21 April 2012

Is all “good news” and no “bad news” a good strategy?

by David Spratt / Part 3 of a 5-part series
"If people don’t know there’s a problem, they won’t try to solve it."
– Bill McKibben

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“Always look on the bright side of life”: Bright-siding climate advocacy and its consequences

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: What bright-siding climate advocacy looks like
Part 3: Is all “good news” and no “bad news” a good strategy?
Part 4: The consequences of failure
Part 5: Rethinking climate communication and engagement
Bright-siding climate advocacy is based on the view that:
  • Only positive "good news" messages work. Don't mention “bad news" such as climate impacts and don’t communicate the magnitude of the problem, because people can't deal with it; and
  • The good-news story is first and foremost about “clean” or renewable energy, so construct public messages dominated by renewables and economic benefit, not about about replacing fossil fuels.
An example of trying to avoid “bad news” was the decision by the Australian government not to call the carbon tax a carbon tax.  Instead it used the confusing term, a “price on pollution”. This left the discourse about taxes entirely to opposition leader Tony Abbott, with devastating consequences. And then the government, having avoided the “tax” word, made its core pitch about…  how you will get a personal tax break: “How much support will my family get? Estimate your assistance here…” 
     If ever there is evidence that “bad news” can work, it is Australian federal opposition leader Tony Abbott’s unrelentingly assault on the Gillard government.
     The proposition that only "good news" messages work will be looked at again in Part 5 of this series. Of course, the good news about renewable energy is a key component in engaging people, and in reducing emissions.  As renewables move towards becoming cost competitive with fossil fuel energy sources at a speed unimaginable just a few years ago, it is an even more compelling story. But the point here is that it is not the ONLY story, nor a sufficient one.

     And there is an interesting question about why energy efficiency, the “lowest-hanging fruit” of all the available emissions-reduction strategies, rarely rates in the “good news”. Perhaps it is not an “easy” issue on which to campaign? And a one-sided emphasis on renewables has some other dangers. It can construct the debate as just being about supply-side options, an emphasis that pushes demand issues – and Australia’s responsibility as a very higher per capita emitter and user of energy – to one side. Global equity is central to global action, and it could go two ways: everyone in the world increases electricity consumption (whatever the source) to our level, or our level goes down rapidly towards the global average. In fact, the quickest demand-side option would be to stop the outrageous deals to flog large amounts of energy to the aluminium smelters at implied subsidies subsidies comparable to their wages’ bills.
And the idea that “bad news” about the world – wars, poverty, inequality – cannot work, when linked to positives outcomes or visions and choices, is absurd. Stopping bad things happening can be a great motivator. If you believe only “good news” works, it’s hard to explain the success of the anti-coal-seam-gas "Lock the gate" campaign, or the enthusiasm for blockading a coal port, or of the popular appeal of campaigns past and present to stop wars, end Apartheid, and so many more “oppositional” struggles.
      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". Making the science/impacts part of the narrative seems essential, in light of consistent polling (for example here) that finds only half of Australians say that “Climate change is happening AND is caused by human activity”.
Climate concern in the USA was at its height around 2007,
at the time of media focus on the IPCC’s fourth assessment
report and Al Gore’s “The Inconvenient Truth”, and before
the ideological divide fully kicked kicked in
     Research studies find that media coverage of climate change directly affects public concern levels, and that the actions of political elites turn out to be the most powerful driver of public concern. Concern in the USA was at is height around 2007, at the time of media focus on the IPCC’s fourth assessment reports and Al Gore’s “The Inconvenient Truth”. As partisan and ideological divides kicked in, concern fell. The research concludes that “public communications (by political elites) must continue to support climate change against opposing messaging campaigns… with amplified political mobilization”.
     In this context the failure of the Rudd government after December 2009, and of the Gillard government, to drive the story of climate impacts in the public arena is a disaster. Despite the deniers’ assault in the US, public understanding of climate is now on the rebound, with Americans attributing their increased belief in global warming to their (correct) perception that the planet is warming and the weather is getting more extreme. It is astounding that neither the prime minister or any leader of either major party anywhere in Australia can say in public what most US citizens already know: that global warming is making high-profile extreme weather events worse.
     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.
The replace Hazelwood campaign told a story about
climate impacts, dirty coal and clean energy
     If “bad news” is bad news, it’s also hard to explain the success of the Replace Hazelwood campaign in Victoria in 2010-2011 (closing down coal) which:
  • Told a story about climate impacts, Australia’s dirtiest coal power station and the opportunity to replace it;
  • Forced a state Labor government to about-face on climate policy; then
  • Made it through the federal multi-party climate talks to be included in the 2011 carbon legislation as money to close down 2 gigawatts of dirty power (likely to be Hazelwood and Playford); which
  • Resulted in Playford becoming the focus of a big solar campaign, but only because a close-down-coal campaign was successful!
A one-sided emphasis on telling the good news means that one half of the narrative, as used in the Hazelwood campaign – of replacing fossil fuel with clean energy – gets lost. Coal and gas drop out of sight, and that’s not surprising coming from the federal government, which is overseeing a massive expansion of both industries.  But as Greenpeace has again shown recently with the launch of its new Queensland-focussed campaign, coal is where the political heat really rises.  There is an element of truth in what Paul Keating recently told Philip Adams on “Late Night Live”: if you’re not creating enemies, you’re probably not achieving anything in politics.
     The strategic question between renewables-only messaging and other choices has become more urgent with the growing evidence that the Gillard government has trashed itself beyond all help, and that a victory by the delay-and-deny Abbott-led opposition looks very likely. In a recent exchange, one NGO climate campaigner asked: “Does it really make sense for most of the movement to be working on the Clean Energy Finance Corp when its chances of surviving may be slim?”, and another responded that their “only concern with a singular focus on renewables is the Coalition can say we are supporting renewables through retaining the Renewable Energy Target and then get rid of everything else (including supporting the 5-25% range)… it is a danger for us”.
     But there is a bigger choice, well told in a must-read recent article in “Mother Jones” about “How a Grassroots Rebellion Won the Nation's Biggest Climate Victory”, and plans to move beyond blocking new coal-fired plants to seeking to close a third of the roughly 580 existing ones in the US by 2020. Mark Hertsgaard writes of how a network of activists “confronted a harsh truth”, in the words of Fresh Energy Executive Director, Michael Noble:
They had been working the wrong problem, focusing on renewable energy instead of the broader climate picture. "What does it mean that we celebrate the construction of a $100 million wind farm in Minnesota when at the same time a 900-megawatt coal plant was being built?" asks Noble. "That's called losing. If you looked at the problem through the lens of carbon, all the work we had done was undone by a single plant­—a plant that wasn't challenged by a single environmentalist.
There is no argument that Australia must move to renewable energy at a pace quicker than is generally understood, but it also true that the emissions created by the expansion of Australian coal exports will dwarf all the emissions saved by closing down the domestic fossil-fuel-energy industry. 
     The carbon price,  on which the “Clean Energy Future” marketing and the Say Yes campaign have dwelt, is no obstacle to the deadly expansion of Australian coal and gas industries. As "The Sydney Morning Herald" politely noted: “the extraordinary continuing growth in demand for coal for electricity and steel production in Asia challenges Prime Minister Julia Gillard's assertion the world is moving to cut greenhouse gas emissions”.
    And Guy Pearce pointed out at Woodford last Christmas that the expansion of Australian coal mining will add about 1.75Gt (gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere – about 11 times what the Australian government estimates will be saved by the carbon tax legislation that recently passed Parliament. He says that even the emissions from smaller players have a staggering impact, for example:
  • the annual emissions from Aston/Whitehaven’s new mines, or of QCoal's mines will each be greater than all the CO2 saved by all the hybrid cars ever sold world-wide;
  • The new mines of the relatively small Jellinbah Coal add nearly 100 times as much CO2 as is saved by all the household solar panel installations in Australia.
 So the question of strategic focus is no small matter.
  • Next blog (the fourth in this 5-part series) will ask: What are the consequences of failure?