There Is No Planet B: Climate Change Narratives in the UK
Updated: Sep 11
Climate change sparks a lot of public debate. In recent times, it has been about the pandemic’s positive impact on the environment due to reduced human activity and movement around the world. A few weeks ago, we wrote about this in the Indian context, particularly around how collective action in the post-COVID era can change the climate narrative. This is the second piece from our series on people’s perceptions and behaviors on climate change.
In the United Kingdom (UK), the latest discussion is about summer temperatures regularly hitting 40°C by the end of the century. We also found that search interest for ‘climate change’ spiked in April and September 2019, triggered by Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes, record-breaking floods, and the run-up to the General Elections.
People’s opinions on climate change are influenced by cultural context, political ideology, awareness about climate issues, and the climate vulnerability of one’s own cities. How does this reflect in social media discourse on climate change in the United Kingdom?
In partnership with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, we deployed our AI to study 500,000 social media posts, 17 million internet articles, and over 6 million searches related to climate and the environment. We also studied voting patterns for Members of Parliament and popular cultural narratives (from cinema, advertising, literature, etc.) to better understand the public discourse on climate change.
Climate Change: Serious crisis, non-existent issue, or someone else’s problem?
Our AI found eight unique behavior clusters dominant in different cities of the UK based on proximity, impact awareness (how visible/tangible are the effects), and openness to the idea of climate change (do they think globally or locally).
What are the eight behavior classifications?
Avoidants (14%) are not open to climate and climate action issues despite seeing its effects such as flooding, temperature change, and decline in air quality. Indifferent (10%) people are similar, except that they don’t visibly or directly experience the effects of climate change. Interestingly, Birmingham, Coventry, Northampton, Wolverhampton, and Walsall fall under one of the two and are, yet they are affected by the highest temperature change (20%) over a 20 year period in the UK.
Skeptical Believers (3%) are curious about the causes of climate change and anticipate that they will experience its effects. However, they are resistant to political action. Those who believe climate change is Somebody Else’s Problem (8%) see it as a distant problem, despite directly experiencing some amount of its impact in the form of air quality, temperature change, and flooding.
Unactivated Allies (4%) are open to climate change issues but are not actively engaged in taking action, perhaps because they are not directly seeing the effects of global warming. Active Allies (15%) are similar, but they’re engaged in local community action.
Those who are Aware and Action Focused (32%) are open to concerns and discourse on climate change as they are beginning to see the environmental impact of climate uncertainty and willing to take action. Those with an Activist Mentality (11%) are highly engaged and open to learning more as they are aware of climate change’s potential impacts, especially flooding.
Popular Narrative Styles in the UK
In addition to studying the behavior clusters pertaining to climate issues, we also analyzed popular narrative styles from cinema, literature, and advertising in the UK to understand how best to communicate with each group of people.
Based on the subtlety and conventionality of their messaging, we found that commercial content employed several styles: beneath the surface communication (i.e. there’s more to see than meets the eye; think Downtown Abbey), unflinching commentary on everyday life (The Testaments), past as a route to the future (Brexit), celebrating uniqueness (British Army Recruitment), strength as a combination of focus and grit (Dunkirk), truth with “twists”(Sennheiser ad), and awkward everyday protagonists (Normal People).
When it comes to cause-based content, the narrative styles revolve around changing the narrative (sex worker legislation), morally informed humor (example), use of metaphors to build movements (#ShareTheOrange), deep thinking (Surfers against sewage), and progress as a collective effort (Pride jubilee in London).
These styles can be borrowed to talk about climate change issues, resonating with the people, based on their behavior cluster, and inspiring them to take action.
How to Talk About Climate Change
For climate change communication to be effective, a “one size fits all” approach will not work. Content needs to be curated based on the specific needs and beliefs of each group of people.
Avoidants need to be exposed to concrete everyday actions that they can take to minimize climate change, while the Indifferent and Unactivated Allies need to engage with local community groups to see how they can get involved. Skeptics need support in converting global movements into local action, while those who think climate change is Someone Else’s Problem need to be motivated to research and learn more about its impact. Active Allies, Aware and Action-Focused, and Activists need to collaborate, join and pioneer local community movements, and sustain their efforts at a larger scale to increase climate awareness and initiate change.
We also found that the face of climate change campaigns (such as “hypocritical” celebrities or ambassadors), tone of communication (such as condescension, apocalyptic tone), and the distance of content from local, everyday life (such as the Amazon forest fires) play a role in triggering climate change deniers to be more vocal in their online activism, therefore, this needs to be strategically managed.
There Is No Planet B
5 million people out of our target population on social media in the UK are in the 17–30 years age bracket. It is motivating that the majority of them fall under the Aware and Action-focused, Allies, and Activist clusters, and are actively engaging with climate issues. The ones who are Indifferent, Avoidant, or think climate is Somebody Else’s Problem make up less than 5% each, although the Skeptical Believers have a high volume of youth who need to be engaged in order to convert to active allies.
The Internet provides an opportunity to mobilize voices on climate action at a scale and speed that was unimaginable in the past. Young people are the most important group of people to lead from the front, and through carefully curated digital interventions powered by AI tools and digital marketing, we stand a great chance in increasing climate awareness and action — influencing public narrative, and making a difference — before it’s too late.
Explore our Climate Change Analysis Tool for more such insights.