As the UK prepares to host COP26, new research and events show how soft power can help foster dialogue and agreement on climate change.

In today’s world, few countries can act alone to solve major challenges. As the pandemic has shown, many challenges countries face cross borders and can only be dealt with through multilateral action.

International cooperation is complex and often difficult – it requires uniting a whole range of actors with different values and interests around a common plan of action.

In the past, countries would depend much more upon their military and economic strength to achieve their goals in the international arena. Yet, in the more multi-polar, networked international order of the early 21st century, soft power is as important as hard power. As international relations scholar Joseph S Nye recently argued: 

‘In this new world, networks and connectedness become an important source of power and security. In a world of growing complexity, the most connected states are the most powerful.’

Soft power is an invaluable asset for the UK as it sets a new, more international course for its foreign policy and seeks to reinforce its reputation as a force for good on the world stage.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted in the Integrated Review of foreign policy earlier this year that the UK has valuable assets for global influence, including its international development capabilities, its diplomatic network and the British Council.

A report from the international affairs think tank Chatham House also argued that the UK’s soft power – especially thoseat 'inherent in its language, universities, media and civil society' - could increase its global influence and ability to broker solutions to global challenges. 

In a year when it is taking on a central role in multilateral solutions through its hosting of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), chairing the G7 and co-hosting the Global Education Summit, the UK will be able to harness its international reputation and networks to facilitate international agreements.

Putting young people at the heart of global climate action

The UK Government aims for COP26 to be a whole of society summit which reflects the priorities and needs of groups and societies across the world. Cultural relations plays a vital role in creating and supporting the networks and relationships that enable successful international co-operation and the inclusion of multiple groups and perspectives.

By engaging people through the arts, culture, education, language and other attractive  cultural assets, a cultural relations approach builds familiarity and trust between peoples, creating platforms to develop international connections and collaborations.

This is true not only for tackling climate change, but also for other major global issues, from supporting girls’ education to promoting open societies. 

As a current example, the British Council is reaching more than 200 million people from the UK and the rest of the world through programmes across the arts and culture, education and the English language.

The Climate Connection’ focuses on connecting young people, policymakers, artists, scientists, educators, businesses and community leaders to discuss and collaborate on solutions to climate change. 

In his opening remarks during the British Council’s global launch for The Climate Connection, COP26 President Designate, the Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, spoke about the need for young people and civil society to advocate for change. This emphasis on young people is critical.

Young people need to be at the heart of programmes  to protect the environment because they are the ones who can achieve long-lasting positive action, and because they are the generation that will be most affected by it. 

Cultural relations: Creating the enabling environment for co-operation

Cultural relations is a particularly powerful way of engaging with young people across sectors and across the world, whether through scholarships, language training or cultural experiences.

The impact of engagement with young people can have a long-lasting effect, and leave strong foundations of mutual trust, respect and understanding which can enable effective co-operation. The power of cultural relations to create the enabling conditions for international cooperation has been highlighted in new research carried out by the British Council in partnership with LSE Consulting.

The Big Conversation aims to capture the knowledge, expertise and impact of cultural relations approaches to building trust-based relationships and fostering international dialogue and co-operation on shared global challenges. 

The first stage of the project, launched in April 2021, explored international co-operation in cultural relations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a new piece of research launched in June 2021, The Big Conversation looks at values and attitudes towards international co-operation through the lens of a new global challenge – climate change.

Values are especially relevant to  consider in the context of co-operation on climate change because they shape people’s attitudes and choices as well as social norms and public opinion.

The research involved a literature review on the role of values and trust in international environmental co-operation, surveys of the national populations in China, India, Japan and Mexico highlighting values, attitudes and priorities towards international co-operation on climate change.

It also involved multi-national focus groups of cultural relations experts from Brazil, China, Japan, India, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela, exploring how to create the conditions for co-operation on climate change and the particular role of the international culture and education sectors in building trust and shared purpose. 

The research produced some important findings on how cultural relations can strengthen international dialogue and co-operation on the environment. In particular, it identified a number of enabling conditions for effective global dialogue and co-operation on climate change.

These are gaining a deeper understanding of the different stakeholders’ perspectives and priorities; building diverse global networks for collaboration; informing and engaging communities on climate change in ways which speak to them; and using values-led approaches to international engagement.

Cultural relations: Creating the enabling environment for co-operation

All four of these enabling conditions are central to the work of international cultural relations. Building connections through arts and culture, education and the English language remains critical for supporting international cooperation and action on global issues, from tackling climate change to supporting girls’ education.

Countries seeking to improve coordination and co-operation on climate change and other complex international issues in today’s multi -polar, hyper-connected world, should promote cultural relations programmes that create the enabling environment necessary for effective action between people from different countries.

The networks and relationships that these programmes create will be an asset for the UK and stakeholders across the world working to prioritise international action on the environment.

1.  Enable deeper understanding of different perspectives and priorities

China, India, Japan and Mexico are four major world economies and important players in the global climate change debate.

The survey showed there is particularly strong support for environmental measures in China, India and Mexico even when substantial economic sacrifices are involved.

A strong majority of respondents favoured making sacrifices to protect the environment and support sustainability (ranging between 62 per cent and 72 per cent for the different measures proposed in China; between 53 per cent and 74 per cent in Mexico; and between 64 per cent and 77 per cent in India across the seven types of environmental measure proposed in the survey). They are also strongly supportive of international initiatives to address climate change. 

Japan’s population, by contrast, is consistent in prioritising its economic position over environmental measures. A majority (ranging between 51 per cent and 71 per cent across the seven measures proposed) said that they were not willing to accept sacrifices for the sake of the environment. 

People in Mexico and India strongly favoured international and science-led approaches over ones which prioritise national interest and majority opinion by 75 per cent to 20 per cent and 66 per cent to 29 per cent in favour in each country respectively. Opinion was more evenly split in China and Japan.

Table: Support for climate change measures even with significant tax increases by age group (% in favour)

Table: Support for climate change measures even with significant tax increases by age group (% in favour)
Table: Support for climate change measures even with significant tax increases by age group (% in favour) ©

British Council

In India, Japan and Mexico people with greater experience of international travel are consistently more in favour of prioritising environmental action over their economic interests. In Mexico and India, the same group also prioritise international co-operation over their national interests.

China is a notable exception where experience of international travel does not make any noticeable difference to readiness to prioritise the environment.

2.  Build diverse global networks for collaboration

Secondly, the research showed that cultural relations programmes provide attractive and engaging platforms on which international collaborations on environmental issues can be built.

They connect actors from all levels of society as well as developing strong trust-based relationships through sustained engagement, enabling the exchange of information and ideas which can help solve some of the thorniest environmental questions. 

3.  Inform and engage communities in ways which speak to them

Education and communication are key channels for mobilising wider society. The focus groups saw cultural relations institutions as well placed to contribute to this effort, particularly by educating young people about the environment. Effective communication was seen as particularly important for engaging communities in the issue.

This required developing different mediums that would appeal to different audiences: the arts and culture were seen as able to connect with communities in more powerful ways and also provide a different perspective on an issue.

4.  Develop values-led approaches to international engagement 

A key finding was the importance of certain values in fostering meaningful dialogue and co-operation. Valuing difference – in particular local culture and contexts – while working together towards a common goal was seen as critical to effective international co-operation, not just in climate change but across all issues.

Approaches identified as the best way to foster international co-operation emphasised values such as mutuality and inclusion, collaboration and context-sensitivity. These values are integral to the practice of cultural relations, as previous research from The Big Conversation has shown.

The UK’s cultural relations’ advantage

Together, The Big Conversation research and The Climate Connection programme highlights the unique role that cultural relations organisations have to play in creating the diverse networks and trust-based relationships essential for global action on climate change.

For the UK, cultural relations is a particular asset in a critical year for its efforts to support global agreement on tackling climate change.

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst and Advisor, Security and Stability, British Council and Sarah Giles, Policy and External Relations Manager, British Council