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The climate lawsuits against the Dutch State by Urgenda and against Shell by Milieudefensie are powerful examples of how non-profit organisations can force changes to climate policy. The visibility of these lawsuits in the public debate also influences the opinions of many citizens. It’s no longer the question who is responsible for the consequences of climate change: this is now a legally established fact. Communication scientist Anke Wonneberger is researching how non-profit organisations are highlighting the issue of sustainability with their campaigns, and what is possible in this area.

Hand is holding up a sign saying 'Climate justice now'
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Communication is an essential precondition for tackling the consequences of climate change and gaining broad support for this, says communication scientist Anke Wonneberger. In order to understand what direction we should take as society and what solutions will or will not work, we need to know which actors adopt which positions in the public debate. What are the arguments for which they seek and receive support?

‘Since large non-profit organisations such as environmental organisations are often catalysts for social changes and are growing ever stronger in their ability to communicate, they play a very interesting role in this area’, says Wonneberger. She is researching how non-profit organisations can make themselves more visible in issues relating to animal welfare and climate change. In particular she is observing campaigns by Wakker Dier, a Dutch animal welfare organisation, and climate-related lawsuits that come before Dutch courts. In this context the lawsuits opened by Urgenda against the Dutch State and by Milieudefensie against Shell are proving themselves a very powerful means of generating broad support.

The powerful effect of climate lawsuits

The climate lawsuits by Urgenda and Milieudefensie have also attracted much attention at the international level. ‘These are primarily lawsuits’, explains Wonneberger, ‘but you can also see them as publicity campaigns with a mobilising effect on a wider public. So how do these lawsuits come to play a role in the public debate?’ Media attention for the Urgenda lawsuit also led to more discussion in the media about climate policy, ultimately all the way to the Dutch Lower House. ‘Through this climate lawsuit Urgenda has been able to gain an excellent public profile. It has influenced public opinion about the responsibility of the state. Now it has been legally established who is responsible. It’s no longer a question, it’s a fact, and now attention can shift to the solutions.’

Anke Wonneberger
Copyright: GSC
We will be seeing increasing numbers of climate lawsuits, also against smaller companies Anke Wonneberger

Thanks to successful cases like these, the threshold for instituting a lawsuit has been lowered, and we’ll be seeing increasing numbers of climate lawsuits, believes Wonneberger. ‘A lot is happening at the international level, too: now we’re seeing comparable court cases in France and South America.’ She also expects that we’ll be seeing more smaller lawsuits, against smaller organisations.

Appreciating the differences between climate audience segments

These particular climate lawsuits have been able to reach a wider audience, but that’s not always the case when non-profit organisations aim to raise their profile on issues relating to animal welfare and sustainability. Wonneberger points to the importance of recognising different groups of citizens. ‘Non-profit organisations often just tell one kind of story. However, our research shows that there’s a lot of variation in how seriously Dutch people take climate change and what they think should be done. Some people are highly engaged and concerned, and they are very open to change. But there’s a large group of Dutch citizens who are highly sceptical and who don’t want to see any change at all.’

You need to tell a different story to people who are concerned than to people who aren’t thinking about the issue

According to Wonneberger, non-profit organisations can create broader support by considering and responding to differences like these: by telling different stories in which people can recognise themselves. ‘Organisations often focus strongly on their own supporters, and are sometimes afraid to adopt positions different to the ones they believe are held by their supporters. But this hinders the creation of broader support, especially regarding more far-reaching measures’, says Wonneberger. As one example she cites the striking reticence of large organisations in the discussion about eating fewer animal products.

Reach the people who connect different bubbles

Gaining more support by speaking to different climate audience segments, is also underlined by Wonneberger’s study on animal welfare campaigns on social media. ‘As already shown by a huge amount of other research, when people communicate on Twitter, for instance, it’s mostly within their own bubble’, explains Wonneberger. ‘Many of the non-profit organisations tend to confine themselves to bubbles that already support their position. But our research shows that there are individual citizens who act as a kind of bridge between various bubbles and hence provide access to other networks.’ Non-profit organisations can share their messages much more strongly on social media if they are able to reach these people, believes Wonneberger. ‘These are often opinion leaders who have the ability to transmit a certain standpoint to other groups.’

Want to read more?

A comparison between the Urgenda and Shell lawsuits will soon be appearing as an article. What’s the difference between a lawsuit against a state and against a large company? What arguments are being presented?

Dr. A. (Anke) Wonneberger

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Corporate Communication