How do we shift social norms on climate change?

purpose logoSpent an enjoyable hour discussing strategy with exfamer Kate Norgrove, who now runs the Purpose Climate Lab (see here for the kind of thing they do). Kate wanted to discuss their theory of change (what else?). Purpose has identified what it sees as a gap: while lots of organizations are working on climate change in ways that are oppositional or focussing on laws and policies, Purpose wants to contribute by tackling long term social norms in order to shift what people believe and therefore how they act in ways that support the climate. Interesting.

Purpose Climate Lab (PCL)’s mission statement is ‘We believe that by presenting a positive vision of the future and by mobilizing people where they are – in cities, regions, homes, businesses and through culture – we will change beliefs, behavior, politics and policy to accelerate the adoption and build the ambition of just climate solutions.’ That certainly resonates with Alex Evans’ interesting work on the importance of building positive narratives. It also highlights for me a lack of research on what works in terms of deliberate efforts to change social norms – I’ve seen specific studies on equal marriage and violence against women, but can people recommend anything more systematic?

I got out my favourite 2×2 (see diagram) and asked Kate which quadrant she thought PCL is largely working in. context intervention 2x2She thought bottom right – for example, they’re doing lots of testing of messages with different constituencies like evangelical Christians in the US (they have really got the need to engage with faith groups, which is great). I wasn’t convinced – from what she told me, seems more like a good version of upper right – try something, with the aim of going to scale, but have decent feedback loops in place to see how you are doing and make necessary course corrections.

But what could they be doing in the other quadrants?

Bottom Right: really tackling this would mean coming up with as narrow a problem statement as possible, eg ‘how do we change the attitudes of 14-16 year old boys towards cars’ and then deliberately trying parallel experiments to see which one works. Getting lots of unusual suspects in the room (musicians, gamers, polling companies) might generate a wider and more interesting range of experiments. It could also mean taking a deliberate portfolio approach – seeing your different projects or campaigns as a whole, and seeking a spread of craziness: a mix of solid, traditional campaigns, and then some high risk/high return outliers that are more likely to fail, but if they work, could go large.

Top Left: Cue rant on the need to anticipate and respond to critical junctures. If you are trying to shift the way people feel about climate change and planetary boundaries, the best time to do so is when something awful happens – eg when Manhattan or Somerset are under water. We know this will happen some time (known unknowns) so we evangelical climate changedon’t need to wait – we can put the building blocks in place for a fast and ambitious response when the window of opportunity arises. That could include getting the research 80% written (add the last 20% dependent on the event itself), or setting up the high level network so that within a day of the flood, you have bishops, celebs and Nobel laureates all standing up to their waists in flood water calling on citizens to take action.

Bottom Left: Positive Deviance means that somewhere the system is usually already throwing up solutions (complete or partial) to any given problem. So which communities, sectors, companies are already shifting social norms on climate change and the planet? The first task should surely be to identify those, but activists typically forget to look, perhaps because they are so keen to jump in and start changing the world.

Framing: PCL is determined to present a ‘positive vision of the future’, for example by emphasizing social support for renewables, which is very appealing at first glance, but I wonder if it works (and when)? Oxfam has often struggled to get positive messages across in its fundraising and campaigns – the media aren’t interested; the urgency is lacking. Where have positive vision campaigns on climate or otherwise worked in the past? Perhaps time to consult Friends of the Earth’s work on the history of 19th and 20th Century campaigns in the UK?

Kate said she was happy for me to consult FP2P readers on this, so what advice can you add? If you’re too bashful to hold forth on the blog, please contact Kate via twitter on @katenorgrove (or ask me nicely and I’ll give you her email).

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7 Responses to “How do we shift social norms on climate change?”
  1. I worked with 10:10 ( on their theory of change for changing social norms and behaviour in relation to climate change through engagement in practical positive projects and amplifying positive stories. Kate should potentially have a chat with them based on what they have learned about has worked in the UK.

    Going beyond the 2×2 grid to assess the ToC, we actually identified 8 assumptions in the theory of change and sent them out to experts in behaviour change and climate communications to get their feedback on whether there was evidence to support these assumptions and which of them were least evidence based or just plain wrong. We made some adjustments based on the feedback to the ToC. The lasting value of the process has been to raise the level of critical reflection whilst actually doing the work because the assumptions have been identified and this enables the fast feedback, adaptation/iteration and a focus on positive deviance which the grid identifies.

    Another area to look at in terms of success in shifting social norms is the End FGM movement which has made significant progress in recent years. This film about Jaha Dukureh give a snapshot of how a law came to be passed in the Gambia and how the approach to influencing was one of engagement rather than confrontation. The role of young people has been crucial in this movement. (

    Charlotte Millar of NEON recently highlighted the work of Smart CSOs to me which I am finding useful for working with some of my clients – taking the ideas of systems thinking and trying to understand what role CSOs can play in a transition to a better future. (

  2. This is brilliant stuff, Kate and Duncan, thank you!

    Tearfund thought a lot about opening up political space by changing social norms on climate, and poverty and justice more generally, and we’ve based our campaigning over the last two years on our Restorative Economy report in which Alex Evans and Richard Gower set out why shifting norms matters so much and some ideas how to do it.

    We’ve learned a lot from many people, including Climate Outreach and all their research on communicating climate in ways that engage people with small c conservative values, and with faith communities. We often use pictures from their handy climatevisuals gallery too.

    I’m looking for better ways to combine hope with urgency than we have so far, if anyone knows studies of long term climate campaigns that have done that successfully, please share them.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Happy to exchange ideas with Kate. Not blowing my own trumpet but for sake of illuminating, I used the capturing hope story. Look for the good and ask for more good.Across the board I found them as I walked 450 kms from the sea shore town of Pondicherry to the blue Mountain, Ooty. South East to South west across many agro- climatic socio-political cultural diversity.From businesses, Professionals, teachers, Health providers,schools to Universities, researches to research stations ,children to Centinarians, gold Jewellers to Bankers for refugees and repartees. Outside the usual suspects.Indeed I tried not to meet NGOs except some rare and unique ones. The outcome has been fantastic. As I was learning about climate change and impact, I was also sharing about successful stories of Fairtrade business and farmers in India.As I’m writing this there is now three towns buzzing with energy to go on a very I ndian version of Fairtrade towns. Watch this space and follow me in, if you like.