Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication

Edited by Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni. Earthscan. (2011). ISBN 978-1-84407-928-5. Distributed in the USA by Stylus Publishing.

Reviwed by Peter Schroeder

Aux Armes! Was the cry of eminent climatologists as they considered the dire consequences of continuing global warming. But their impact on politicians and the general public has been notoriously slow and unproductive. This book emphasizes that reliance on technological explanation is a necessary but insufficient component for action by a mobilized society. It presents an analysis of how to engage a very diverse public through theoretical insights (Part 1: the first 7 chapters) and innovative practical initiatives (Part 2: chapters 8-14). Instead of Physical Science this book is concerned with Political and Social Science backed by Economic and Social Psychology, Communication, Marketing and Neuro-science.

As a physicist I found that reading a book more in touch with sociology quite a challenge. The amount of detail and the vast number of references (50-80 per chapter) make it difficult to assimilate and suggests that the book is more appropriate for the research specialist in the fields mentioned above, rather than for the more general reader.

It is a collection of articles written by 21 different writers, the majority (16) of whom are in United Kingdom institutions. Consequently, it is largely centered on the experience in the UK. However many of the ideas and projects are of universal application and people from other countries could benefit from their consideration. Below I give the chapter titles and notes on a selection of chapters to give the reader a taste of what this book covers.


Chapter 1. “Old Habits and New Routes to Sustainable Behaviour” studies the social psychology and sociological aspects of habit changing. Research indicates that people with strong habits are less interested in an information campaign than non-habitual individuals. With this in mind and considering the need for rapid change, the suggestion is that an effort should be made to change behavior first and attempt to apply motivational effort thereafter. One way to change behavior is through legislation. There is evidence that this led to more negative attitudes towards smoking.

Chapter 2. Carbon Budgets and Carbon Capability: Lessons from Personal Carbon Trading (PCT). It pursues the idea that issuing personal CO2 emission rights to citizens might mitigate climate change at individual and societal levels. This is a feature of the UK Green Party’s climate change policy. In the UK there are over 30 groups of CRAGS-Carbon Rationing Action Groups adopting some aspects of PCT, and the idea has spread to Canada and the US. This chapter highlights the lessons from economic and social psychology applicable to PCT.

Chapter 3. Public Engagement in Climate Action: Policy and Expectations. This chapter provides an analysis of how the responsibilities and engagement of the public have been represented within recent climate change and related documents in the UK, and how and why the public takes actions or not. The analysis reiterates that when asked to engage in mitigating climate change, people are likely to evaluate engagement against a set of environmental, social, economic and political criteria, rather than focusing on technological cuts in greenhouse gases which official guidelines currently exhort people to do. Climate change is a collective problem, requiring social debate about the structure of mitigating programs the public would appreciate.

Chapter 4. The Role of Social Comparisons in Promoting Public Engagement with Climate Change. Do negative comparisons with other groups and countries encourage us to improve our own performance? Would positive comparisons that highlight previous success work better? This chapter seeks to answer these questions and to explore conditions under which positive and negative comparisons translate into increased engagement with climate change and other sustainability issues.

Chapter 5. Dismantling the Consumption-Happiness Myth. This chapter argues that the Consumption-Happiness Myth locks us into specific patterns of consumption because of its impact on four key elements which are discussed in detail. It also analyses the role the pursuit of pleasure plays in motivating human behavior in terms of new technologies in neuroscience involving complex networks of neural pathways, and specifically in the part played by the amygdala. The findings provide useful insights for social marketers in commercial advertising and could be useful in the influence on climate change behaviors.

Chapter 6. Public Engagement with Climate Adaption: An Imperative for Institutional Reform?

Chapter 7. Ecological Engagement as Public Engagement with Climate Change.

PART 2: Methods, Media and Tools.

Chapter 8. Engaging People in Saving Energy on a Large Scale: Lessons from the Programmes of the Energy Saving Trust in the UK.

Chapter 9. Keeping Up with the Joneses. The Impacts and Limits of Social Learning in Eco-renovation. Recently in the UK, there have been an increasing number of community organized “Eco-Open Homes” where eco-renovated or eco-new built homes are open to the public. The greatest strength of these events is the power of real life experience and the telling of a ‘Story’ by ordinary citizens about their own homes combined with the visitor’s experience of being in and seeing the homes. The opportunities and barriers of this approach are studied and the bottom-up approach of this example of social learning is examined.

Chapter 10. Up-scaling Social Behaviour Change Programmes: The Case of Eco-Teams.

Chapter 11. The Role and Effectiveness of Governmental and Non-governmental Communications in Engaging the Public with Climate Change.

Chapter 12. Communicating Energy Demand: Measurement, Display and the Language of Things. This paper argues that the transformation of our energy systems towards lower environmental impact require us to make usage and supply more visible, and the connections between them more obvious. This implies that the public should change their attitude from energy as commodity—something that can be packaged and measured—to energy-as-infrastructure. One way of doing this is to use smart metering involving two-way communications in which the recipient sees usage of component parts and can interact to modify them.

Chapter 13. The Role of New Media in Engaging the Public with Climate Change. This chapter reviews and critically evaluates the current role, and potential roles new media would play in engaging the public with climate change. New Media are (is??) integrated, interactive and using digital code. Opportunities and Limitations are studied for three overlapping key themes, information, interactivity and inclusivity. Major problems include the separation of falsehoods from the facts fractionization and new forms of localism (e.g., networks promoting local events) the freedom of entry accorded to both pro- and anti-mitigation points of view.

Chapter 14. Low Carbon Communities: A Grassroots Perspective on Public Engagement (i.e., what people know and do relative to mitigation and adaption to climate change). This chapter asks the questions why people find it hard to engage with global warming, what are the psychological and social mechanisms that will allow their engagement, release creativity, change behavior and move closer to a low carbon society. Community-led projects have learned that the best way to gather support and enthusiasm for their projects is to provide easy routes to participation. The methods of several groups are described in some detail.

Chapter 15. What Have We learnt and Where Do we Go from Here?

We need to recognize the essential roles of disciplines besides those offered by the physical science. A great diversity of approaches to engaging the public with climate change is available. While there is a role for fear messaging, many chapters argue for the importance of positive motivational messaging. Civic and community engagement is important in shaping social change. Evaluation of engagement activities is a necessary key to fuller understanding of the success to otherwise of these activities.

To many brought up in the physical sciences, the emphasis on the non-physical may be something of an eye-opener with further consideration. Many of the projects start small and develop slowly, which is fine if we have plenty of time at our disposal. But one wonders if major operations applied quickly are needed to rescue Earth, our home!

Peter Schroeder
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.