Ankelohe and beyond: communicating climate change

Simon Retallack
16 May 2006

More newsprint, broadcast time and web space is being devoted to the issue of climate change than ever before, so it would not be a surprise if journalists were to pat themselves on the back for their efforts. Far from it. On 18-21 May 2006 at a country retreat in northern Germany, journalists and writers from Britain, Germany and the United States will be meeting to discuss where they are going wrong and how they can do better.

Writers taking part in the "Ankelohe Conversations" on the twin problems of climate change and the oil endgame will be asking themselves why – despite all the coverage they are now giving these issues – the public is doing so little to take action.

It would be unfair to say that the higher profile climate and energy issues are receiving has had no impact. An opinion poll survey of thirty countries (including the United States) published in April 2006 found that a large majority of people believe that climate change is a serious problem. But any change in attitudes is having little impact on behaviour.

In Britain, for example, the statistics are sobering:

  • less than 1% of the population has switched to an energy company supplying renewably-sourced electricity
  • under 0.3% has installed a form of renewable micro-generation such as solar PV or thermal panels
  • many people admit to not even trying to use their cars less
  • purchases of highly-efficient cars represent less than 0.2% of new cars sold
  • just 2% of people claim to offset their emissions from flying.

That situation will need to be reversed. Using fossil fuels more efficiently and deploying alternative sources of energy is essential if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and rising oil prices. Some of the changes necessary may in theory be achieved entirely by governments through regulation. But others will require individuals to choose to behave differently and allow or encourage politicians to introduce policies to reduce our carbon emissions rather than punish them for trying at the polls.

The role of the public is clearly critical and the adoption of effective policies for removing barriers and creating incentives for people to change their behaviour is imperative. So too, however, is the deployment of effective communications. And here we may be getting it wrong.

Simon Retallack is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) where he oversees the Low Carbon Programme. He is author of the ippr's report, Setting a Long Term Climate Objective target (2005). He is co-author (with Laurent de Bartillat) of a compendium on the world’s environmental problems, STOP (Seuil, 2003).

By Simon Retallack in openDemocracy:

"Tony Blair and climate change: a change of heart?"
(8 November 2005)

Also in openDemocracy on the Ankelohe Conversations:

Lutz Kleveman, "Ankelohe: time to think"
(18 May 2006)

A new script

Research conducted in the United States as part of the Climate Message Project led by the FrameWorks Institute discovered that some of the ways in which climate change is commonly being reported is actually having a counterproductive effect – by immobilizing people.

The FrameWorks Institute conducted a linguistic analysis of elite discourse on climate change in media coverage as well as of environmental groups' own communications on the issue, followed by one-on-one interviews and focus groups with members of the public and a national poll.

What the FrameWorks Institute found was startling. It found that the more people are bombarded with words or images of devastating, quasi-Biblical effects of global warming, the more likely they are to tune out and switch instead into "adaptationist" mode, focusing on protecting themselves and their families, such as by buying large vehicles to secure their safety.

FrameWorks found that depicting global warming as being about "scary weather" evokes the weather "frame" which sets up a highly pernicious set of reactions, as weather is something we react to and is outside human control. We do not prevent or change it, we prepare for it, adjust to it or move away from it. Also, focusing on the long timelines and scale of global warming further encourages people to adapt, encouraging people to think "it won't happen in my lifetime" and "there's nothing an individual can do".

As importantly, the FrameWorks Institute found that stressing the large scale of global warming and then telling people they can solve it through small actions like changing a light-bulb evokes a disconnect that undermines credibility and encourages people to think that action is meaningless. The common practice of throwing solutions in at the end of a discussion fails to signal to people that this is a problem that could be solved at all.

These findings were significant because they applied to modes of communication that represented the norm in terms of US news coverage and environmental groups' own communications on the issue. They showed that a typical global warming news story – outlining the scientific proof, stressing the severe consequences of inaction and urging immediate steps – was causing people to think that preventive action was futile.

Developing more effective ways of communicating on these issues is a huge challenge. Every country is different and will require its own approach. The FrameWorks institute developed proposals for use by US climate communicators in the first few years of the Bush-Cheney administration using a distinctive approach – the strategic frame analysis.

According to this approach, how an issue is "framed" – what words, metaphors, stories and images are used to communicate about it – will determine what frames are triggered, which deeply held worldviews, widely held assumptions or cultural models it will be judged against, and accepted or rejected accordingly. If the facts don't fit the frames that are triggered, it's the facts that are rejected not the frame.

Based on that understanding, it can be decided whether a cause is best served by repeating or breaking dominant frames of discourse, or reframing an issue using different concepts, language and images, to evoke a different way of thinking, facilitating alternative choices.

Applying this approach to communications on climate change in the United States, the FrameWorks Institute drew several conclusions:

  • it recommended placing the issue in the context of higher-level values, such as responsibility, stewardship, competence, vision and ingenuity
  • it proposed that action to prevent climate change should be characterised as being about new thinking, new technologies, planning ahead, smartness, forward-thinking, balanced alternatives, efficiency, prudence and caring
  • conversely, it proposed that opponents of action be charged with the reverse of these values – irresponsibility, old thinking and inefficiency.

FrameWorks also recommended using a simplifying model, analogy or metaphor to help the public understand how global warming works – a "conceptual hook" to make sense of information about the issue. Instead of the "greenhouse-gas effect", which was found did not perform for most people, FrameWorks recommended talking about the "CO2 blanket" or "heat-trap" to set up appropriate reasoning. This would help, it argued, to refocus communications towards establishing the man-made causes of the problem and the solutions that already exist to address it, suggesting that humans can and should act to prevent the problem now.

The need to evoke the existence and effectiveness of solutions upfront, the FrameWorks research stressed, was paramount. And if the consequences of climate change are cited, the analysis concluded they should not appear extreme in size or scale, should put humans at the centre, made to fit with personal experience and involve shorter timelines – twenty years not 200.

Research will be published later in 2006 by the Institute for Public Policy Research on how climate change can better be communicated in Britain. Initial findings confirm many aspects of the FrameWorks Institute's analysis of the problem, if not all their recommended solutions.

Wherever we are in the world, the way we communicate about climate change deserves far greater attention and care. As levels of public concern about our climate and energy problems rise, it is urgent that we communicate about them in a way that helps people feel motivated and empowered to act.

What are the "Ankelohe Conversations"?

The Ankelohe Conversations is a series of international writers' symposia (supported by openDemocracy and the Draeger Foundation, Germany) which convene distinguished authors and journalists at the Gut Ankelohe estate outside Hamburg, Germany to discuss the most pressing issues of our time. This year, the theme is "The Heat is On: Climate Change and the Oil Endgame".

The writers – mainly from Britain, the United States and Germany – are carefully selected from various non-fiction backgrounds and given the opportunity to exchange ideas in discussions with renowned outside speakers.

Authors and serious journalists have an important role to play as investigators, educators, and opinion-makers. They also initiate debates. However, many of these debates remain nationally confined.

At the same time, authors of all countries are increasingly losing their influence on political and cultural decision-making. They are sidelined by the growing dominance of shallow infotainment, especially on TV.

These are good reasons for bright minds to get together at Gut Ankelohe. The "AnkCon" idea, in short, is to create a Ditchley Park or Königswinter for authors which will create a network, initiate public debates, inspire controversy, and shape the intellectual landscape on both sides of the Atlantic.

Addressing the most serious twin challenges of the 21st century, the theme of the latest symposium – on 18-21 May 2006 - is "The Heat is On: Climate Change and the Oil Endgame". For more information visit www.ankeloheconversations.com

Lutz Kleveman, writer and the host of Ankelohe Conversations

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