Climate change communications: what next for Europe?

Climate change is a scientific reality, but faces challenges in becoming a social and political one

Despite twenty years of awareness raising and a body of scientific evidence spanning over fifty, public and political engagement on climate change is relatively low.  A 2017 poll across France, Germany, UK and Norway found a moderate level of climate change concern with many not recognising the scientific consensus regarding the reality of climate change[1]. The recent US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement further suggests human-caused climate change is an accepted scientific reality, but continues to face challenges in becoming a social and political one.

Higher public engagement on climate change is critical to mobilise the policy and consumption changes necessary to limit a global temperature rise of 2°C by 2050. Given this, it is paramount we understand how climate change communications has evolved, learn from its mistakes and look to its future.

Ozone depletion provided an incorrect engagement model for climate change

Ozone depletion was an important global environmental issue in the 1980s. The 1987 Montreal Protocol rapidly regulated chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to be phased out of industry and succeeded in reducing the hole in the ozone layer. Once established, it led to binding international law, enforcing a market-based emission permit system, and became a policy solution that did not require ongoing public involvement[2].

When climate change came to public attention around the same time, it was incorrectly treated as a similar global emissions issue, requiring a similar strategy of market-based solutions such as emission caps, regulation and minimum public engagement. Yet, climate change is radically different from ozone depletion. Controlling CFCs involves regulating a relatively small sector of industry, while decarbonising the energy system involves almost every aspect of human activity[3].

Because the causes of climate change are more complex than past global environmental issues, it requires more robust public engagement.  Climate change communications has evolved to address this gap.

Emergence of social marketing and nudge theory

During the 1990s and 2000s, many climate change public engagement efforts attempted to change individual behaviour[4].

Social marketing – the application of marketing techniques to achieve behavioural changes that contribute to “societal good” – was applied to promote low-carbon behaviour. These campaigns focused on simple, convenient behaviours[5], such as switching off lights and taking showers over baths. Unfortunately, the results have been limited. These behavioural changes tend to make small reductions to carbon emissions, and the longevity of the changes is unclear[6]. There are doubts over the claims that social marketing creates a domino effect or “spill over” leading to other sustainable behaviours[7]. Furthermore, there is a risk of “rebound” where carbon savings created by an energy-saving behaviour are off-set by increased energy use elsewhere[8]. An example is treating yourself to a holiday abroad with the money saved from efficient electricity usage at home.

A more recent approach from behavioural economics is Nudge Theory or nudge, which intentionally avoids engaging with the fundamental reasons behind the desired behaviour change[9]. The nudge approach seeks to make small changes to the environment – or nudges - which facilitate behaviour change. A classic example is making driving license applicants organ donors by default. By making applicants tick a box to opt out of the programme, organ donation rates tend to be higher than in situations where the opposite is true.  Although the nudge approach can unconsciously “trick” people into making more sustainable behaviour changes, its “unthinking” approach may lead only to short-term changes with little chance of spill over. Critics suggest this is because nudge fails to instil why one should adopt more sustainable behaviours[10].

Incorporating values-based approaches

Given that tackling climate change requires rapid decarbonisation on almost all levels of society, communicators are adopting approaches which seek to form deep psychological engagement[11] by appealing to a person’s values, worldviews and moral convictions. These values-based approaches draw from the Swartz circumplex model of human values[12] – a map of 56 universal values documented across the world – as well as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They are based on the idea that different cultural, political and economic groups demonstrate different combinations of values, and motivation to act on climate change is more likely to be created if climate change engagement is aligned with these values.

The Value Mode model[13] by Pat Dade and Les Higgins suggests categorising audiences into three groups based on their values: settlers, prospectors and pioneers[14]. Settlers are motivated by resources and by fear of perceived threats. They tend to be older, socially conservative and security conscious. Prospectors are driven by the esteem of others. They are motivated by success and recognition and are usually younger and more optimistic. Pioneers are motivated by self-realisation and value collectivism and fairness. The Value Mode model was first developed in 1973 and was applied to marketing, advertising and political campaigning, but similar approaches are being taken in climate change engagement studies.

A Cardiff University study with UK citizens with centre-right political views found that climate change narratives on energy independence aligned well with conservative values of security and independence. The same study found that there was also a positive response to narratives about controlling decisions about ones future and self-direction[15]. A Climate Outreach study with Indian citizens found narratives around togetherness, diversity and self-reliance improved climate change engagement[16]. A values-based approach also emphasises the importance of “trusted messengers” – individuals who are highly reputable within a community or group to deliver climate change messages.

The values alignment approach seeks to align climate change to other social issues such as gender and generational justice. By emphasising links between issues, it seeks to reach audiences by talking around topics they already care about.  One example is highlighting the fact that in general women face more economic, social and political barriers than men, and that this disproportionately limits their ability to cope with the potential negative consequences of climate change. By framing climate change around other issues, it may be possible to develop deeper engagement with climate change. 

Research on values-based approaches to climate change communications is growing, and progress may lead to insights on furthering similarly complex sustainability issues such as implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.  But the urgency of climate change calls for research and implementation to be accelerated. To achieve a more robust climate change engagement strategy, policy makers and researchers must not abandon the learnings from social marketing and nudge, but incorporate them within the framework of values-based approaches.




[3] Talking climate. From research to practice in public engagement. Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke. pg 18





[9] Thaler, Richard H.,Sunstein, Cass R.Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, And Happiness. New Haven : Yale University Press, 2008. 

[10] Talking climate. From research to practice in public engagement. Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke. Pg 82

[11] Talking climate. From research to practice in public engagement. Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke. pg 82


[13] Marshall, G., Yashwant, S., Shaw, C. and Clarke, J. (2017). Communicating climate change in India: a Global Narratives project. Oxford: Climate Outreach.

[14] Rose, Chris (2011). What Makes People Tick?. Matador.


[16] Marshall, G., Yashwant, S., Shaw, C. and Clarke, J. (2017). Communicating climate change in India: a Global Narratives project. Oxford: Climate Outreach