerns


Protesters at the COP26 summit

Protesters at the COP26 summit

Protesters at the COP26 summit

More than six months have passed since the UK hosted the international climate conference COP26.

As political attentions turn towards COP27, some questions feel particularly relevant: How can we address the climate crisis amid multiple compounding crises? How can we engage people to take environmental action at a time when they are dealing with unresolved issues, such as the cost of living?

We already know that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels when it comes to climate change. Yet, with inflation spiralling and Russia’s war against Ukraine threatening global peace, the geopolitical landscape looks dramatically different.

It may sound odd, but perhaps the events of this year have revealed that talking about climate change is not always the best way to engage people or frame environmental activities.

The environmental sector already has a reputation for being too technical and full of jargon. People feel like they are being lectured.

Climate action is also often framed as a series of ‘cuts’. We talk about what people must give up, such as cars and red meat, but we do not talk enough about what people have to gain, such as improved health and stronger communities.

Thinking about climate change as a multiplier of benefits, rather than an act of sacrifice, would transform public apathy into empathy, moving people further towards taking climate action.

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However, more importantly, it would allow people to see how different issues interact, and to understand the cascading effects of one issue on another.

To ensure our planet remains healthy and resilient, we must think and act in context.

To take the context of the war against Ukraine as an example, the crisis has highlighted the clear links between the fossil fuel industry and geopolitical safety.

It has demonstrated the importance of creating a world with decentralised supplies of energy and more sustainable, renewable energy.

It has exposed the dangers of a dependence on fossil fuel supplies, providing both the security and climate imperative to move away from oil and gas. It has also arguably provided an ethical imperative: many claim that purchasing fossil fuels from Russia directly funds and supports aggression against Ukraine.

This is just one example of how projects not explicitly focused on climate change can wield environmental impacts.

If we were to apply this example in a local context, developing renewable energy sources in the UK would tackle security, economic and climate goals.

An available supply of renewable energy would increase the resilience of communities to global economic shocks, reduce consumption of fossil fuels and push governments to offer more support on energy efficiency and home insulation.

Northern Ireland has some of the most poorly insulated homes in western Europe, and insulating homes would reduce energy poverty, providing both a healthier living environment and natural environment.

It is not only environmental and financial models that are rooted in interdependence.

Climate change action sits within a broader ecosystem of social and economic issues, and a greater recognition of how these issues intertwine is the only way to generate transformational change.

For example, more green space increases biodiversity while reducing social isolation and improving mental wellbeing.

Promoting active travel, such as walking or cycling, improves physical health at the same time as it reduces carbon emissions and pollution. Creating more green jobs promotes social mobility and boosts the economy.

Community gardens create opportunities for local people to build relationships at the same time as they tackle food poverty and insecurity. The list goes on.

In my view, placing climate change action within a broader framework of improving community resilience and sustainability, as these examples demonstrate, is a more effective way of engaging people in environmentalism.

This is especially true for people living in less affluent and more deprived areas where climate change is not a top concern or priority.

If we are to deliver the necessary levels of global action and solidarity ahead of COP27, we need to grow our capacity to move beyond isolated practices and ways of decision-making.

Leaders need to embrace more regenerative and relational ways of problem-solving.

There are direct links between climate change and social justice, and these links are not difficult to make.

However, when we fail to make these links, issues become polarised into self-contained camps, and we risk not having much impact.

Yet, ironically, one of the greatest benefits of taking climate action is that the environment is not where the impact stops.

By taking environmental action, we do much more than simply reduce carbon emissions and increase biodiversity.

We improve civic pride, boost social cohesion, enhance health and wellbeing, foster skills development and instil in people a sense of agency and confidence to kick-start climate action projects.

Sometimes, seeing things as interconnected feels overwhelming. It can make people feel powerless, like everything needs to be changed all at once. However, unlocking vision and empathy allows us into the gaps at the same time as we reimagine the full picture.

Considering climate change in isolation is, therefore, not always the most helpful way of motivating people into action, and environmentalists need to do a better job of relating climate to everyday concerns.

This will engage more people. It will show how tackling climate change and tackling inequality are not mutually exclusive.

Lastly, it will mean climate action becomes something that not only addresses future concerns but also resonates in the here and now.

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