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Commentary April 23rd, 2021
Delivery • Energy • Innovation
Chandrima Padmanabhan Senior Associate, Europe

Engaging the Public on Climate Change: What We’ve Learned

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Together w/ @CGF_UK, we've been exploring what public engagement around #climatechange should be. Read our literature review & case studies from around the world

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.@chandrima_lp reflects on what we've learned from our work w/ @CGF_UK on engaging the public on #climatechange

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"To effectively engage the public on climate change, we need public engagement methods that embrace the complexity & value-laden nature of climate-related decision-making." @CPI_foundation @CGF_UK

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This article is part of a series. Read the funding perspective on Public Engagement on Climate Change from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation here.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement raised global ambition with a target to limit warming since the pre-industrial period to “well below” 2C and to make efforts to stay below 1.5C. This was reinforced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its special report on 1.5C published in October 2018. It stated that global CO2 emissions should reach net-zero by 2050, if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts to lives, livelihoods and the planet in a warmer world.

In response, a growing number of countries around the world have adopted legally binding targets to achieve net-zero emissions at timescales compatible with limiting warming to 1.5C. Meeting these targets involve deep-seated transitions in economies, institutions, politics, governance processes, and people’s behaviour. Given that these transitions directly impact people’s lives and involve significant trade-offs that touch on public values, many are deeply contested. Decisions around this, unless based on an understanding of public attitudes towards risk, and the priorities and socio-economic capacities of different sections of society, are unlikely to be successful. 

Public engagement is a critical component in building a collective public mandate for climate policy. It brings with it the opportunity to create a better, fairer and more inclusive society in which individuals and communities are actively involved in shaping the policies and decisions that affect them. While the importance of public engagement around climate policy is relatively well acknowledged, it is less clear how public engagement processes should be structured and designed to ensure the transition to a net-zero world is socially just, sustainable, and impactful.

Public engagement is a critical component in building a collective public mandate for climate policy.

To explore how public engagement on climate change could be better understood and improved, we embarked on a journey to unpack this. Through our report on ‘Public Engagement for Net- Zero: A Literature Review’, we developed a conceptual framework to understand what effective public engagement around climate change could look like. And through our companion report ‘Public Engagement on Climate Change: A Case Study Compendium’, we went on to unpack the tenets of that framework in practice, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to public engagement across a diverse range of environmental issues from marine conservation to domestic energy efficiency from distinctly different regions of the world. The exploratory nature of our work was made possible with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Our work at CPI has been guided by an emergent vision for what public engagement around climate change should be: one that enables adaptability and learning, designs for justice and inclusion from the outset, and embraces complexity.

Enabling Adaptability and Learning

Climate change inevitably involves engaging with uncertainty, as future projections of the timing, pace and severity of climate change impacts, and the options for managing them are variable and constantly shifting. Additionally, as the frequency and severity of natural hazards grow and the planet warms, the vulnerability and exposure of communities, livelihoods, and places, to the impacts of climate change is exacerbated in non-linear and unpredictable ways. 

As these shifts compound, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need a more agile, iterative and learning approach to tackling climate change, in the knowledge that decisions taken today may well need to be adjusted tomorrow. Adaptive systems are most effective when they enable and trust the actors closer to the ground to experiment, learn, build relationships with local stakeholders, and prioritise the needs of communities and places. 

Given this understanding, standalone public engagement initiatives offer only limited impact, and we need more sustained and emergent ways of engaging the public on climate change that allow us to learn and adapt as the context and societal needs and priorities evolve. 

Our case studies on a community managed marine area in Kuruwitu, Kenya and a door-to-door home energy retrofit campaign in Michigan, USA are good examples of how adaptability and learning can be embedded in a public engagement process in different contexts.

Designing for Justice and Inclusion

Climate Change is a fundamentally human issue. The conditions of climate change can have far-reaching impacts on communities’ air quality, access to housing, jobs, food, health, and a secure quality of life, often disproportionately and systemically affecting vulnerable and historically marginalised groups. The same groups are also unduly affected by the unintended consequences of climate policy interventions (such as wind farm construction, shale gas drilling, coastal erosion schemes, increase in household energy tariffs), while being excluded from the economic benefits of carbon-intensive resource extraction. Therefore, foregrounding justice and inclusion considerations, while confronting racial and social injustice, should be fundamental to public engagement around climate change, as it is critical to delivering meaningful impact.

Climate justice necessitates an understanding and weighing up of public priorities that places justice and inclusion at the center of public engagement and decision-making, protects the most vulnerable, and equitably shares the burdens and benefits of our responses to climate change. This requires foregrounding what it means for public engagement cohorts to be constituted equitably and for participants to have the agency and space to discuss their lived realities, capacities and priorities. It also requires a consideration of structural conditions such as the formal and informal power relations which shape people’s ability to participate in, and benefit fairly from, decision-making processes, policy and interventions.

Foregrounding justice and inclusion considerations, while confronting racial and social injustice, should be fundamental to public engagement around climate change, as it is critical to delivering meaningful impact.

Read our case study on sustainable waste management led by marginalised waste picker communities in Pune, India which provide interesting lessons on designing for justice and inclusion while also addressing broader environmental imperatives and the need for quality public service provision. 

Embracing Complexity

Climate Change is a complex challenge, requiring interlinked and coordinated systems innovation across political, economic, technological and social systems, and across value chains. This spans various levers of change from policy and regulation frameworks; financing models; public identities, attitudes and behaviour; socio-economic and cultural capacities; citizen participation models; and the intersection with other institutional models.

In order to effectively engage the public on climate change, we need public engagement methods that embrace the complexity and value-laden nature of climate-related decision-making. This involves driving forward nuanced discussions around how decisions can compound benefits and trade-offs across the value chain, and deliberation around what that means for public priorities and values. Tight framings of the climate challenge by governments or other organisations to be sector-specific, expertise-focussed, or bound within the remit of their area of influence can be quite limited and offer a skewed perspective of choices and potential decisions. Such framings also have the propensity to set the language, content and tone for what is and isn’t discussed and which issue areas are prioritised.

Allowing for sufficient flexibility and iteration in the design of public engagement, to flex and accommodate new ideas and feedback from the public, and broader, longer-term engagement with actors across the value chain, creates sustained cross-directional learning on complex value-laden issues such as climate change.

In order to effectively engage the public on climate change, we need public engagement methods that embrace the complexity and value-laden nature of climate-related decision-making.

Read our case study on a community-owned electricity cooperative in Schönau, Germany, which offers a fascinating perspective of grassroots democratic participation in energy production achieved through sustained, place-based engagement with the community around the environment.

In our next phase of work on public engagement on climate change at CPI, we are starting to explore how we can strengthen public engagement practice in the UK to enable adaptability and learning, design for justice and inclusion from the outset, and embrace complexity. If you share in this commitment we would love to hear from you.

Engaging the Public on Climate Change

Our Case Study Compendium provides practitioners with a framework to unpack different approaches, outlining how public engagement can better embrace the complexity of climate issues.

Read the report

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Chandrima Padmanabhan Senior Associate, Europe
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