Fortunately the days of giving air time to climate sceptics are gone, but the backlash over the extension of the London Ultra-Low Emission Zone and the nonsense talked about Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme show that the public and some politicians have a lot to learn.
Surveys show that the public often think the most important thing they can do to reduce their contributions to climate change is to recycle more. In reality the top things include flying less, driving less, and eating less meat and dairy produce.
Governments sometimes try to influence public opinion. They have been good at it on smoking but some public information campaigns on climate change have been pretty trivial, highlighting actions with a small impact while ignoring the big things. An early Scottish Government effort was ridiculed for asking people not to leave the tap running while you brush your teeth. A UK version asked people not to wash their plates before putting them in the dishwasher. Perhaps relevant for the post dinner party set, not so much use in the 50% of homes that don’t have a dishwasher.
The Scottish Government’s current attempt is the Net Zero Nation initiative. Some of it is useful – it is good on car driving, for instance – but it continues to duck big issues, with the food section concentrating on preventing food waste, not on the impact of what people eat, and no mention at all of flying.
Unless people understand and believe how critical the climate emergency is, what government policies are aiming to achieve and why, and how they will be implemented and when, the government will always struggle to win public backing for the changes that are required. Better public engagement and general understanding of the problems created by climate change, and the solutions needed to address them, will help head off potential public and political backlashes.
Anybody can engage sensibly with the climate debate if they are given the chance. The Citizens’ Assembly on climate change involved 100 ordinary people chosen to represent Scottish society, working together to consider what to do about climate change. This was a serious exercise and over the course of a year they produced a strong and sensible set of recommendations. Which were then largely ignore by the Scottish Government.
To gain public trust, the Scottish Government needs to go beyond previous government-only messages. It needs to work with civil society and communities to co-create a nation-wide, sustained communications campaign to explain the critical nature of the climate and nature emergencies, what the impacts in Scotland, region by region, are expected to be, by when, and the jobs, health and nature benefits of action – in short to get the population behind action at the scale and speed required.
It should also counter the myth that climate action will lead to economic disaster, when in fact acting today on climate change is much cheaper than waiting to act when the crisis has become a disaster.
A trusted set of voices on climate change could help Scotland set the tougher climate targets that are needed and succeed in meeting them. Reviving the Climate Assembly to help with this task would be a great start.
A version of this article was published in the Scotsman newspaper on the 9th August 2023.