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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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