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Exhausted civil society ‘silent’ on climate change – report

British group says people’s interest in global warming has dwindled and new communication strategies need to be developed

(Pic: Josh Lopez)

(Pic: Josh Lopez)

By Kieran Cooke

George Marshall is a co founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), an organisation based in Oxford in the UK which specialises in climate change communication.

Whenever he can, Marshall tries to engage people in conversation about global warming: he finds it a tough task.

“I’m always casual about it – after all, no one wants to find themselves sitting next to a zealot on a long-distance train journey.

“But I need not worry because, however I say it, the result is almost always the same: the words collapse, sink and die in mid-air and the conversation suddenly changes course…it’s like an invisible force field that you only discover when you barge right into it. Few people ever do, because, without having ever been told, they have somehow learned that this topic is out of bounds.”

Others in the business of communicating climate change will sympathise: they become used to eyes glazing over, people suddenly finding others to talk to or urgently expressing the need for a drink. It can be a lonely occupation.

COIN has just produced a report entitled Climate Silence, questioning why the interest of the public in global warming is still low – despite all the warnings about the threats being faced.

The report, which focuses mainly on events in the UK, says public interest in the issue was at its height back in 2008. The Stern Review, making the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later had, been published, the UK had brought in its Climate Change Act, and there was optimism that a global deal on climate change could be sealed at the  Copenhagen summit.

Scientists reticent

Now, says COIN, the situation is radically different.

“Civil society, exhausted by the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009, has largely fallen silent. Scientists, cowed by personal attacks, have become increasingly reticent.

“A door that was once firmly shut – to sceptical voices in the mainstream media – has been opened again…public interest has dwindled. The debate has become stale and fatigued.”

The UK public has recently been focused on the seemingly unstoppable rise in household energy bills, says COIN. Energy companies, much of the media and some politicians have been quick to blame “eco-taxes” for escalating costs.

“Climate change – if it was mentioned at all – was presented as the enemy of the common man: an elite, costly and distant concern that should not be considered during times of austerity.”

Energy saving has been talked about solely as a question of bringing down costs to the consumer, rather than in the wider context of climate change.

“What actually needs to happen is a little more challenging than this – ultimately involving a complete overhaul of how we travel, eat, heat our homes, consume and work.”

Collective failure

Ditto the Climate Change Act, says COIN: all the talk is of achieving technical targets – rather than considering climate change as a vital social issue that needs to be talked about and discussed by the general public.

COIN’s views on the lack of engagement of the UK public on climate change would seem to be backed up by a forthcoming survey, quoted in the report, from the Royal Society of Arts. Of 2,000 people surveyed in 2013, 40% said they never speak about climate change to their friends, family or colleagues.

In the US there seems to be less public engagement in the issue. A survey this year by Yale University found that only 8% of respondents said they communicated publicly about climate change, while nearly 70% said they rarely or never spoke about it.

“We have failed, collectively, to make climate change something that inspires passion in all but a vocal minority (on either side of the argument)”, says COIN.

So what’s to be done? COIN proposes a national series of conversations embracing a broad cross-section of society – including those who might be sceptical. Ways must be found to inspire people to care about the problem. Climate change, it says, is fundamentally a human story, and public campaigns must reconnect with that basic fact.

“For too long, climate change has been stuck in a rut – pigeon-holed as a scientific and an ‘environmental’ issue – a niche topic that has little direct relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

“Without a way of translating the dry, faceless facts of climate science into living, breathing reasons to care about climate change, meaningful public engagement will remain out of sight.”

This article was produced by the Climate News Network

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  • BarryWoods

    Why does George Marshall find it a tough task, because he was part of the hype that smeared people as deniers, in the pay of fossil fuels..

    “Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers, governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set-piece villains. Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. ” – George Marshall

    which in a recent Guardian article, he realizes is not working’ but fail to mention his very own involvement in creating that poisonous climate.

    He won’t allow this comment on the COIN site, but the Guardian published it..!


    missing COIN comment:
    “A positive and realistic article, however perhaps some more self reflection
    is required from the author, about his own involvement in how these enemy
    narratives came about, so that we can all move on?

    As the author is himself a leading campaigner who has been playing the
    ‘dangerous game’ he describes


    “Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil
    companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers, governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set-piece villains.” – George Marshall

    This is the same George Marshall – who created the first Deniers Hall of
    Shame – with the Rising Tide group that he founded?


    Perhaps George could now advise the Campaign Against Climate Change (and
    other activists) to drop their Sceptics Hall of Shame, with its enemy narrative,
    Exxon, Koch, ‘denier rhetoric, etc,


    As George Marshall is on the CaCC Advisory Board (Monbiot is it’s Hon
    President) and has been for years, this should be a very easy step to take now, and demonstrate by taking action, that author is serious about ”this is a
    dangerous game to play’ and ‘refuse to play this partisan game’

    Mark Lynas & George Marshall created a Who’s Who of deniers a long
    while back and arguably kick started the dangerous game enemy narrative amongst activists and in the media, note, labelling people with Exxon/fossil
    fuel/tobacco tactics innuendos

    Why We don’t Give a Damm – Lynas, Marshall 2003 – New Statesman


    “Who’s who among the climate-change deniers
    Bjorn Lomborg, Richard Lindzen, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas,Philip Stott is Britain’s leading climate-change denier …….

    Julian Morris,…… .” – New Statesman 2003 – Lynas/Marshall


    This article is a positive recognition that the enemy narrative fails and
    is a dangerous game to play, perhaps a slightly bigger mea cupla might be
    required from the author to show good faith and some actions to show the

    Mark Lynas it appears has moved on from this narrative, I asked Mark
    earlier this year whether he though now that Prof Lindzen (for example) was in
    the pay of Exxon (or anybody else) and his reply was that it was highly, highly

    Mark was also on the Advisory Board of the CaCC for years, alongside
    Monbiot, Marshal, Lucas, Lambert & Meacher. But Mark has stepped down from
    the CaCC, in part perhaps, because of this?

    “…..Barry, you are right that the ‘Sceptics Hall of Shame’ is itself
    shameful – I wonder if I can appear on it now whilst still being a board member
    of the Campaign Against Climate Change (in all honesty I’d forgotten that I was
    on the board – I never have anything to do with them!)…..” – Mark Lynas, June


    Perhaps, I might be able to believe George Marshall is acting in good faith
    now with this article, about ‘enemy narratives’ are ‘a dangerous game’, when the
    Campaign Against Climate Change’s Hall of Shame and the ‘denier’ rhetoric there,
    is removed, or if he cannot persuade them consider the step Mark Lynas

    Marshal (above)

    “The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse
    to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible.”

    I imagine most people that know some history of the climate change
    movement, would perceives that some campaigners, like Marshall, Monbiot, (And
    LYnas) etc are more responsible for ‘enemy narratives’ and the ‘dangerous game’
    than others, as leaders they created, led organisations/activists, and published
    these narratives in the media?

    “But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change
    will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of
    their own and come back to bite us, and we will find ourselves written in to
    replace our chosen enemies” – Marshall

    George Marshall does not acknowledge that he chose the enemies and built
    the enemy narratives himself!

    If the CaCC refuse to change their narratives (Hall of Shame, Exxon, Koch,
    denier rhetoric) perhaps George Marshall (like Mark Lynas) should choose to
    step down from the CaCC as well, ie refusing to play or be seen to sanction the
    CaCC’s dangerous game?

    Actions always speak louder than words, sadly to me, it look to me that
    this is more about tactics that have failed, rather than a strong wish to engage
    and find common ground. If this past is acknowledged and actions taken, perhaps
    the debate could move on.

  • Latimer Alder

    I speak to my friends about climate change frequently. It is delightful to be draw their attention to yet another failed doomsaying prediction of imminent Thermageddon as nothing much happens and GAT remains firmly stuck at the same level as the late 1990s.

    We all like to have some sanctimonious folk to laugh at and climate campaigners seem to be going the way of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the guy who used to walk around Leicester Square warning about beans in the diet.

    Simply put, you don’t have a climate change communication problem. You have a climate ain’t changing problem. Imagining that you can finesse the difference without ordinary folk seeing right through your wheeze is mistaken

  • BarryWoods
  • Bruce Bodner

    Two reasons for Climate Fatigue :
    1) China and India make most of the greenhouse gases and they won’t be changing their use of coal anytime soon.
    2) Too tired from shoveling snow.

  • ReduceGHGs

    There’s no credible debate among those that study the issue. We are deteriorating the only habitat that can sustain us. It is well established science and has been for many years. Join the efforts to change course. Our future generations are at risk of needless suffering.