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Research Findings

How people in the UK think (or don’t think) about climate justice...

We went looking for research on how the public thinks
about climate justice
, and this is what we found...

Almost nothing!

So 33 of us, from across the climate movement, commissioned our own research to work out what it meant for climate communications…

A note on process...

We began by clarifying ‘Our Story’ on climate justice.

We worked together to summarise our own position on climate justice—agreeing on ‘the story’ we wanted to communicate, without worrying (yet) about how we would do so.

We got it down to these 10 key principles:
01

Climate change is real and happening here and now

02

Exploitative systems drive and exacerbate the problem (colonialism, capitalism)

03

Climate change multiplies existing injustices. Those who have done least to cause it are suffering worst

04

Our sphere of concern is global

05

Responsibility lies with elites and systems, not individuals

06

We need solutions at every level

07

We need to take more direction from the most impacted communities (particularly in Global South)

08

We need to redistribute resources, decentralise power and reparate exploited communities

09

Change is possible

10

The vision is abundance, where there is more than enough to go around, and people & planet can thrive

More on Project Process
NEXT WE...

Researched Public Thinking

We supplemented our literature review with two phases of original research:

Literature review
A review of existing academic and 'grey' non-academic research.
Focus groups
3 focus groups in London, Aberystwyth and Aberdeen with NatCen.
Online poll
A YouGov survey with a large nationally representative sample.

Here's what we found...

FINDINGS #1

Common Ground

We found several areas of common ground, where the British public thought in ways that aligned with Our Story.
These areas of common ground give us hope—they show us where the public is already on board with climate justice, in ways that are sometimes surprising. We can use these results to save time in communication, because they show us what beliefs we can easily appeal to and build upon.
The status quo isn’t working.
People think that many global industries are damaging the environment. The damaging areas of the economy that people discussed most were energy, food & agriculture, textiles and transport. “We've realised that... the status quo is actually damaging the earth.”—Focus group participant.
Consumerism is part of the problem.
People talk critically about the drive for cheap consumer goods, and the impacts of this. While economic systems are not front of mind, consumerism is accessible to people in a way that capitalism and colonialism are not. And younger people are much more likely than older people to say that capitalism and colonialism have impacted on climate change.
Some people and places are hit harder.
When asked about who might be harder hit, people talk mostly about the elderly and the poor (but not about race, class, gender or ability). When asked which places, people talk about countries in the Global South, with the reasoning that they experience more direct impacts, have less resources to respond, and are ‘more ignorant’ about climate change.
[Young people think] climate multiples other inequalities.
In general, people in the UK actually don’t think this: they are more likely to say that climate change has no impact on existing inequalities. But young people (aged 18-25) do think that marginalised groups are most impacted by climate change, and choose this over the other interpretations of who it affects.
The least responsible are the most affected.
45% agreed that the people and communities around the world that are least responsible for climate change are suffering the worst impacts, (although they didn’t feel strongly about this). People who voted Labour were much more likely to agree (59%) than Conservative voters (35%).
We should protect vulnerable groups.
Vulnerability is a strong concern, even the dominant consideration, when people are deliberating about action on climate change. People talk about solidarity, protection from harm, and fairness in sharing costs—and the need to protect vulnerable groups. The trouble is, they have a hard time understanding who is vulnerable. (For instance, racialised groups are not generally included in this.)
Government & business are most responsible.
Although everyone can ‘do their bit’, people don’t really buy the idea that individuals are primarily responsible. Instead, people locate responsibility upwards, in government and business. “We really think that the government needs to force change.”—Focus group participant. There is a catch, though, because it’s also the case that a majority of people (58%) don’t trust the government to act on climate change.
Responsibility is related to blame.
When faced with different principles on how the burdens of climate mitigation should be shared out there is a common understanding that the ‘polluter pays’ principle comes first: The countries most responsible for emissions should bear costs accordingly. And, with this, there is a perception that the UK is historically a big emitter, so therefore responsible.
Solutions need to come from every level.
When asked who needs a bigger role in developing solutions, people say everyone, including frontline and indigenous communities. “I think that people who have more knowledge about it should be given higher priority to choosing how to deal with it, because they'd understand best what to do.”—Focus group participant. But in general people want scientists and experts to have a much bigger role than anyone else.
Resource redistribution could be necessary.
When asked whether the solution to climate change would require resource redistribution away from the wealthy, marginally more agreed (33%) than disagreed (24%), but many said they neither agreed nor disagreed. People who voted Remain were much more likely to advocate wealth redistribution than people who voted Leave.
We need to decentralise power.
When faced with a choice about the best political system for tackling climate change, people tended to choose a decentralised system that directly involves communities (38%). Less people backed a centralised democratic system (26%), and 5% chose an authoritarian regime. Labour voters were far more in favour of decentralisation than Conservative voters. But people in general were not confident: A third said ‘don’t know’.
There is hope in the long-term.
People are cautiously optimistic we’ll find solutions. There is a sense that some solutions are viable—like a large scale reduction in energy use, and the uptake of renewable technologies and greener transport. But this is tempered by doubt about whether such changes will be adopted at the scale or speed that is needed. “I think renewable energy and all that is all getting better these days. People are using more solar panels and stuff like that, so it is achievable but to what extent?”—Focus group participant.

It's not all good though...

FINDINGS #2

Fault Lines

And we found several key faultlines, or areas of difference.
These are what we could call ‘unhelpful’ beliefs, in the sense that they block people from our understanding of climate justice. In our communications, we must pick which of these beliefs are strategic to try and bridge, and which ones we should be careful not to reinforce.
We got here by accident.
People tend to think that climate change is an unintentional phenomenon, without an obvious historical villain. There is a sense of ‘Innocent Industrialisation’—the belief that the founders of the industrial revolution didn’t know about the harmful impact of carbon emissions so can’t be blamed for climate change: “With the past, we've used fossil fuels without really knowing the implications”—Focus group participant.​
Climate change is about emissions, not systems.
People see the problem of climate change mostly in terms of carbon emissions, and who is emitting that carbon. They do not easily see climate change as being a product of economic and political systems, such as capitalism and (even less so) colonialism. We have our work cut out to link climate change to these systems, and the extractive mindset that fuels them.
We’re not really responsible for the past.
Generally, people do not seem to have a sense of historical responsibility for the widespread (and intentional) social and environmental exploitation that (unintentionally) drove the climate crisis. They do not place the UK as having any particular historical responsibility, aside from industrialising early and emitting carbon. “The government nowadays shouldn't be responsible for the government going back 150 years ago.”—Focus group participant.
Industrialising countries are the problem.
People generally point the finger at China and India. People blame these emerging economies over wealthy economies in Europe and the US. First, because they are perceived to be the biggest emitters, and second, because people are distrustful about what ‘less developed’ nations do with their budgets: ​”Instead of changing climate, they're [India] building rockets and then blasting them into space.”—Focus group participant.
Climate change is separate from social justice issues.
People simply don’t connect environmental issues with social justice issues. So we have a lot of work to bring other issues such as racism, sexism, ableism or classism into the frame. Instead, there is a sense that climate change is a universal phenomenon that affects us all.
Climate change has no impact on existing oppressions.
4 in 10 think that climate change will have no impact on existing injustice and inequality. (Young people do however buck this trend, and understand that already marginalised people are more impacted.) And people generally have a hard time figuring out which social groups might be harder hit by climate change.
Reparations are a bad idea.
When we introduced the idea of paying climate reparations to countries in the Global South, people reacted either with confusion or cynicism. The concept was not well understood, but several arguments were raised against it: We give money already through aid;​ We can’t trust where money goes; Self-sufficiency is preferable to aid; ​We should choose where our money goes; We’ve got our own problems to deal with here; We’re not responsible for the past.​
Life isn’t fair. There can’t be a ‘just’ solution.
Faced with a prompt about whether climate solutions can be implemented in a way that is just and fair, people fell into two main ‘no’ camps. First, there just isn’t a fair solution. “L​ife's not fair, is it?”—Focus group participant.​ Second, ‘fairness’ is relative​. For instance, ‘China’s idea of fairness’ will be different to ours: “Just and fair is a different situation for every single country because of the different environments that they're in.”—Focus group participant.
Solutions will come from the Global North.
People argue that America, particularly, needs to lead on climate in order to convince other nations to follow suit: ​”What hope have we got of getting struggling, developing countries like India, China, and Russia, even, to come on board when America won't?”—Focus group participant. It’s implied that leadership should come from the Global North, although people do not seem to see the UK as having a big leadership role in this.
Technology can fix things.
People agree that there is a need for innovative, new technologies. Examples that came most readily to mind included technology to support greener transport (electric cars, better public transport infrastructure), renewable energy, food production. People also talked about the need for adaptation technologies, like reinforcing homes to survive storms and flooding.
Human nature is part of the problem.
People have a strong belief that human psychology is a major cause and driver of climate change, particularly greed and materialism. “Everything else on this planet has a balance, everything else fits into the system. Humans don't fit into the system, we are a cancer. That sounds really quite hard, but actually we're the only ones that don't fit into the ecosystem, it's because of greed. Everything is money-orientated”—Focus group participant.
There isn’t much hope in the short term.
Only 19% were hopeful we would find solutions in the next five years. Fatalism about the future was quite strong. People express views like: It’s already too late; What will be will be; The changes we need are just too big and unrealistic. “I think the whole system needs to change in some way but it's not going to change.”—Focus group participant.

Communication Objectives

Once we had a clearer understanding of where the British public stood on climate justice, we developed the following communications objectives.
We want our communications to help people understand that:
1

Colonialism & capitalism created & continue to drive the climate crisis.

2

Climate change is increasing oppression and injustice.

3

We can solve the problem and lead better lives by redistributing power...

4

... and centring impacted communities (especially in the Global South).

FINDINGS #3

What we tested & what we found

Using these insights we prepared 10 different frames to test. Here is a summary of how they moved people’s thinking, and what we’d recommend.

Narratives

Solidarity
What we tested
A narrative emphasising solidarity between the UK and the global south. Full text.
What we found
This was the strongest performing across all our messages. It moved people’s thinking on climate justice helpfully in these ways: top result for agreeing least responsible are the most affected; top result for agreeing those affected should play a bigger role in developing solutions; top result for having hope for solutions in the next 20 years.
Our recommendation
Use this narrative.
Responsibility
What we tested
A narrative emphasising UK’s historical responsibility for climate change. Full text.
What we found
This narrative had very little impact. It didn’t move thinking even on areas that were directly related (e.g. taking responsibility for the past).
Our recommendation
More testing is needed to talk about responsibility effectively.
Hope
What we tested
A narrative emphasising collective action and people power. Full text.
What we found
This narrative had mixed results, and didn’t move people strongly in any direction. It made people point the finger at the big global actors (governments and corporations), and it made people more likely to call for indigenous communities to have bigger role in developing solutions.

But it had a backfire effect, making people more likely to disagree with resource redistribution. And, ironically, it had no impact on whether people felt hope...
Our recommendation
More testing needed to appeal to hope effectively. (Seems better to show not tell!)
Emergency
What we tested
A narrative emphasising crisis and doom. Full text.
What we found
This had mixed and apparently conflicting results. It made people point the finger of blame at governments and corporations. And it was the top result for encouraging people to call for a bigger role of indigenous communities in the solutions to climate change.

But it had two significant backfire effects: it was also the top result across all messages for supporting top-down solutions (scientists and experts to have a bigger role); and it made people more likely to say climate change has no impact on existing injustices.
Our recommendation
Do not rely on this narrative.

Values

Self-direction
What we tested
Text emphasising the agency and voice of people affected. Full text.
What we found
This was the strongest performing value. It encouraged several helpful climate justice beliefs: made people more likely to say climate change impacts the most marginalised; made people more likely to blame wealthy governments; made people more supportive of a bigger role of governments of poorer countries in solutions.
Our recommendation
Use this value.
Universalism
What we tested
Text connecting local and global, widening sphere of concern. Full text.
What we found
This value had very little impact. It didn’t move thinking, even when asking people to reflect on who is most impacted by climate change, for example.
Our recommendation
More testing needed to draw on universalism values effectively.
Security
What we tested
Text emphasising the need for stability and national security, in the UK. Full text.
What we found
This value had a significant backfire effect. It made people more likely to disagree with resource distribution as a solution to climate change.
Our recommendation
Don’t use this value.

Metaphors

Rigged game
What we tested
A metaphor showing colonialism and capitalism as rigged games that benefit some at the expense of others. Full text.
What we found
This metaphor helped people think more clearly about the human causes and impacts of climate change. The language of rich elites stuck with people and triggered discussion about disproportionate impacts on the poor. References to colonialism and capitalism were often repeated. But some people didn’t like references to elites, perceiving it as a ‘blame game’, and we heard some fatalistic responses (“what are the alternative systems then?”).
Our recommendation
Use these metaphors as a way into talking about systems and discrepancies between rich and poor—but more testing needed to bring colonialism and capitalism into the frame effectively.
Blueprint
What we tested
A metaphor showing colonialism as a historical blueprint for exploitation and environmental damage, that continues through capitalism. Full text.
What we found
This metaphor helped people think more clearly about the human causes and impacts of climate change, and also about the role of economics and big business. People talked about elites and disproportionate impacts on the poor. Again, some didn’t like the sound of a ‘blame game’. And we heard some confusion over whether the metaphor implied a top down solution (‘we need to change the minds of the architects’) or bottom up (‘people should design the blueprint’).
Our recommendation
Use these metaphors as a way into talking about systems and discrepancies between rich and poor—but more testing needed to bring colonialism and capitalism into the frame effectively.
Shared meal
What we tested
A metaphor showing colonialism and capitalism as being like ordering different meals, where some people have eaten very well, and others haven’t. Full text.
What we found
This metaphor helped people think more clearly about the human causes and impacts of climate change. The meal metaphor was sticky. People talked about elites and disproportionate impacts on the poor. But some took it to imply that individuals should take more responsibility for climate change.
Our recommendation
Use these metaphors as a way into talking about systems and discrepancies between rich and poor—but more testing needed to bring colonialism and capitalism into the frame effectively.

Research Report

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Framing Climate Justice

A 12-month project bringing together organisers from across the climate movement to tell the stories that matter, and strengthen our movement in the fight for justice.

Hosted by PIRC, 350.org & NEON.

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