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Selling climate change

About the author
Jon Miller is a planner at Ogilvy & Mather, currently working on Coca Cola in China.

A recent article in The Economist painted a bleak picture of the environmental movement, portraying it as ineffective and marginal. If you disagree with this assessment – and in my view the British activists in openDemocracy’s roundtable largely confirm it – consider the following question: why was climate change, the most important issue of our time, almost entirely absent from Britain’s recent general election?

The election has passed, and with it a significant opportunity has been missed. In 2005, the UK hosts the G8 (the group of seven largest rich industrialised countries, plus Russia) and holds the presidency of the European Union. This is a unique position from which to influence global climate change policy. But for the environmental movement, it’s back to business as usual. Looking forward, how can we raise the effectiveness of environmental campaigning?

Don’t miss other articles in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

The answer is in communications. In terms of fundraising, the main environmental groups have kept pace with increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques. In terms of campaigning, however, we are stuck in a 1970s world of slogans, stunts, posters, placards and banners. There is little understanding of the audience’s frame of mind, and no really tangible communications objectives. The green movement has become effective only at talking to itself.

This may sound a little harsh. After all, there has been a steadily growing media interest in climate change. That’s true, but too easy a measure. Awareness of climate change isn’t the objective: people may know and still do nothing. So what should we do differently? I have three suggestions.

1. Don’t debate the science

Everybody knows that greens love getting into a good debate. It’s not surprising – there’s a powerful scientific, moral and commonsense case to be made for taking action. Unfortunately, those with a vested interest in doing nothing are too shrewd. In the United States especially, they have successfully entangled environmental change campaigners in detailed debates about the validity of the science.

It’s a simple strategy: the likes of Exxon throw money at some financially compliant scientists, who produce a report with the appearance of credibility and objectivity. The greens, of course, leap to an enthusiastic defense of their case - and the trap is sprung: the public tunes out (too boring), the media downgrade the story (too complex) and the politicians have the greatest excuse for doing nothing (let’s wait until the science is clear).

It’s entirely right to set out the case, of course - but the time has come to have confidence in the scientific consensus around climate change, and to stop debating the science. We urgently need to move the conversation from “is it really happening?” to “what do we do about it?”

2. Stop talking about the environment

Buried around page seven of your newspaper, you might find the occasional story about climate change, along the lines of “Global warming: bad news for polar bears”. Personally, I find this little short of infuriating: it’s counter-productive, yet this kind of story forms the bulk of green communications on climate change.

So what’s the problem? After all, people do care about the environment, don’t they? Indeed, there are plenty of surveys which report that as many as 92% of people care about the environment. Unfortunately, this means very little: ask anyone if they care about the environment, and they’re unlikely to say no. Environmentalists find it difficult to accept that most people simply don’t care about the environment as much as they do.

The problem is this: the steady stream of stories about polar bears and the like has a negative effect: it causes people to think of climate change as a purely environmental issue. Of course, it isn’t: climate change presents serious economic, political and health risks.

Communications around climate change should focus on non-environmental impacts. Let’s face it, there are plenty to choose from: widespread crop failures, outbreaks of disease, the threat of conflict over water, and the increased likelihood of tsunami-like disasters in places like Bangladesh, to name a few.

But here again we need to be careful. If the scale of the impacts we describe is too overwhelming, people will disengage: it seems too big, too uncontrollable, like the threat of sudden annihilation by a giant rogue asteroid. Also, if the impacts are too remote – distant famines, for example – people file it mentally under good causes.

Climate change is more than a “good cause”. If we want people to respond emotionally, practically and urgently to climate change, then we need to present impacts that are both tangible and relevant to their lives. In the UK, we might think of this as “the Daily Mail strategy”: link every story to readers’ material wellbeing. So, we move from “climate change is bad news for polar bears” to “climate change may affect your house prices”.

Some may describe this as cynical. In advertising, we think of it as understanding your target audience. Of course, we would all like to believe in the better nature of our own species – but can we afford to rely on an appeal to people’s altruism? After all, we all know where charity begins.

The same logic applies to both consumers at large and the business community. We must move climate change out of the Corporate Social Responsibility box and into the CEO’s in-tray. We need to present this as a serious risk to business as usual: smart, responsible business leaders are taking climate change seriously, because they see it as a strategic issue, not a PR issue.

3. Set clear objectives

It’s sometimes quite tricky to work out exactly what the environmental movement wants to be done about climate change. For those interested to listen, there is a cacophony of messages about what should be done: families should downsize their cars; industry should become “carbon neutral”; kettles should be quarter-filled; investors should back sustainable energy; governments should sign Kyoto; everyone should buy halogen light-bulbs; businessmen should fly a little less – and when they fly, they should plant trees in penance.

It's understandable, of course. The environmental movement consists of many different constituencies, each working hard to address their own particular areas of concern. Even within a single organisation, different campaign groups may communicate with the public on different issues at the same time.

Also in openDemocracy’s climate change debate:

UK activists ask what to do about climate change

Activists from China, India and Brazil discuss the international challenges

Even if we are successful in presenting climate change as a real and urgent problem, we are failing to present clear solutions. Climate change campaigners are, of course, painfully aware that there are no easy answers. There's no quick fix to climate change. However, if progress is to be made, we must be more strategic in the way we communicate solutions.

At the most straightforward level, this means we should always ask two simple questions each time we communicate with the public: who exactly are we communicating with, and what exactly do we want them to do? This may sound blindingly obvious - but there's little evidence that these questions are being routinely asked.

Ultimately, however, something a little more radical is needed. The scale of climate change as a problem, and the complexity of its solutions, demands that the environmental movement speaks with one voice on this issue. At the very least, the high-profile campaign groups need a coordinated approach. We need to pick our battles with more care, uniting behind a coherent campaign strategy - with carefully chosen targets and clear communications objectives.

The management gurus will tell you that strategy is about deciding what not to do. Communications strategy is no different: for us, it may mean deciding not to talk to a mass audience about polar bears (or halogen bulbs, or half-filling the kettle) but to communicate instead on the solutions that will have highest impact - such as building pressure on the United States to get behind Kyoto.

If the environmental movement were able to speak with one clear, consistent voice, and to present clear, feasible solutions, then we may have a better chance of making some real progress. If our communications remain fragmented and with no clear strategic direction, then I fear we are fighting a losing battle.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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