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A behaviour change is needed to navigate growing climate concerns, how can communications and community engagement help?

Most of the conversations around climate change and sustainability issues still focus around the ‘what if’ and what may need to happen in the future to mitigate any changes to our environment as a result. However, there has already been some undeniably drastic changes to our eco system that are creating impact now.

Increased extreme weather events have put strains on local authorities as they manage threats around flooding and storms – and more recently very hot weather, drought and hosepipe bans. The attention on sustainable waste management has also magnified, and as plastic pollution continues to make headlines, they’ve put diligent recycling practices into place to protect our resources and reduce waste.

Local authorities still face a very real challenge from citizens and local businesses. It’s not enough to tell people that they must do this, or they have to do that. Rather, it’s about harnessing the power of the community to affect behaviour change over time.

The value of behaviour change

With these environmental considerations, there are several processes and actions local authorities have to put in place for the safety and wellbeing of their citizens and local businesses — such as recommendations to stay safe in extreme weather, changes to planning guidance for flooding and budget allocation to improve infrastructure for increased temperatures.

However, many people in local communities are sceptical of change, and advice can go unheard. For example, many don’t see the value in recycling as they don’t witness the impact in their rural community, perhaps they feel they don’t have the time to sift through their plastic and paper, or the system is confusing, so they don’t bother. Others are outraged at the suggestion that they can’t use a hosepipe even with legal restrictions and will find workarounds such as watering their gardens at night.

Encouraging community through communication

In order to create this behaviour change in an area, the community needs to be engaged, inspired and involved with the issue in hand, and much of this comes to creating the right message targeting it at the right person and getting them to discuss the problems and solutions with each other. People don’t like being told what to do, but if you can encourage people to talk to each other change is more likely to happen.

This is where it could be valuable to look at the theory behind behaviour change, and how an improved community engagement process can be created with a clear call to action.

It is well known among those who are trying to tackle the climate emergency that if people don’t believe there is a problem, don’t think they need to change what they eat, don’t want to change how they travel and so on, they will dig into their position and defend it with gusto. Bombarding them with facts only makes this worse. Psychologists call this type of behaviour confirmation bias — the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.

Even when people do believe there is a problem, they often don’t want to believe their daily activities are responsible for a global disaster. So people change their minds about the issue rather than changing their habits because it’s an easier way to cope with the problem.

So what can be done?

Local government needs to focus more on creating a positive and community focused dialogue about the actions we can take to protect our environment at a local level. There must be a level of understanding for those who are sceptical, highlighting that this is not only about reducing negative impact on the environment, but about creating a nicer place to live today and fostering a sense of pride in their community.

As environmental psychologist Robert Gifford puts it, “Research shows that pro-environment messages stick best when you tell people that they can be a hero by helping others”. People also suffer from climate anxiety, which can stifle individual action, so talking to their peers and neighbours about what they have done can bring comfort and spring them into action.

Leading by example is key here, which can be done by openly communicating people doing in their communities.

The potential of engagement

This is where it can get complicated — how does a local authority capture those ideas, create engaging content and then target it to the right people?

What’s needed to create the dialogue that can affect this behaviour change is a platform for effective engagement, with tools that can encourage communities to share ideas, stimulate peer to peer conversations and provide engaging content for discussion and deliberation. With the right platform, this can be backed up by data on engagement that helps you easily track and measure any changes and understand who is and who is not taking part.

The capability with delivering hyper-personalised and targeted communications means that you can tailor your messages to your audience. In an area close to the river, you can send updates on flood prevention, or in an area with lots of students you can create messages around taking care of your recycling and tips on how to easily keep on top of it, sharing videos about the wildlife that benefit from these actions. While for suburban areas, where there are lots of gardens, you can target residents with tips on keeping your garden protected in a drought, with clear messaging on what happens if we run out of water. You can review the data on which demographics are engaging with your communications and clicking through for further information.

With the right engagement tool, this can be taken further. You can create forums where local people can share personal stories and even crowd source ideas, fostering a sense of community while highlighting the local projects that people can get involved with, such as allotments and gardens, or zero waste schemes. You can help people to understand that everyone can benefit from taking action on the climate crisis

A change in behaviour can last a lifetime

We have the potential to create real change and a community that is mindful of how their individual actions can create a better world for us all. Adjustments may be small, but behaviour change at a micro level can set an example to our leaders at the top and to other communities and affect bigger change.

Creating behaviour change through community engagement and strategic communication doesn’t just benefit the environment, it can have a very real human angle too. For example, through the recent extreme heatwave in the UK, a message reminding people to check in on their vulnerable friends and relatives could save lives.

By using the right tools, local authorities can engage with their citizens in a more meaningful way that goes beyond a one-size-fits-all single message that may not connect with everybody.

To learn what tools you could use to meaningfully engage with your citizens, get in touch.