Book Review "Engaging the Public with Climate Change"

Dbours's picture

A few weeks ago I wrote a book review of Philip Eubanks’ book titled The Troubled Rhetoric and Communication of Climate Change: The argumentative situation. A second book on my desk, edited by Lorraine Whitmarsch, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni, is titled Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, and that book will be reviewed in this blog post. “Engaging the Public with Climate Change” is an edited book with chapter authors ranging from domain experts, and practitioners to those more closely engaged with decision-makers, with names that ring a bell like Maxwell Boykoff, Gill Seyfang, Nick Eyre, Susanne Moser and others making up the nearly two dozen authors filling the forteen chapters.


The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 ‘Theories and Models’ discusses how different theoretical perspective and models can inform the development of effective communication and behavior change theories. Part 2 ‘Methods, Media and Tools’ applies many of the theoretical insights and real-world examples and case studies of public engagement on climate change are shared. The cases discussed are a little UK-centric, though I would say that most of the insights and lessons learned apply well beyond the United Kingdom.


I won’t be able to provide an in-depth review of all forteen individual chapters. The aim of this review is to discuss the book by touching upon a number of chapters or elements of chapters. Doing so does not mean that those chapters and authors not mentioned in this review are not of value!


Part 1 ‘Theories and Models’

Bas Verplanken (Chapter 1) calls for us to move away from behavioral change - with a focus on values, beliefs and intentions - towards a focus on habitual change, arguing that our carbon-intensive lifestyles  have become established habits. The problem with (bad) habits is that even if people take up the information of behavioral change campaigns, and even if this information would change people’s attitudes and intentions, then still this might not change their habits. On the positive side; not all behavior is habitual and habits are a function of stable contexts, which means that opportunities for habitual change arise when contexts become unstable. This is referred to as the habit discontinuity hypothesis. Or to put it in the worlds of the Prince of Wales; “There is nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something”, and change habits.


IBook Engaging the Public with Climate Changen Chapter 3 Corina Höppner and Lorraine Whitmarsh examine how public engagement has been constructed in UK climate change and related policy documents, and how the public themselves see their role in addressing climate change. Traditionally UK environmental policy has treated the public as individual consumers and public engagement would focus on information campaigns and ‘consumer choice management’with a leading role for the government and businesses in targeting behavior change of individual consumers. When looking at public-shere engagement it becomes clear that there is a high level of political disengagement and apathy among the UK public. On the positive side; People are willing to be engaged if they see a broader set of (personal) benefits – environmental, financial, health, social – going beyond, for example, the GHG emission reduction targets. 


Fiona Brannigan, on the other hand, argues in Chapter 5 that “there is a danger of being seduced by short-term easy wins which focus on extrinsic values (such as saving money), but which in the long run prove detrimental to significantly altering the way we live our lives.” We are locked in a ‘consumption-happiness myth’ that locks us in specific patterns of consumption. Fiona analyzes the four key elements that form the foundation for this myth. Marketing messages target our emotions in decision-making (affect regulation) both on a conscious and non-conscious level, motivating us to consume in ways contrary to rational choices. We are locked into these imbalances through habit formation, disrupting our psychological development and thus preventing us from reaching certain levels of emotional maturity needed to deal with the enormous environmental challenges we now face. The positive marketing messages and related consumption are soothing us into a false sense of complacency.

Contrary to Fiona I do not have high hopes with respect to the positive role of social marketing. First of all, social marketing is currently used more effectively by those marketeers advocating on behalf of consumerism, and secondly I have doubts as to whether social marketing will be able to convince huge crowds of complacent consumers to embrace mindfulness and analyze the non-conscious emotional triggers directed at them.


What makes someone (in Canada) feel like an ‘ecological citizen’? That is one of the questions covered by Johanna Wolf in Chapter 7. What types of engagement do we see in ecological citizens, and what are the obstacles and barriers that ecological citizens find on their way towards low-carbon lifestyles? Some of these barriers are linked to political leadership, while other are more personal-emotional or relate to a laxck of knowledge or awareness.    


Part 2 ‘Methods, Media and Tools’

In Part 2 many of the conceptual and theoretical insights discussed earlier are applied in real-world examples and case studies on public engagement with climate change.


Chapter 8 – by Nick Eyre, Brook Flanagan and Nick Double – presents evaluative evidence from the UK Energy Saving Trust (EST) that ‘aimed to encourage and enable energy saving amongst the public.’ The focus of the national-level trust was very much on energy saving in households, while another trust developed later – the Carbon Trust – focused on energy saving in relation to business and technological development. Household energy advice focused on behavior change instead of a change in attitudes, and total annual savings influenced by the EST are approximately 0.8 percent of UK household emissions. On the household level it would be good to also look at transport energy use, next to household energy use, and align it with change to broader socio-economic systems.


A more individual and community-level social approach to fostering low-carbon lifestyles is described by Scott Davidson from Global Action Plan (GAP) in Chapter 10. There is also an emphasis on the importance of measurement and evaluation for improving and upscaling behavior changes programs. Up-scaling the work of Eco-Teams is not so straightforward – nor was it perhaps expected to be. The type of uptake behavior, stepped approach chosen, the impact of economic cycles, and the role of government policy and engagement with politicians is being discussed.  


Gemma Regniez and Savita Custead provide examples of various UK-based communication campaigns in Chapter 11, and assess their effectiveness in engaging the public with climate change. A (small) selection of illustrative government, non-government / not-for-profit and business campaigns are reviewed. Where these campaigns differ is in the means in which they try to instigate behavioral change and in the form of advice they provide. While hopelessness and fear are mentioned as potentially disengaging from the issues (Chapter 7), it also is a great persuader, especially if coupled with action strategies to reduce the risks.


Chapter 13 looks at the interaction between individuals and new information and communication technologies (read: online media and virtual social engagement). Saffron O’Neill and Maxwell Boykoff discuss both opportunities and limitation of new media, and further analyze the different roles new media actors play; providing information, facilitating engagement, widening participation. The authors provide two case studies of organizations – from different sides of the isle –successfully engaging through new media.



Engaging the Public with climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited by Lorraine Whitmarsch, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni, and contributed to by a wide range of very strong authors, is a very interesting read that touches upon most elements worth considering in relation to engaging the public – which in itself is already quite complicated and even more so towards a topic like climate change. When I grew up the term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) was coined, mostly in relation to the placement of wind turbines. Will the lessons from the book work on CAVE people, a term that is also older but I only stumbled upon recently, relating to Citizens Against Virtually Everything; a term for citizen activists who regularly oppose any changes within a community. If anything demands big changes it is climate change.


"Jolly good disaster"---I

"Jolly good disaster"---I like the wording. Seems like a good read!!

We probably wouldn't be

Dbours's picture

We probably wouldn't be having books like this if the solution regarding engagement would be simple. Though I agree that some simple first steps probably are not that complex. Having said that; the findings here are also that such small and simple steps give people a false sense of 'I have done my part!' (I am re-using my grocery bags, so why would I care about energy saving lights?), while those steps are only meant as the start of bigger change endeavors.

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