The influential think tank Green Alliance today launched a report aimed at helping politicians communicate more effectively with the electorate about climate change. Written by experts in the field of climate change communication, there are a wide range of views on display. Unfortunately, the authors are in agreement on only one thing: the way that climate change is currently communicated is not really working.
At first glance, advice on how to ‘communicate’ climate change sounds like nothing more than marketing speak – window dressing to disguise an unpopular message. But the perspectives in the Green Alliance report make clear that communicating about climate change goes much deeper than an ‘eco’ prefix. As public support for strong action on climate change becomes more fragile by the day, the way that climate change is presented is more important than ever.
One reason that climate change communication matters is because people are experts at reading between the lines. Senior political figures routinely (and accurately) refer to climate change as the greatest threat facing society. But, as Ian Christie argues in the Green Alliance report, the public often receive very mixed messages from Government. Putting on an extra jumper just doesn’t seem to square with the scale of the problem. People are not stupid. They can tell that either climate change is the greatest threat facing society or putting on an extra jumper is an appropriate response – both can’t be true. As Christie puts it, “If things are as bad as they are said to be, where are the emergency measures?”
Similarly, the campaign strategist Chris Rose argues that attempts at engaging the public on climate change suffer from a lack of clear, visual evidence that ‘something is being done’. While the British government can legitimately claim to be world-leading in terms of legislation and policy for a low-carbon future, much of the good work that has already happened has been invisible – changes to the emissions trading market and improvements in the fuel mix used to generate electricity. What is missing is high profile, high impact pictures of ordinary communities and their shiny new (cooperatively owned) wind turbine.
George Marshall, of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) suggests that who delivers a message about climate change can be as important as what they say. Politicians, environmentalists and journalists are consistently rated among the least trusted figures in society – yet they routinely dominate the public narrative on climate change. The people who are rated as most trustworthy are those that are ‘like us’. Unsurprisingly, we are far more likely to listen to our friends and our peers than a preachy eco-warrior or a morally bankrupt politician.
COIN is currently working with thousands of members of Trade Unions in
Of course, there’s no hiding the fact that some actions are simply incompatible with a low-carbon future. Building a new runway at Heathrow is a clear signal to the public that there’s nothing to worry about – that climate change takes second place to economic growth. People are very sensitive to hypocrisy and inconsistency, and those hesitating about whether to make changes in their personal lives will only be put off by powerfully symbolic policies such as these. No amount of clever communication can make a new runway a sustainable transport policy, and rightly so. Communicating climate change more effectively means finding ways of making the topic of climate change more easily accessible to everyone – not employing greenwash to mask a lie.
The long, slow process of decarbonising the energy supply and reducing energy demand has already begun, and before long, oil scarcity and energy security will force our hand. Future generations may look back in bewilderment at our procrastination. But of all the barriers to a low-carbon future, it would be a dark irony if an inability to communicate climate change beyond the usual suspects was the most difficult to overcome.