The Power of Listening: Deep Canvassing Increases Support for Climate Change Action in Rural British Columbia

When Neighbours United (formerly West Kootenay EcoSociety) launched their campaign in Trail– a frontline, company town in rural British Columbia, their organizers started using familiar community organizing tactics (such as tabling at community events or farmers markets), but quickly realized they needed to do more. People in Trail, like many, perceived climate change as a problem for the future or distant places, which can make the need for action seem less urgent. This is a common barrier to communicating effectively about climate change — in the West Kootenays, fewer than half of citizens believe the impacts of climate change will harm them personally according to YPCCC’s Canadian Climate Opinion Maps. But as Neighbours United found out, sometimes something as seemingly simple as a conversation can make the difference.

Originating from the LGBTQIA+ equality movement, “deep canvassing” is an outreach method that persuades by listening to people’s mixed feelings and thoughts without judgment and giving people a safe conversational space to resolve their internal conflict on an issue. Persuasion can be difficult on polarized issues like climate change. Studies by Josh Kalla and David Brockman found that persuasion effects from deep canvassing lasted up to 9 months–much longer than common campaign outreach methods. Neighbours United’s Executive Director Montana Burgess thought a similar approach might be useful in engaging the Trail audience on climate issues.

At the time no one had demonstrated how to use deep canvassing to build support for government action on climate change. So they assembled a team of advisors including YPCCC’s Partnership Program, New Conversation Initiative, Montana Engagement Partnership (MEP), and many others to work through script development, strategy, and messaging. The group drew on insights from its past deep canvassing efforts; the experiences of other organizations, such as SAVE LGBTQ Foundation’s 2015 campaign to reduce transgender prejudice in Miami; and YPCCC’s related research such as research on the persuasive effect of personal stories.

They then hit the streets and the phones. Neighbours United had 1,181 one-to-one, in-depth conversations in the community. Over the course of a 15-to-20-minute conversation, volunteers concentrated on connecting and storytelling about real, lived experiences instead of arguing over facts. They achieved an impressive 40% overall movement/persuasion rate and overcame community skepticism to win a significant victory. In April 2022, the city council voted unanimously to transition to 100% renewable energy across all sectors no later than 2050 and instructed staff to develop a transition plan within one year.

Through 60 script iterations and hundreds of conversations, Neighbours United’s learned that most people in their community needed a climate story modeled for them before they could connect the dots between climate change and their own lived experience of wildfire smoke, heat waves, and floods. And when an organization has hundreds of those conversations, that campaign can move a town from hesitant to taking action on climate change.

While more experimentation is needed, the Neighbours United campaign highlights that increasing a sense of government efficacy and support for government action on climate change can help move citizens on climate change. We see a significant opportunity to adapt this model with American partners. In the U.S., researchers can use the voter file to facilitate experiments more easily. Campaigns can also use voter file microtargeting models to direct their deep canvassing outreach to citizens that are more likely to be persuadable, while other organizing efforts can focus on moving people to action.

To learn more about how Neighbours United developed the first successful volunteer-based deep canvassing program on climate and energy: