18 July 2011

Carbon tax pitch misses the mark: it’s the climate, stupid!

First published in Crikey, 18 July 2011

by David Spratt

Can you sell people an answer, when they’re not sure of the question?

The carbon tax TV campaign confirms the government’s strategy of framing the case largely in economic terms: a "clean energy future" for investment and jobs and innovation, building Australia for the 21st century. Long gone are the days of the "great moral challenge" of our time.

The "Say yes" campaign by civil society groups exhibits the same economism: "Saying yes to a price on pollution means saying yes to investment, innovation, and new jobs based on renewable energy ... Putting a price on pollution will ... protect jobs, drive innovation in adaptation and clean energy projects and technologies ..."

The problem is that barely half the population believes climate change is real and human caused; fewer support the tax. And much of that opinion is soft: it’s one of many concerns.

The sense of urgency was lost three years ago, according to Hugh Mackay, who says that the fall in public support is not due to Gillard’s failures or even Rudd’s backflip. Mackay says the trend was evident by mid-2008, when the sense of expectation accompanying the change of government was deflated by inaction and low targets in the first six months of Rudd’s term, creating "a very critical vacuum" in which "people kind of shrugged and said well, it is not that serious after all ... It was seen as much more about a talking game than an acting game ... When we were not called upon to act, the opportunity was lost."

Yet now the pitch is: "We have this important (tax) change that you should support, because it may not make you worse off." Great. And a "clean energy future", whose need is not well enough understood. It’s a big ask to sell a "big change" without a compelling narrative as to why, in language and with a detail that, anecdotally, many do not understand, from a Prime Minister most do not trust.

The government’s messaging, and that of many NGOs, fits with a trend in both sides of US politics in following the advice of Republican pollster Frank Lunz to stop talking about climate change and the implications of failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions because they are "negatives", and sell a positive "clean energy" economic story instead.

This suggests we can have answers without being sure of the question; that people will support change that leaves them "no worse off", without understanding why. The corollary of this "no negatives" is a happy-clappy strategy in which climate action is all win-win, no pain, no problems. Just say yes.

Yet the lesson from Mackay’s analysis is unambiguous: the scientific need for action now has to be re-established.

What is missing is a compelling heart narrative about the impacts of global warming. The story is not being told of families who will live in a hot world, with more dangerous climate extremes, heat stress and ill-health, with less secure food and water supplies, and of children and grandchildren who will live less well than their parents, and may struggle to survive, unless we act right now. Nor is a story being told about how we can all can play an active, empowering part part in creating a safe climate for future generations. Shying away from the dire picture of climate change impacts takes us away what the well-understood psychology of health promotion now tells us.

A meta-analysis of research on health promotion campaigns and their outcomes found that the most successful approach is to combine a striking honesty about the problem with a message of personal efficacy: it is about you, and you are part of the solution. The study found no negative effects of messages honest about the severity and likelihood of the health impact, provided there was a clear articulation about what can be done to stop the problem. In fact, the more detail about the severity of the impact, the more effective was the message.

Peter Lewis of Essential Media says if you wish to mobilise public opinion, then "focus on the science first, second and third -- and then start talking about the impact on our carbon-exposed economy if we wait for the rest of the world to act first".

US pollster Mark Mellman says suggestions that one shouldn’t talk about global warming are "politically naive, methodologically flawed and factually inaccurate". He finds that even dire science-based warnings are an essential part of good climate messaging -- along with a clear explanation of the myriad clean energy solutions available today and the multiple benefits of those solutions.

People’s well-founded fear has its role in political messaging, as the WorkChoices campaign showed. Modern environmentalism was born from the warnings of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Asked recently about Lunz’s proposition to talk about clean, secure energy and not talk about climate change, Al Gore replied: "The scale and magnitude of the changes that are necessary to solve the climate crisis mean that all of the collateral reasons for taking these steps will not get us to where we need to go without a clear understanding of what we’re facing if we don’t act ... it’s a mistake to move that to the periphery of the conversation as so many have done ... it has to be the heart of the conversation."

The health promotion review reinforces the effectiveness of uncensored honesty about the problem combined with an empowering message about solutions and personal responsibility.