Resolving the paradoxes and dilemnas of Climate Change communications

18th December 2011 Climate change is an issue of critical global importance, and yet the general public really isn’t that bothered!

This is the central paradox environmental campaigners have to grapple with. So in addition to the ferocious complexity of the issues (both scientific and political), we have to confront another level of difficulty: how should we campaign, and communicate, on the issue? As just one example: it’s argued that people just don’t want to hear climate change ‘doom and gloom’ – they’re ‘turned off by it’ – so therefore climate campaigners shouldn’t even mention the fact that we’re almost, or already, inevitably committed to a level of ‘dangerous climate change’.

Thus Futerra: “Although … Armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough. Threats of climate hell haven’t seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it.” Consequently “We must build a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven.” (This is from Sell the Sizzle 2009. See also their previous Rules of the Game 2006; and the discussion in Common Cause September 2010 as well.

Except … maybe that ‘compelling vision’ doesn’t exist; can’t exist – because it’s too late. And – setting aside tactical communications considerations – aren’t environment campaigners ethically obliged to tell the truth, and not sugar the pill?

Thus Tyndall Centre “…despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2◦C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2◦C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2◦C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.” Paper in Royal Society ‘Four degrees and beyond’ Jan 2011. See also ‘World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns’ Guardian; International Energy Agency report here.

And this throws up another paradox: the Guardian (in this example) can communicate ‘Climate Armageddon’ on its front page – as ‘news’ – but campaigners are apparently to be disbarred from doing the same, even though the same audience or individual is reading both messages.

Will the global economic downturn provide us even a temporary respite whilst we resolve our communications connumdrum?  No. Rather December brought news that the annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 rebounded in 2010 back to trend, bringing atmospheric CO2concentrations to 389.6 ppm – compared to pre-industrial levels of about 280 ppm – whilst modest improvements made to the carbon intensity of the global economy in the 2000s went into reverse

Should we instead draw another lesson from the economic downturn? Politicians now see it as a principal responsibility to proclaim very clearly this cardinal rule: ”If we all don’t tackle our collective debt, then it’s going to end in financial catastrophe!”  So ‘economic Armageddon’, but at least in this country they’ve so far been rewarded with positive ratings for their honesty. Maybe we should be adopting exactly the same plain speaking about the global climate and ecological debt?

So no more soft focus visions of ‘low carbon heaven’! In the end why would they be sufficiently powerful to motivate anyone to actually change policy or behaviour? Instead let’s tell people that if they value a stable climate and bountiful Nature – if they value David Attenborough’s filmic representation of our global Garden of Eden, and its Frozen Poles – then they must accept that our mountain of ecological debt isn’t sustainable and can’t continue.

If politicians can make a virtue of invoking economic austerity, then we should be doing the same for its environmental variety. And if we don’t take this opportunity to tell a big narrative about DEBT! – and threat – then we’re just as bad as that generation of deluding politicians who only recently were incurring huge financial mortgages on all our futures whilst at the same time assuring us that they’d forever abolished ‘boom and bust’.

Footnote 7th Jan 2012: the debate about whether ‘threat’ messages are (counter)productive continues to this day. Here’s a retread in this week’s Guardian, alongside a more determined reflection from the US – by David Roberts, who coincidentally reaches a similar conclusion to that in this article: “.. happy, inspiring possibilities unaccompanied by a threat fail to generate much passion or intensity” – where the activists have apparently just woken up to Kevin Anderson’s stark analysis. Here’s another examination of the psychology of ‘denial’.

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But a narrative about austerity – whilst this provides the spine for what we have to say – won’t be enough. On its own it’s too difficult and radical, and needs to be leavened by something more at the centre of mainstream culture, more recognisable and acceptable. And … more assertive.

At the moment the conventional wisdom about how to deal with climate change scepticism – and one which I followed until recently – is to ignore the bait because ‘it only encourages them’ (Futerra 2006: “Principle 2. Forget the climate change detractors: Those who deny climate change science are irritating, but unimportant.”). So: deny them the opportunity and space for an infinite extension of the so-called debate.  Setting this issue in the context of theory of knowledge, ultimately the sceptics position is based on a structural misunderstanding or just ignorance of Popperian scientific method built around falsifiability, and where the burden of proof lies (A: with them!); and also in the structural flaws of ‘conspiracy theory’, a maze of their own confusion into which they seek to draw more rational minds. Logically therefore, because you can never win the debate with a ‘sceptic’, just don’t begin it.

To this we then need to add in climate scepticism’s specific US origins: so back to Hofstadter‘s critique of American political culture, broadly defined and updated for the internet age; the extent to which political influence is bought, and particularly by Big Oil and Coal; and finally the professional fabrication of the sceptic narrative when confronted by the threat from Kyoto: here’s the 1998 ‘Communications Plan’ memo and a mapping of the current influence web.

But it’s the sceptics’ attack on science that ought to be their point of vulnerability, if only someone made it so. The political assault on climate science has been written about by Eric Pooley, on James Hansen individually by Mark Bowen. Of course american hostility to science goes back further, e.g to the anti-Darwinian Scopes showtrial of 1925.  At the moment all the Republican presidential candidates are global warming ‘deniers’ to varying degrees, and here’s the most extreme – Rick Santorum: “I’ve never .. accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.” In the circumstances it’s a revealing turn of phrase.

[article in progress – to be completed January 2012]