Society-Wide Conversations on Net Zero: IPPO’s Recommendations for Government

Society-Wide Conversations on Net Zero: IPPO’s Recommendations for Government

Use storytelling; be honest about systemic change; invest in communicating; and avoid binaries: these are all key recommendations for organising successful society-wide conversations for the transition to Net Zero from research by the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO).

Jeremy Williams

The International Public Policy Observatory works to improve social outcomes by providing governments with the evidence, knowledge, and know-how they need to confront big challenges.  As a result of conversations with officials from across Whitehall, the devolved administrations, and local government, IPPO was asked to provide advice on how to organise society-wide conversations on routes and choices for Net Zero.  This note sets out our conclusions.

It builds on our written evidence products including an introduction to the topic, a global scan of best examples and practice by our partners at INGSA, and intelligence from Northern Ireland.  We also convened a roundtable with experts on running contentious conversations – both on Net Zero and other topics like The Voice in Australia or abortion legalisation in South America.  Informed by their contributions, here are four key recommendations for policymakers seeking to run one for Net Zero.

1.  Use Storytelling to Make Things Tangible

Much of the current discussion around Net Zero takes place on terrain disconnected from the lives and concerns of most citizens.  For example, as Stephen Sheal has noted, many people would struggle to succinctly explain what Net Zero entails to their families or to those from outside government or policy communities.

Current conversations often lack the kind of narrative-based storytelling which is a prerequisite for society-wide consensus and those conducting them should find the right language and framings with which to engage people.  Most people do not see or experience the world in technocratic terms – as being about “evidence” or “what works”.  In fact, when confronted with falling living standards and a decaying social fabric, many people see a Professional Managerial Class who talk this way – including policymakers, parts of the media, and academia – as part of the problem rather than the solution.

Holding a successful society-wide conversation involves understanding that Net Zero involves not just choices and policies for governments or what public life should look like, but also about people’s internal worlds and private lives too.  These conversations should go beyond simplifying technical language to instead engage at an emotional level, telling a compelling story linking day-to-day life with the bigger picture.

2.  Be Honest about Systemic Change – But Focus on Hope and Agency

A society-wide conversation should be about gaining legitimacy for the fundamental changes in culture, society, and the environment which Net Zero will entail.  It also needs to provoke an emotional shift in the way we understand the world, and the way we think about the changes which are coming.

However, this should not be a negative conversation.  On the contrary, people need to feel agency about the future and a form of what Jane Davidson calls “evidence-based hope”.  Initiatives like The Strategy Room – in which local authorities engage individuals in formulating a Net Zero future – are also helpful in fostering a sense of ownership and control.

Additionally, although the climate crisis is serious, bombarding society with doomsday scenarios to provoke buy-in will not work –  particularly when 98% of environmental stories are negative.  In a context where individuals are facing multiple pressures, relentlessly focusing on what people will be asked to give up is counter-productive when trying to build a consensus for action.

Conversations therefore need to be grounded both in social agency and a positive vision.  They should also be conducted with honesty, humility, and an admission that those conducting it don’t know all the answers, and where open questions are not regarded as a sign of weakness.

3. Invest in Communicating – and Genuinely Listen

One common mistake across other society-wide conversations has been confusing an adaptive challenge – something that requires engagement with the values and beliefs of those affected – with a technical one involving simply implementing an expert-led solution.  Running a successful society-wide conversation depends on not repeating this mistake – and engaging with people accordingly.

Part of this process should therefore include sufficient investment in communication.  Democracy has an overhead and its success requires both financial investments to make it work, as well as emotional investments in substantive and meaningful communication.  For example, public debate around Wales’s 20 mph zone was arguably compromised by the relatively meagre amount spent on communication – less than 1% of the overall budget.

Meaningful communication also involves taking the time and effort to listen to people who disagree with you.  A successful conversation will genuinely try to understand their position of opponents of proposed measures, in order to better help move towards a common ground.

4. Avoid Binaries to Stop Things Becoming Totemic

Society-wide conversations should aim for a convergence of views around a broad consensus rather than a polarisation around opposing principles.  For example, one key lesson of the Australian experience with The Voice was how the complexities and nuances of the issue of indigenous rights and representation became reduced to a polarised, binary choice via a referendum.

The experience showed the dangers of an issue becoming totemic, rather than a complex problem whose solution can be collaboratively worked towards.  To use another example, research on the 15-minute city shows that while people are generally in favour of its component parts, they turn against it as a concept when presented as a singular entity.  Avoiding things becoming things totemic through explaining what they will entail can help avoid misconceptions when trying to build consensus around proposals for action.

Next Steps

The International Public Policy Observatory is continuing to work in this area, including collaborating with governments and local authorities to design conversations on the transition to Net Zero.  Are you a politician or policymaker who wants to work with us in this area?  Get in touch with IPPO here.

IPPO Products

Video of the public roundtable

Geoff Mulgan – How to hold a difficult conversation with a whole society

Imogene Woodmass & Tatjana Buklijas – How society-wide conversations help us tackle complex problems such as Net Zero

Amanda Slevin – Beyond academic silos: collaboration for climate action

Resources from the Roundtable

Presentation slides from Jane Davidson and Paola Bergallo

Rachel Briscoe – The Strategy Room 3/3: 5 things we learned

Laszlo Horvath & Deborah Mabbett – Can scientific expertise sway public opinion on clean air zones?

Defra’s Science Advisory Council – A review of public engagement, covering concepts, practices and experience of public engagement

BBC Archive, 1983 – Seat belts become compulsory

Fast Familiar – The Strategy Room

Kris De Meyer – Transforming the stories we tell about climate change: from ‘issue’ to ‘action’

Climate Outreach – Britain Talks Climate: a toolkit for engaging the British public on climate change

Kris De Meyer – The genie of polarisation – how can we get it back in the bottle?

Wikipedia –  Clare W. Graves