Bill McGuire – A public information campaign on the climate crisis is urgently needed

Never has the need for a public information campaign been so great, not only to educate people about the climate emergency, but also to flag what they can do to mitigate its impact

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, and a co-director of the New Weather Institute. His current book is Waking the Giant: how a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.


Photo: DSC_7139 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

For many of us, the record-breaking heat and accompanying wildfires that plagued the UK and continental Europe and parts of the US last month were evidence of climate breakdown in the raw – a direct consequence of global warming supercharged by the 2.4 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide that have been vomited into the atmosphere by human activities over the past couple of centuries.

To others, ignorant of the facts or refusing to accept them, it was just another heatwave. In the UK, John Hayes, chair of a group of Tory MPs known – without any irony at all – as the Common Sense Group, called those taking precautions in the heat “snowflakes”. Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab suggested that we just enjoy the sunshine.

Such views aren’t confined to Tory politicians, but are also held by large numbers of the UK public, a fact that is unsurprising given the dearth of government-endorsed information about what is happening to the climate and what we should be doing about it.

In the past, people in the UK have been told to “clunk, click, every trip” to get them wearing seat belts, or to “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” during the covid-19 pandemic, but on the climate emergency – the greatest threat civilisation has ever faced – nothing. At a time when the world’s climate is falling apart, it is nonsensical for those charged with keeping the UK and its inhabitants safe and well to stay silent. Never has the need for a public information campaign been so great, not only to educate people about the true nature of the climate breakdown threat, but also to flag what they can do to mitigate its impact.

To do its job, such a campaign must provide information in digestible form and be hard-hitting enough to galvanise action and trigger behavioural change: posters on buses and the London Underground showing how temperatures are ramping up, graphic images of the aftermath of wildfires and floods, and mock-ups of lines of UK climate refugees trudging through London streets.

Campaigns should never be preachy or patronise, but it is acceptable to cajole, inspire, even shame – “what did you do in the climate war, daddy?” – to get the required response. They certainly don’t need to be dull or worthy. Who, of a certain age in the UK, can forget “save water, bath with a friend” – the playful slogan of the extreme drought of the long, hot, summer of 1976.

Launching a campaign that instils understanding of the climate crisis and provokes individual and collective action is a no-brainer. But there is a problem. Governments the world over remain in thrall to an economic system in which short-term profit is all. There is no point calling for people to fly less, while cutting passenger levies and expanding airports, or extolling the benefits of heat pumps, solar panels and better insulation, while subsidising fossil fuel firms.

To reach net zero as soon as possible, and to begin to adapt to the climate changes that are already “baked in” – ever more blistering summers, increasingly destructive wildfires and floods – we desperately need populations to be on board. This only makes sense, however, if governments do their bit too. No successful public information campaign has ever been built on the premise of “do as I say, not as I do”, so yes, let’s have the graphic TV images of what climate breakdown looks like, the radio shorts exhorting us to fly only if we have to, the billboards spurring us to eat less meat, and to walk and cycle more.

But at the same time, we need to see government crusades towards fewer airports, not more, cash shovelled in the direction of renewables, not fossil fuels, and the wholesale climate-proofing of homes. One endeavour without the others just won’t cut it.

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