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Communicating climate change – without the scary monsters

The climate disaster narrative hasn’t worked. Ignorance is bliss. So how do experts plan to wake up the world?

Do pictures of drought or floods make people more willing to back tough climate policies? (Pic: UN Photos)

Do pictures of drought or floods make people more willing to back tough climate policies? (Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King

Clocks are ticking. The sand is dribbling from the hourglass. Mercury levels are rising.  And yet, if you pop your head out of the window, life goes on as normal.

It’s a major headache for climate communication professionals in the developed world, charged with delivering a message of urgency to a public focused on more immediate concerns.

Who has time to worry about sea levels rising so high London could be submerged, or extreme weather events driving people from their homes in Africa?

Why worry about the potential to break the 2C barrier, when you have to pay the mortgage? Who’s buying the next round? Or (and this is tough) convince the kids they’ve watched too much Peppa Pig for one day?

It’s a question exercising Pete Bowyer, who heads up the climate arm of PR firm Havas, charged with promoting UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit.

“They say all politics is local – but all communications is local – and that’s particularly true of climate change,” he tells RTCC.

“I think people respond better to the impacts they see and feel on the ground, as opposed to abstract theories of theses. We can say it’s 95% certain it’s man-made, but that doesn’t really mean anything to people.”

That’s a blow to scientists working on their groundbreaking study into upper-atmospheric wave patterns over the Atlantic. But it’s also a challenge to politicians, business leaders and civil society campaigners who take this issue seriously.

Report: UN releases Ban Ki-moon climate summit plan

Yet the interest is there and by all accounts growing.

Havas recently opened a new “climate collective” of offices on six continents, with experts based in Belgium, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Poland, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

A one-time spokesperson for former UN secretary general Kofi Annan on climate justice, Bowyer is now kept busy providing strategic communications to clients who want to see a global emissions reduction deal signed in Paris next December.

What has helped, he says, is the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) three recent reports, which examined the physical science, global vulnerabilities and possible solutions to climate change.

Bowyer believes the IPCC’s dire warnings – and attempts to chart a cleaner energy future – have raised the political focus.

But he’s also clear this has only managed to bring the level of awareness up to the levels of 2009, when countries unsuccessfully attempted to strike a global emissions deal in Copenhagen.

“There is a political momentum which has evolved over the past 18 months, and I think IPCC has been part of that process, so there is a sense that something does need to be done,” he says.

“Given the failure of Copenhagen, which has taken us six years to get back on track… we need – the community as a whole – to see it as an opportunity to do something about it.”

Fresh strategy

The UN says it has learnt from 2009 and is now trying build a political consensus over a range of low carbon issues before negotiators and heads of state arrive in Paris next year to discuss the proposed agreement.

A key part of that process is Ban Ki-moon’s high-level climate summit on the sidelines of the General Assembly on September 23, billed as an opportunity to foster a mutual understanding between political leaders, business and civil society.

Privately, people close to the preparations admit they are still unclear about what the summit can really achieve. Most of the efforts so far have focused on getting leaders to turn up.

Germany’s Angela Merkel and India’s Narendra Modi have said no. But US president Barack Obama and Chinese premier Xi Jinping have indicated they will attend.

Obama’s decision to come is vital for the meeting’s integrity, says Bowyer, who is advising the UN Foundation on its outreach.

“Otherwise, you’re essentially going to get a group of leaders which are facing the greatest impacts – but they’re not the real movers and shakers,” he says.

“It’s important therefore in terms of communications in the run up to this, you generate momentum in a positive way to encourage leaders.”

The day’s schedule is packed. It will kick off with three hours for national leaders to make announcements, simultaneously in three separate rooms.

A draft outcome document, set to be released at the meeting’s conclusion, reportedly calls for countries to work together on developing a global carbon price.

But will this make any difference?

Low awareness

Ban’s final address on September 23 is likely to stress the urgency of the situation, highlighting increased glacier melt, rising sea levels and the IPCC’s warnings on future extreme weather events.

Those warnings will make headlines around the world, yet are unlikely to spur the levels of panic or calls for action that Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the outbreak of ebola or the ISIS advance on Baghdad have.

Research suggests that unless people have experienced climate-related disasters, they’re unlikely to be worried about its possible effects. Africa’s lions aren’t that scary if you live in Scotland.

“The idea that there are these absolute deadlines where things have to be sorted out – I think has diminishing returns in terms of usefulness as a communications tool,” Bowyer says.

“I think you need to be relating this to ordinary people’s lives, how they feel…so you’re going with the grain. I don’t believe there’s a great sense among the public that if this isn’t sorted by 2014 or 2015 the world is doomed.”

Many climate researchers – such as Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre, say an adequate response must be tough emissions cuts by developed countries, perhaps as large as 10% a year.

Others cite the jet-setting rich and their huge consumption levels as the problem – calling for governments to restrict air travel and deal with “transport taboos”.

Electoral suicide?

But democratic politics being as it is, a manifesto promising to restrict choice and travel options is unlikely to be successful. Otherwise, green parties would be ruling the world over.

Polls on the subject paint a picture of a public only half engaged with an issue US secretary of state John Kerry has compared to terrorism.

A 2014 Ipsos Mori survey in the UK reported 59% of adults thought the benefits of climate policy outweighed the risks, although 707 of the 2,250 asked had not heard of “climate policy efforts”.

A similar survey on US voter intentions by Yale university revealed only 32% felt a candidate’s stance on global warming was important to their vote. That number shot up to 77% when it came to the economy.

And unsurprisingly, given Havas represents global brands like Air France, IKEA and Durex that rely on consumers splashing the cash, Bowyer rejects suggestions that an urgent threat needs a radical response.

“I don’t think we win this argument by limiting opportunity, and restricting those things in a prosperous country that people want to do more of,” he says.

“That applies to developing countries and huge booming middle classes. It’s about trying to turn that into how you can have a better form of life by not being as carbon intensive as you have before, without saying that will stop your summer holiday.”

The avalanche of positive news is likely to start with the publication of the New Climate Economy report next month, a study chaired by former Mexico President Felipe Calderon, which will present governments with policies to achieve high quality economic growth.

We can expect more of a focus on the health benefits from cutting air pollution, and making cities nicer places to live by greening transport networks and limiting car use.

And get ready for a narrative that drives home the message clean growth creates jobs and can lift developing countries out of poverty.

But forget about the climate monsters. They didn’t seem to scare anyone.

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  • Bart

    One of the main problems of communicating climate change, at least in the English speaking world, is the epidemic of nescient climate change objectors who invert messaging, spoof communications, propagandize and infiltrate processes to subvert public statements.

    Very little in the IPCC’s reports focuses, for example, on catastrophe. Less than one percent of the Fifth Assessment Report even mentions the most dire outcomes. This is fitting, as the largest expense of climate change AR5 finds is to everyone in slight and small, incremental ways, like the tale of the frog boiled by gradually warming the water in the pot. AR5 can be summed up in short to say, “You cannot pollute without consequence, and CO2 pollution’s consequences are global damage.”

    Food prices will go up one food in one region at a time as local, regional droughts and floods, invasions by hostile species and habitat loss from unseasonable weather eats away at the agriculture and fisheries of the world. Air conditioning needs will go up in spikes in summer, while heating needs will lower except for more intense spikes in winter. People will need to travel farther for relief from weather — a major reason people travel — and to find fresh market produce.

    These aren’t catastrophes of life and limb, but of wallet and time. These costs are made to vanish in the messaging by the lobby of ill-advice and willful ignorance of such well-funded and well-organized tax-exempt groups as the Cornwall Alliance and the GWPF. Note the irony that the GWPF calls itself the ‘Global Warming Protection Fund’.

    And the truer irony is that governments worldwide actually subsidize the fossil fuel industries more than any other activity, in the false belief that they can make energy cheap to drive their economies. http://www.iea.org/publications/worldenergyoutlook/resources/energysubsidies/

    The mathematics of Swanson’s Law tells us that more diversity in the renewable energy mix is the lowest cost national energy policy, as each doubling of installed renewable capacity results in economies of scale of 20% of the per Megawatt cost. Already competitive renewables like solar, wind, geothermal and tide and their dispatchable storage have such a small share of the total market that they can double five times in installed capacity and still may only displace half the carbon burned, but their price will be more than halved.

    The message ought be simple. A very few make money from the burning of fossil fuels at the expense of the rest of us because dumping the pollution of burning fossil fuels into our shared air has not been priced yet in most of the world. A very few make excess money because of false faith in bad models of carbon burning subsidy and investment. http://www.carbontracker.org/

    The IMF at the start of August revealed a simple message: the major nations of the world must all stop subsidizing fossil fuels and price carbon burning to at least the level of damage polluting with CO2 does. The Canadian province of British Columbia has successfully had a model CO2 fee and dividend system, its Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax, that pays its citizens in tax breaks by charging a price for carbon polluting at the point of sale. http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/Cayo+reinforces+case+carbon/10122620/story.html

    It’s not fair to get something for nothing, to risk harm without compensating the people you impose costs on, to burn carbon and just dump CO2 into the air.

    What more climate change message do we need than that?

    People are basically decent, and will seek what is fair.

  • v

    on a world scale, embrace nuclear power temporarily along with renewables and you get rid of fossil fuels faster. in return for less climate change devastation there is a CHANCE a few plants and nuclear storage sites might statistically suffer chernobyl scale accidents. We lose in a worst case scenario maybe several hundred square kilometers per century of usable land to radiation and a death toll maybe at worst in the millions per century

    or

    status quo. Nuclear is being supressed. Renewables are increasing in number slowly so fossil fuel hangs around much much longer. Climate change then FOR SURE becomes worse, what else is the CO2 being spewed gonna do?. We lose millions of square kilometers per century to desertification and sea level rise. At worst case, death toll in the billions per century from heat waves, displacement of populations, famine, increased extreme weather events, new diseases or tropical diseases moving to temperate areas, economic collapse and maybe resource wars

  • Dorota Retelska

    The more I read about climate, the more I feel that cited disasters are separated examples of what is likely to happen the way we pollute. I was surprised that IPCC report talks about 4-5 degrees Celsius warming, but doesn’t discuss the implications and feedback effects that that level of warming would trigger. Press, even more, does nto apprehend the true consequences of warming. We need to clearly realise that stopping global warming is a life or death matter for our children and most of Humanity, and any discussed disaster would be only one in tousands.

  • Daniel Oliver Jost

    And what about revealing the “secret” taught in no economy class in the world, that economy and ecology actually share the same etymological roots?…

    ECONOMY: From Latin oeconomia, from Ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomía, “management of a household, administration”), from οἶκος (oîkos, “house”) + νόμος (nómos, “law”) (surface analysis eco- +‎ -nomy).

    ECOLOGY: from Ancient Greek οἶκος (oîkos, “house”) + -λογία (-logía, “study of”)

  • Frank Regan

    The climate disaster narrative may have not worked well, but
    the monsters are no less real. Pandering to the public’s disinclination to hear
    dreadful, long-drawn out bad news about Climate Change has its complications.

    Climate Change means planning and planning accurately for the world we live in. And this requires that we plan long before
    the effects of Climate Change show up because by that time they are usually too
    late to solve. Already we are experiencing a continual march of warming and its
    consequences (extreme weather, rising seas, etc) during which the public
    finally understands that Climate Change is happening.

    Now the public doesn’t want to hear about all
    the dreary details. If the public wants
    hope peppered into Climate Change news, they need to act in such a way that
    there will be hope—not turn off bad news (the monsters) that are really the
    repercussions of doing nothing.

  • windy2

    New messengers are needed too. John Kerry pleaded with people to “ask any child” about climate change. My first thought to that statement is “Children is where John Kerry gets his knowledge?” Is that really a message that adults will find motivational? Oops.
    Or how about Mike Mann’s egomaniacal antics of taking legal action against those that criticize his work? Mann is now the poster child for killing free speech in the USA and has become so worrisome to the public that every major news outlet is now filing legal motions against Mann. He has become a pariah and a detriment to climate change messaging.
    Obama’s popularity is at an all time low and he has been awarded so many Pinocchios for lying by the Washington Post that public trust has dropped to around 30%. He also has political baggage now as the US has been forced to increase imported coal in the face of Obama and the EPA destroying the domestic coal industry in America and putting coal workers out of work. No political candidate of the upcoming election wants to be seen with Obama. Obama’s lack of interest in climate change for his first term gives the impression that Obama’s using the climate issue to distract from his disastrous foreign and economic policies.
    I think it is too late to rebrand the climate message and even if it is somehow achieved, the current crop of messengers are still a problem and sucking all the life out of the movement.

  • Ilissa Ocko

    Strategy for re-framing the narrative: http://decarboni.se/insights/moral-optimism-climate-action