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Public engagement on the climate emergency

Davy Jones highlights 10 key issues for councillors in tackling the climate emergency.

1 Public Engagement is Critical

Tackling the Climate Emergency in the UK cannot be successful if it is just top-down. Councils cannot do it on behalf of local people. Proof of the need to “take the public with you” at all times in an emergency can be seen from the Covid-19 crisis. It takes just one trip to a castle…..

Seventy one percent of the UK population feel that climate change is as significant a threat as COVID-19 in the long term. But are they really ready for major behaviour changes? That’s why seriously engaging the public is key. Without it, the risk is alienating the public, setting back the whole process.

2 Good Leadership & Governance

Engaging the public on the climate emergency must be a top priority. And it needs high-level commitment and leadership from councillors and officers as well as partners in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. It needs strong co-ordination across the authority and externally with key partners. Everyone should be encouraged to “do their bit”, but it cannot be left to specific teams or individuals within the Council.

3 Engagement is more than Information

Regular communication with local citizens about tackling the climate emergency is vital. But engagement is more than that. Councils don’t necessarily have all the answers. The public and stakeholders will have significant experience and ideas to bring to the discussion. They need opportunities to have genuine influence over priorities and decisions– sometimes allowing them to take those decisions directly.

4 Long-term Continuous Engagement

The climate emergency will last for 10-20 years. So public engagement will have to last that long too! This is very different from the normal one-off consultations or engagement that councils undertake. It is more akin to long-term community development to boost the capacity of the public and stakeholders to play an increasingly leading role in this process.

5 Engagement Strategy

Over 260 local authorities have declared a climate emergency. Far fewer have adopted a comprehensive action plan to implement their commitment. Even fewer have adopted any plan on how they intend to engage the public and stakeholders to achieve it. Such a plan ideally requires cross-party backing and agreement from local partners and stakeholders.

6 Stakeholder Mapping and Planning

Public engagement and consultations require effective mapping of all the stakeholders. While some events or initiatives will focus on specific stakeholders, overall it is the general public that will need to be the most consistently involved throughout the continuous engagement process on the climate emergency. This requires greater emphasis engaging the wider public (with special attention to equalities issues and reaching the seldom heard), and to build trust and confidence in the engagement process.

7 Young People

Across the globe, young people are leading the movement to tackle the climate emergency. Many are already “engaged” on this. But few local authorities have regular experience of engaging young people in decision-making. Young people need to be a key stakeholder group at the heart of the continuous engagement process.

8 Green Recovery

Councils will need to lead the process of economic recovery from Covid-19, especially given the financial crisis that many face. The climate emergency suggests the need for a green recovery. While many important changes can only be effective at international, national or regional level, councils have lobbying power and can mobilise public opinion and major stakeholders to influence those levels.

9 Various Engagement Techniques

Within a long-term continuous engagement, there will be no one single event, process or technique that achieves all that is required. Councils will need to familiarise themselves with and use a whole range of different techniques from citizens assemblies and focus groups through to participatory budgeting. Which techniques, in which order and with which priority and the available budget will differ from council to council. There are no “silver bullets” but sharing experiences with others and monitoring effectiveness can help.

10 “We need to keep saying what we want other people to start thinking”

The “Overton Window” frames the parameters within which policies appear to be credible and open to discussion. It has widened dramatically due to the Covid-19 crisis as people have adopted behaviours considered completely utopian and unimaginable just a few months ago. This creates a unique opportunity to frame communication with the public on rising to the challenge of the climate emergency.

Many people are distrustful of the establishment and feel powerless in the face of the climate emergency: “How can I save the world?” It’s important to stress things can be better not worse if we tackle the climate emergency: “We need a Better Normal”. And to tackle the fairness issue: “Together we can rise to the challenge of tackling the climate emergency”.

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