Royal Society launches pilot scheme to engage with local communities on climate change and biodiversity loss

04 April 2024

A pilot scheme that will see research scientists work collaboratively with local communities to address climate change and biodiversity loss has been launched by the Royal Society.

The Climate and Biodiversity Loss Engagement programme, supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research and Innovation, will involve 18 science researchers working with communities on a variety of different projects. 

The initiative was conceived following the results of a 2023 literature review, commissioned by the Royal Society in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, NERC and the British Science Association, which revealed that 83% of UK citizens are concerned about climate change, with 45% being ‘very concerned’.

But while there is a willingness to take action, the review showed there were a number of barriers to engaging with climate change action, both in terms of the ‘say-do’ gap and more broadly.

Barriers include a lack of awareness of how to effectively mitigate climate change; a poor understanding of the science messaging around climate change; an ‘overwhelming’ amount of conflicting information causing people to ‘switch off’; and a lack of action by large polluters leading to individuals feeling they are already doing more than their fair share.

Recent studies have also revealed that most people are unaware of the actions that have the greatest impact on climate mitigation while over-estimating the impact of common activities such as recycling. 

The Royal Society engagement programme will train and fund scientists to work with communities to combine technical expertise and tools with local knowledge to take meaningful action against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Professor Carlos Frenk, chair of the Royal Society’s Public Engagement Committee, said: “The changing climate and associated biodiversity loss are the most important issues facing humanity today. They pose an existential threat to countless species, including our own. 

“Climate change and biodiversity loss isn't just about coral reefs, the melting of the ice caps or the deforestation of the Amazon. These are problems that affect everyone, everywhere in the planet, including our own local communities here in the UK. 

“Presenting the relevant scientific evidence in a clear and rigorous way is essential to convey the urgency of the matter and encourage everyone to think and act in environmentally sustainable ways.''

The programme will also draw on a recent nationally representative YouGov survey, commissioned by the Royal Society, which revealed a range of views and understanding of climate change according to people’s location and demographics. For example, Londoners were more likely to name air pollution (34%) as one of the most important environmental issues than other regions, the Scots listed plastic waste as one of the top issues (41%), and the Welsh named water quality in rivers and lakes (54%). 

Using these and other data from the survey, researchers will be guided towards which environmental issues hold the most relevance and interest to different communities. 

Proposals include working with a local allotment community to help them understand the impact of chemicals and plastic on horticulture; working with local communities to understand the importance of micro-organism diversity in soil; inspiring schoolchildren to become interested in bird migration and ocean health; working with farming communities in Africa to help them build a more resilient and sustainable future for agriculture while mitigating the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss; and convene a citizen’s assembly in the West Highlands to bring together scientists, policymakers and local communities around water pollutants.

Alison Robinson, Deputy Executive Chair at the NERC said: “This scheme offers researchers the opportunity to develop their communication skills in partnership with The Royal Society and in a way that captures hearts, motivates minds, inspires action and educates to protect life on Earth. Linking local nature to global phenomena is vital to help us all understand how we might use great science to take action at all levels.

“Up-skilling scientists to act as public communicators was shown to be hugely effective during the COVID-19 pandemic and enabled engagement with a broader-cross section of society. Out in the field they can engage with local communities on important projects relevant to them. This could include setting up a new community initiative with a local nature organisation, engaging local government in setting up a climate assembly, developing digital resources or becoming a trusted go-to voice in local newspaper or radio. The possibilities are endless.”