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Getting real over climate change

Effectively communicating climate change risks to the general public could all hinge on bringing the issue closer to home, research by a team from Nottingham and Cardiff Universities has found.

In a project that aimed to analyse public perceptions of global warming, the researchers focused on ‘psychological distance’ in prompting people to go greener and the significance of uncertainty as justification for inaction.

Overall, the research found that whilst many people perceive climate change as a real and present threat, significant psychological distance remains. They found that more than half (52.6%) of respondents agreed with the statement that climate change would affect their local areas, compared with 30% who disagreed.

In addition 44.6% agreed that climate change would impact on people like themselves, compared with 32.3% who disagreed. Some 41% felt that Britain is already feeling the effects of climate change compared with less than 15% who believed it would never occur or would be felt beyond the next 100 years.

Dr Spence who is a researcher in The University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology said: “Climate change is abstract, and if we make it more real for people then they are more likely to act sustainably.”

The report is a timely reminder of the need to personally engage individuals in climate change but does little to suggest ways in which it can be achieved. Perhaps the waste and recycling industry could point the way forward?

As a communications expert I wish it were as simple as reminding people that in the words of Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer: “We’re doomed”. But sadly it’s not.

Many years of social research have shown people are motivated by short-term self-interest. Getting to them to think about the long-term effect of their actions is, to say the least, a challenge.

To illustrate the point, the recent study, ‘Powering the Nation, - household energy using habitats uncovered’, conducted by Defra, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and the Energy Saving Trust revealed computers, televisions and other electrical products plugged in but not in use or left on standby, cost the UK up to £1.3 billion in electricity bills every year.

Whilst this is a huge waste of energy it only represents an average of £85 per year for every household. This is not a massive sum and means most people simply can’t be bothered to make a small change to their habits even to save a few quid.

If we can’t get people to turn-off their telly at night to save money, how are we going to get them to make fundamental changes to their behaviour? A broader approach is needed, one that doesn’t rely purely on communications.

We need to use tax incentives and penalties to create consumer motivation, and then use communications campaigns to explain why these measures are needed.

Progressive taxes on consumption, that mean people pay more tax the more they consume, will make people think twice before they spend and throw food and consumer goods away. While it won’t be popular, increasing fuel and energy prices are also an unpleasant necessity. Food inflation, something we are already experiencing, will also change the way we buy, store and consume food.    

Communications still has a vital role to play. We all need to understand why these changes are necessary at a local, national and international level and how they will help address the long-term effects of climate change.

Campaigns will need to be easy to understand, highlight the benefits of behaviour change and celebrate successes.

It took years of communications and legislative changes to get people to wear a seat belt, stop drink driving and quit smoking, and these campaigns are still running. All these issues feel much closer to people in their everyday lives than the effects of climate change.

It won’t be simple, to change attitudes but it can be done. I suppose the real question is do we have enough time to effect the changes we need?

Michael Bennett managing director of Pelican Public Relations

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