As the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP28 – prepares to convene in the United Arab Emirates, we review how British Council research and insight is contributing to our support for climate action. 

It is two years since Glasgow hosted COP26 and the urgency of the climate crisis remains acute. In the run up to that summit, the British Council launched The Climate Connection, an ambitious programme to meet the challenges of climate change by doing what we do best – making international connections and building trust and understanding through arts and culture, education and the English language. 

Research has been at the heart of much of this work, as a generator of the evidence needed to inform the programme, but also as an embedded form of positive climate action. In March 2022 our Global Knowledge Exchange provided an opportunity to take stock of this emerging research portfolio, to share insights and amplify emerging messages about ‘what we know’ and, crucially, how this knowledge can support our colleagues, partners and stakeholders to address the climate emergency. Since then, our body of climate research has continued to grow, with new reports on climate education in schools, on cultural heritage and on sustainability in the arts (among other topics) being launched and published over the course of COP28. 

What does this work tell us? Here we pick out some themes that run through our research. This is an attempt to offer an overarching summary – or at least provide a flavour – of what we see as our own particular ‘cultural relations’ contribution to the knowledge base on which the ‘actionism’ being urged at COP28 can draw. 

A dialogue between research and practice

Our research informs our cultural relations programmes and initiatives. For example, our new Climate Skills programme has been able to draw on the data and insight on the needs, priorities and aspirations of young people around the world that has been built up through our Next Generation research since 2016. Our strategic literature review into the impacts of climate change on tangible and intangible cultural heritage provides crucial analysis that will support the evolution of our heritage protection and climate action work through the Cultural Protection Fund over the years ahead. The evidence and on-the-ground experience that these and other programmes will generate will in turn feed back into our organisational research agenda.

We see ourselves as both a ‘knowing’ and a ‘doing’ organisation, enablers of a continuous dialogue between research and practice – a natural home for ‘action research’.

Supporting and connecting the sectors

That said, this knowledge and experience does not just serve our own needs. It is intended to provide an open, accessible source of evidence and insight for our partners and stakeholders in the cultural and educational sectors. New research on schools-based climate and sustainability education being launched at COP28 will help our partners support teachers with high quality professional development and promote communities of practice that foster collaboration and engage with a broad range of community groups and partners. The research includes ‘deep dive’ case studies on India, Zambia and Iraq that are intended to share and amplify existing policy and practice within the educational systems of those countries. In the arts, our new review and mapping of trends and best practice in climate action and sustainability in the sector includes suggestions of best practice and links to resources for cultural organisations and actors across the world. A key output of the project is a comprehensive mapping database, accessible as an online tool with over 350 entries.

As an organisation that works across these sectors, we are particularly well placed to analyse and highlight the intersections between culture and education when it comes to climate action. This is one of the distinctive ‘cultural relations calling cards’ to emerge from our research portfolio.

In this vein, our research highlights and explores the climate education and training needs of the cultural sector. A new report  commissioned by the British Council from University of the Arts London highlights opportunities to extend the value of arts education into value for society, including in employment, and for the arts sector to support systems change in higher and further education by connecting initiatives. Enhanced collaboration and knowledge exchange between the arts and education sectors, the report argues, will help equip graduates with the skills required to respond to the climate crisis in the context of shifting roles and capability needs within the cultural and creative industries.

Similarly, our climate education research is sensitive to the culturally nuanced, complex and potentially contentious nature of climate change and the need for climate education to respond to local context and culture. But the research also underscores the potential for positive change that can be realised by meeting this need. Situating climate education within the local cultural context can bring to the fore the power of that culture as an educational force. A forthcoming report for the British Council from the UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability highlights the benefits of using sustainability educational practice to nurture a valuing of the environment, culture and heritage, and the development of a sense of place and belonging (Global Priorities for Enhancing School-based Climate Change and Sustainability Education, 2023). Other British Council research shines a light on the educational value of tacit community-held knowledge and practice, for example the role of craft cultures in promoting eco-friendly fashion production and more sustainable consumerism.

Voice and empowerment

Cutting across our climate action research in education and culture is a commitment to giving voice to those on whom long-term climate sustainability relies – young people around the world and local communities in places most effected by climate change. 

Participatory research approaches – perhaps most systematically employed within our Next Generation programme – make the research process itself a form of cultural relations; an exercise in connecting stakeholders across countries, cultures and generations. In the case of Next Generation, the research process as well as the outputs help to ensure young people’s voices are heard, and their interests properly represented, in decisions that will have lasting implications for their lives, including around climate resilience and sustainability.

We know how vital this is. In 2021 our Global Youth Letter research revealed that 75 per cent of young people around the world believe they have the skills to deal with climate change in their communities. Yet 69 per cent have never participated in climate action initiatives, in part due to barriers to meaningful opportunities to get involved. Whether it is in the context of cultural or educational programmes, our focus is working with young people across the world, supporting them to gain the skills, experience and connections they need to make positive change at local, national and international levels. 

Understanding these needs and the barriers to meaningful engagement are core features of our research agenda (see Next Generation: What we know, 2022). This is a broader area of work, not focused specifically on climate change, but has evidenced and reinforced the critical significance of climate change to the lives of young people around the world. The most recent edition (2023) of our trends survey Global perceptions: how 18–34-year-olds see the UK and the world reveals climate change to be the most important issue to the majority of the 19,601 young people who were surveyed. Sustainability is routinely cited in this survey as one of the most critical values that countries should support and encourage and in 2023 was considered the second most important value after equality. 

People-centred climate action

Alongside a focus on this core global youth demographic, our research reinforces the need to give voice to those communities, across generations, most impacted by climate change. This includes indigenous communities, guardians of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. These communities have rarely been part of media or official discourses on climate action, yet their tacit knowledge, understanding, and resilience can inspire and inform global change. Indeed, global climate action ‘solutions’ will fail to deliver meaningful change if they don’t engage equitably with, and learn from, this knowledge.

Research certainly has a role to play here in providing the evidence, and unearthing the stories, to inspire people-centred climate action. Our strategic literature and evidence review of the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage reveals growing interest in cultural resilience, oral traditions and intangible cultural heritage. Recent research trends have foregrounded intersectional approaches and theories of gender, domination or decolonialisation, with studies looking increasingly towards indigenous and traditional knowledge. Our evidence suggests that community perspectives are also increasingly valued within cultural practice to strengthen resilience and address climate change (Strategic literature review: Climate change impacts on cultural heritage, 2023).

The case study on India for the schools-based sustainability education research mentioned above points to education plans in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, focussed on using climate change education in teaching about conservation, indigenous and sustainable practices, and low-carbon lifestyles (Global priorities for enhancing school-based climate change and sustainability education, 2023). Also in an Indian context, the value of indigenous craft practices in promoting responsible fashion value chains, as explored through our Craft in the age of climate crisis research with Fashion Revolution India (2023) has already been noted in this article. Elsewhere, our research with UAL on climate action and sustainability trends in the arts sector in the UK discusses the idea of the arts as ‘situated practice’, highlighting how the creative sector can prototype and socialise sustainable lifestyles by being situated within communities that are experiencing or dealing with climate change and social concerns first-hand (Mapping trends and best practice in climate action and sustainability in the arts, 2023).

A cultural relations approach

We hope this overview summarises how our research and insight is able to inform and underpin what we see as a ‘cultural relations approach’ to climate action.

In an essay for the British Council on cultural relations and climate action, authors Carla Figueira and Aimee Fullman frame cultural relations as ‘work in the area of culture, broadly understood as including ways of life, arts, heritage, education and creative industries, to support the development of friendly relations between individuals, communities.' We are working with research partners to provide the evidence base for the role of cultural relations – and of those ‘ways of life, arts, heritage, education and creative industries’ with which it is concerned – within the ‘emerging ecosystems of care’ that Figueira and Fullman argue are required to save the planet. 

The Figueira and Fullman essay also sets out a call to action for the British Council and other international organisations with similar missions:

“As we live through an ever-increasing critical countdown to act, it is imperative that cultural relations organisations are able to … activate their institutional learning by sharing and disseminating the lessons within and externally, and then applying collaborative learnings to improve their activities while supporting others to do the same.” 

COP28 offers an important platform for the British Council to respond to that call to action. We look forward to launching some of the reports referenced in this article over the coming weeks as part of our wider contributions to the summit and our engagement with our partners and stakeholders through The Climate Connection

But it does not stop there. Our knowledge base will continue to evolve and grow alongside our own organisational climate programming and strategy. New research linked to our Climate Skills programme will get underway in 2024. Discover more about our climate action research at the links below, and please get in touch with our Research and Insight team to discuss knowledge exchange and research partnership opportunities in this area.