Climate campaigners are failing our planet

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Voters are not buying what we are selling any more.

The Tory party has all but abandoned its net zero policy and is making bad noises about its environmental policies and is now actively using anti-climate rhetoric in its campaigning.

The Labour party is thinking of abandoning ULEZ and more significantly rowing back on its £28b per year green economy pledge and refusing to say how much it will now promise to spend.

The Greens are forecast to lose their only MP at the next election, and when was the last time you heard climate policy from the SNP?

But what should concern campaigners like us the most though is this article, where the Tory’s row back from net zero and the Labour party doesn’t challenge them, but tacitly agrees with them.

The major parties’ new approach to climate is more than worrying; it’s dangerous. 

As campaigners we must adapt to where politics is right now and refocus our message to get voters on side. Or lose not only the battle but the war.

If we don’t change our message, 2050 (let alone 2030) is a pipe dream, and if we fail to make it happen, it will be our fault.

If campaigners want real change at the next election, it’s time to ditch the ivory tower ideologies and meet voters where they are.

Whether it’s sharing the science on social media, marching in the streets or even doing press interviews, the tactic of education without solutions only raises awareness of the issue.

However, 78% of the UK voting age population already knows we need to do something to stop our species going extinct and 53% of uk adults think the government isn’t spending enough on environmental issues.

Awareness already exists, and isn’t driving change.

Fact is: if we as climate campaigners can’t convince voters that climate solutions will be good for their daily lives, then the politicians will never take the action we need because there will be no votes in it. 

Given the major parties’ current positions, the next election will see climate solutions being perceived as an unnecessary expense, unless we do something about it now.

Climate change is not a top priority for voters right now. We need to make it one:

The environment is dropping down the priority list, not because people aren’t aware but because we as campaigners aren’t talking about it in a way that voters understand.

We need to accept the political reality, stop dismissing political parties’ lack of action as ‘political games’, and look at what voters care about right now.

Sounds obvious, but worth saying: What voters want, drives what political parties do!

Climate policy means jobs, higher wages, energy security and a better standard of living. 

But climate campaigners aren’t talking about that.

Climate campaigners aren’t pushing existing solutions voters can buy into.

If climate and the environment isn’t a top issue (in a positive way) at the next election, it will be because we as campaigners have failed to listen and talk in a way people actually want to hear.

The climate emergency is now a communications challenge

We are in a cost of living crisis.

Real earnings have been falling for over a decade.

People are poorer and at the same time paying the highest taxes and highest bills in decades.

According to YouGov polling, as of May 23rd 61% of UK adults have had to make cuts to their usual spending. 44% of people are struggling to afford to pay their energy bills, 45% are struggling to buy food and only 35% of people would say they were financially comfortable.  

Unless they earn more than around £52k a year, the average voter is struggling to make ends meet. 

The average household would need two median salaries of £27k p.a. and free childcare to just be breaking even right now.

What do you think the average voter’s first priority will be at election time?

What would yours be?

It won’t be higher bills to save the planet, or transforming industries that could mean they lose their jobs.

It will be: cost of living, job security and inflation.

All we are doing right now is telling voters that climate solutions are going to cost them money. Money they don’t have.

And when we talk about no new oil and gas licences, we’re talking about significant job losses in some of the country’s most deprived areas.

No major party is making climate commitments right now

In the UK, our climate targets are legally binding. We will have to meet them by 2050.

But the next election will be determined by cost of living and quality of life, not climate.

During the fallout from the recent by-elections, as ULEZ ignited debates about the cost of reducing emissions, Rishi Sunak promised not to “unnecessarily” add costs and “hassle” to households to hit climate targets:

“We’re going to make progress towards net zero, but we’re going to do that in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their life.”

Perhaps most telling is the fact that Labour didn’t challenge this narrative, but tacitly agreed, on cost of living grounds.

No party is currently showing climate leadership. And while climate solutions are seen as an extra cost for the working family, they’re not going to.

If we want climate-friendly policies from the next government, we need to reframe the narrative now.

Somehow we have reached a point where climate is an ideology. Instead of offering tangible benefits or solutions to the problems voters have today, climate campaigners either doom-monger (“no jobs on a dead planet”) or talk about securing a liveable future for our children.

Voters don’t care!

When you’re losing sleep about your job security, mounting debt and whether you can keep a roof over your family’s head, the last thing you want to hear is that the world is also on fire.

How can we expect voters to care about a nebulous long-term goal when they’re worried about how to feed their children this week?

If we want to fix climate and nature we have to make climate relevant to an average voter’s daily life and ambitions. 

Behaviourally speaking, scientific evidence shows that people are bad at accounting for future needs when there are more immediate concerns at play.

Polling data shows us that voters don’t prioritise future generations. 

Just look at the % who think better education is a primary political issue. It’s only 14%!

Right now voters just want to get through the next day, week and year. They want to see immediate improvements in their lives, or at least a plan to get them there.

Voters want hope: hope for their immediate future. Hope for a better life that’s a little bit easier.

The undeniable fact is: climate campaigners are stuck in the past. Pushing the need for change without selling solutions voters want or care about.

Both Labour and The Conservatives are rowing back on climate and nature commitments for one simple reason: voters don’t want to pay more and have more immediate concerns.

The reality of Voter priorities 2023:

When it comes to green issues voters say they want green policies, with the average green policy getting between 65-85% support from UK adults when asked by pollsters.

However, these numbers are idealised and siloed. They fail to account for level of engagement and level of support. 

When we ask voters what priorities they have at the next election, support for the environment plummets.

When voters are asked:

‘Which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing the country at this time? Please pick up to three’ 

the results look considerably different (data from the YouGov tracker):

  • 61% of respondents consider the economy to be a top priority – this means jobs, standard of living, wages and inflation
  • 47% of all UK adults think health is a top priority, primarily NHS, hospitals, doctors, nurses and waiting times
  • 34% name immigration and asylum as a top priority 
  • 27% say the environment is a top priority 
  • 21% say housing is a top priority

This gets more interesting when we look at the environment, health and the economy as top priorities by NRS social grades.

NRS A, B, C1 – the middle classes

  • The economy is a top priority for 64% of all UK adults within this group
  • Healthcare is is a top priority for 49% of all UK adults within this group
  • The environment is a top priority for 32% of all UK adults within this group

NRS C2, D, E – the working classes

  • The economy is a top priority for 57% of all UK adults within this group
  • Healthcare is is a top priority for 46% of all UK adults within this group
  • The environment is a top priority for 19% of all UK adults within this group

So when we look at the latest polling in the UK it’s clear that awareness and support for environmental spending and legislation is well and truly mainstream. 

However, it is also fair to say that this mainstream awareness and support is not successfully translating to voter priorities. 

When polled in isolation, the environment has some of the highest support of any issue. But when polled in relation to the most important issues facing the country, it drops to 27% of all UK adults. 

Changing our messaging

If climate was the only issue on the table, every climate policy ask would already be law.

But there is a significant attitude/behaviour gap between public support and ballot box priorities. 

More awareness won’t close that gap.

To drive real change, we must change how we talk about climate, nature and environmental policy. 

To achieve cut through with voters in such a way as to make the environment a top voting priority, campaigners need to understand the primacy of immediate concerns and voters’ naturally reactive approach to their priorities.

So how do we do this?

Campaigners need to be relating nature, the environment and climate to voters’ top priorities: The Economy and Healthcare. 

Using available information, not to lecture but to reframe, so that every climate policy is about jobs, every nature policy is about health and every social enterprise policy is about jobs and communities.

Obviously getting your campaigning communications right is more complex and less reductive than jobs and health. 

But climate policy can mean jobs, higher wages, energy security and a better standard of living, and pushing that to the forefront will make a big difference to the action voters take in 2024, which will set the agenda on climate action for the next decade and beyond.

If you are a campaigning organisation looking to influence the next election, or increase your cut-through, 181st Street is here to help.