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Braving change

Sophie Howe writes on misinformation, climate denialism and how politicians can instigate change in this daunting day and age.

On the back of  soaring temperatures, rampant wildfires and holidaymakers being evacuated from Greece, the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres announced ‘the era of global boiling has arrived’. 

This is not the first time he has used such emotive language. In 2019, he warned of ‘catastrophic disaster’ if temperatures continued to rise. In 2021, he announced it was ‘Code Red for Humanity’. And only this April, before temperatures began to break records and start fires, he said “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

And he’s right. But whilst the policy interventions needed are at the top of everyone’s minds, what is often not considered is how we take people with us, how we can make it easier for politicians to do the right thing and how to we prevent the challenges of mis and disinformation derailing climate focused policy interventions. Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time with politicians from across the world speaking about this very issue. Every one of them is only too aware of the threats and the need to act. However, most are struggling to drive change in systems which were designed in the last century. They are absolutely not in denial but instead are being defeated by an outdated system with an iron grip; one which is endemically short sighted, struggles (and often fails) to join the dots between different issues and for the majority only responds after the horse has bolted. 

However one thing is clear: politicians don’t need more information, rather, they need to feel able to act on the information they have. Blocking this still, though, is a lack of ability to improve their connection with citizens.They dually cannot ensure listening to citizen voices is embedded into systems, whilst grappling with the challenge of driving often difficult changes in a world where people are increasingly susceptible to misinformation (false information delivered without malice) and even more sinister dis information (the intentional spreading of false information). 

I don’t negate that braving change is easy. All too often when politicians have put their heads above the parapet to put in place the – often unpopular reforms needed to tackle climate change, they are hit with backlash; backlash which is often driven by mis or disinformation.  

For instance, take the idea of 20 minute neighbourhoods (a great idea in my view!). Why wouldn’t you want to be able to safely amble about your community with easy access to everything you need from shops to doctors to cultural activities? And that’s before you get to benefits such as reduced need to have a car, resulting in a reduction in pollution and carbon emissions. Yet this idea disinformation has somehow turned into some sort of dystopian vision for our communities with social media posts claiming we’re all going to be hemmed into ghettos, restricted from visiting our relatives on other sides of the city and requiring passes to leave. Even as a former politician, what in my mind was not only an uncontroversial, but actually a very good idea, has somehow turned toxic. 

Of course, the situation I outlined is entirely due, it seems, to the spread of misinformation. On the one hand (on an extreme level), even when we could see Greece burning before our very eyes, #climatescam was trending. Indeed, trends like this are bound to increase in number as countries seek to increase the scale of their actions, where there is real potential for this type of mis/disinformation to hook more and more people in.  

This has implications for the entire package of measures that governments have to consider as part of delivering their net zero targets – which are likely to become even more challenging as they run out of time to deliver them. In every one of the countries I’ve visited this year, councils, governments and others are trying out congestion charging, closing cities to traffic and shifting road space to bikes and rolling out onshore wind. The problem? In every case, such steps forward have quickly been taken a few steps back as politicians have had to bow to public (usually social media) pressure fuelled by mis/disinformation to amend such changes.

I am aware there is not one simple answer to this however I do absolutely know that part of the solution is to ensure when communicating on the climate crisis and particularly in identifying the most effective ways to bring people on the journey, the approach must be  led by behavioural science.   There is also a urgent need to get a better handle on the spread of mis and disinformation; for politicians to understand what they need to worry about and what they don’t and understanding best ways to effectively neutralise (versus fuel) potentially toxic debate and convey facts in an accessible format which authentically resonates with citizens. But, for this to be most effective, working in this way must be built into policy development early on, seen as preventative rather than just crisis management and respected as a central component to best practice in socioeconomic change. The spread of false information in itself may not seem as big a threat as issues such as climate change, but it is without doubt something which will hinder us taking the urgent action needed if left unchecked.

So what can you do? Find partners who want to work for the greater good. I am grateful to Lynn Group, that their practice Lynn Planet exists and they are actively working to produce and improve behavioural science led campaigns on climate policies, as well as tracking, analysing and crafting responses to mis and disinformation. With their work and your engagement we might start to see the change this world really needs. 

—- Sophie Howe

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