How Do You Make the Climate Movement an Undeniable Force?

Why shifts in public opinion aren’t enough

By Mathieu Lèfevre

Our work at More in Common is to understand what divides people and what unites them. One of the issues that we look at the most is climate. Can climate change — both as a threat and as a rallying call for action — unite our divided societies around a common purpose?

Over the last five years, we have surveyed over 100,000 people in nine countries and spoken to people in focus groups all over Europe and the US, specifically listening to groups who are quite hard to reach.

Drawing from this research, I bring you some good news, some bad news, and seven questions that will hopefully help you tackle this problem.

First, the good news. The good news is that we are at a point where there is widespread agreement among populations about the causes and threats posed by climate change.

People, particularly in Europe, overwhelmingly see the environment as an issue that must unite us beyond our divisions. That is true even in places that are quite divided on many other issues — places like Poland. In polling we did this month, we found that 82% of people in France think the environment should transcend notions of the political left and right.

While that might seem obvious to some, this is a major and fairly recent turning point. If you consider public opinion as a whole, that switch to a collective realization about the importance of climate change has only really happened in the last couple of years. Ten years ago, the environment barely made into the top 10 of people’s preoccupations in the UK or France and now it is always in the top three.

That is a tribute to all the organizations and activists who have gotten us to this point over the last decades. Their work has paid off. But there is still a long way to go on awareness. According to IPSOS, the proportion worldwide saying that climate change is a top-3 concern in their country is just 16%.

But the fact that we are getting mostly past the point of convincing people that climate change is real and important is good news. The bad news is that the “climate movement” is in my opinion too narrow to carry through real change.

What do I mean? I mean that even though a majority of people see the urgency of the problem and want to get involved, large proportions of the population feel that the movement in favor of the environment is not for people like them. Even in places like Germany or France, that proportion is about 40%.

And rigorous studies have shown that the youth movement for climate is not a big and diverse tent. It’s overwhelmingly composed of educated, fairly well-off, urban young people.

Polling and shifts in public opinion are not going to save our planet. Action is going to save our planet. But as long as the movement that puts pressure on governments and on businesses remains too narrow, I don’t think we can get the action and commitment we need to get to net zero.

What would it take to expand the narrative on climate to make it more appealing to a bigger audience? What would it take to close the gap between people’s willingness to be engaged and the movement to engage them? In political terms, how do we get from 15% to 51% percent? How do you make the movement an undeniable force?

Part of the answer is to think of new ways to get people to feel like they belong in this fight.

Here are seven ways, drawn from a project we did with my colleague Giuliano da Empoli called “The Endless Sea,” that we might write a new narrative on climate:

  1. We need new voices and messengers. It’s not just a message problem; it’s a messenger problem. Greta Thunburg is beloved, but really only by a small segment of the population. Few people speak to most people on climate. There are some exceptions like David Attenborough in the UK, but far too few. Businesses are not trusted, and don’t get me started on governments and politicians or the media. So who then? Who can speak to the many and not the few? Who could those new voices be around you?
  2. Tap into the superpower of agency. Give people a role to play! They want to be enrolled. It’s like those Choose Your Own Adventure books. In the UK, 63% of people say that when they recycle or take action for the environment, they feel proud. I took part in a focus group last week, in a run-down part of industrial France, and at the break, instead of checking their phones or getting coffee, people stayed back to talk about the new individualized way their trash is weighed and charged to them. The local mayor had just set up a system so that the more they recycle, the less they pay. Why were they excited to talk about this? Because they were the heroes of that adventure. We should even embrace a little narcissism — this is the age of the selfie! How can we turn that to our advantage? Are you giving people agency in the way you work on climate?
  3. Build a future you can touch. The Yes Men are this amazing group of comedians and pranksters, and one of their tricks is to create and distribute thousands of copies of fake newspapers with fake headlines. They look and feel like The New York Times, and for a minute, you are touching and reading about a desirable future. The microwave or the Concorde are other examples. They made us feel that the future was in our kitchen or in the sky. Are you painting a picture of a future people can touch and see?
  4. Bring the future closer to home. We hear and read hundreds of sentences that include words like “Global Climate Goals in 2050.”. This puts people to sleep. It’s just too far. Bring it closer! One of the things we are picking up in our research is that, coming out of COVID, people are having trouble making any plans, be they personal or professional. And that is for Christmas this year, let alone 2050. I don’t know if any of you saw the clip with the dinosaur speaking about his own extinction at the U.N. It went viral and is very well done. But I am going to bet it only works on a very narrow audience, because it combines two things that feel very distant from most people’s lives: A T. Rex and the U.N. Are you relying on things that are too far from people’s lives to get them mobilized?
  5. Make it fun. Too often calls for climate action feel like no fun at all.
  6. Build in a little transgression. We need to break some rules. It’s possible to be too polite. Greta Thunburg’s Fridays For Futures would not have worked on a Saturday. They had to be breaking a rule by skipping school. But know the boundaries: XR on the London underground backfired because they were breaking the rules in a way that stopped ordinary people from getting to work. Are you being too nice or too naughty?
  7. Switch from negative to positive. From the dawn of time, long before Facebook or cable news, the instinct of fight-or-flight has caused us to be drawn to negative stories. The negative stuff is a tonic to some but a tranquilizer to others. We have to get better at writing the climate story in a way that keeps the energy of the negative but also paints a positive picture of the world we want.

In sum: the good news is we have reached a tipping point in public opinion on climate, but the bad news is that the climate movement is still too narrow. That creates a gap between a potential market for change and the actual avenues for change. It also makes the climate movement less undeniable in the halls of power.

We have a real shot at building a broader movement that enlists the many and not the few. But to close that gap, we need action. Action creates hope and a desire for more action. And while I hope we will see some action coming out of COP26 in Glasgow, frankly, I have more hope in all of us.

Mathieu Lèfevre is the CEO and co-founder of More in Common, a nonprofit that builds resilience to the threats of polarization and social division. More in Common has already conducted detailed mapping of polarization and the landscape of public attitudes in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Prior to helping launch More in Common, Mathieu was a co-founder of and executive director of NewCities. He served as a political officer in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations for five years, based in Southern Afghanistan, Lebanon, and at the UN Security Council in New York.

The text above is the transcript of the talk he gave at Concrete Love, this year’s House of Beautiful Business gathering in Lisbon and online.


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