24 April 2012

Rethinking climate communication and engagement

by David Spratt / Concluding a 5-part series

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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
‘Happy talk’ was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbour. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence. – David Orr, preface to “Down to the Wire”
In The real climate message is in the shadows. It’s time to shine the light, Daniel Voronoff drew on lessons from health promotion to argue persuasively what effective climate messaging requires. He identified the problem as bright-siding:
“The risk we face with the present suite of messages is that without stating the problem – namely the severity of the threat and our susceptibility to it – there is no argument for change. Without stating the threat, the public mind is led to question, why a tax for innovation and jobs when the mining industry makes jobs anyway? Imagine the anti-smoking advertisement that fails to mention mouth and lung cancer, telling the smoker they should give up a pleasurable habit of ten years because, well, they’re certain to feel better. The evidence shows this appeal just doesn’t work.”
He went on to articulate what the “Sell the Sizzle” approach (discussed in part 2) actually does by making campaigning messages the choice between “hell” and “heaven”. “Sell the Sizzle” is broadly consistent with a meta-analysis of research on health promotion campaigns and their outcomes, which 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.
     People’s well-founded fear has a key role in political messaging, when connected to efficacious solutions. The WorkChoices campaign by Australian unions in 2006-2007 showed that. And modern environmentalism was born from the dire warnings in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
      As an aside, there is a question as to whether renewable energy is the sizzle, or climate safety (a ‘positive vision of the future’, as Futerra says) is the real “sizzle”. First, "As any good marketer knows, when you're selling something, you're selling the personal benefits, not the product itself. In the same sense with climate change, we need to sell the benefits of stopping man-made climate change." So Coke and Toyota don’t sell a brown liquid or a car motor, they sell fun and a feeling. Climate change action aims, in one narrow technological sense, to achieve product replacement by closing down the fossil fuels energy system and building a renewable energy system. That’s the product.  But perhaps the benefit, the “sizzle”, is building a safe and secure future for people and planet, as opposed to a world of increasing climate extremes, harm and insecurity.  This is the personal climate narrative for people and their immediate concerns – self, family, where and how they live and work; home, food and water in/security –  which is a choice between climate harm and climate safety.
     It is worth noting that the May 2011 CSIRO report on “Communication and climate change: What the Australian public thinks” found that in response to a question about the “Most important environmental issues facing Australia today”, 772 rated “Climate change and related topics” in their top three concerns, as opposed to 101 for “Renewable energy” (total respondents 1602). Tristan Edis has made some interesting comments about the politics of renewable energy across electoral demographics, arguing that “support amongst the community for government policy to support clean energy is soft”, particularly in the mortgage belt.
     So how can the story of climate change be related to peoples’ lives? One obvious opportunity is to “connect the dots” between the extreme weather people are experiencing now, and future climate change.  It is stunning that the (then) Labor state governments and the federal Labor government, and most of the large eNGOs, have been conspicuously absent in saying clearly and often in public that the remarkable run of extreme weather – record floods, temperatures, fires, storm, cyclones – people have experienced in recent years is linked to climate change. In fact both Anna Bligh and Julia Gillard went out of their way NOT to make the connection, and a federal Labor MP who did was told to desist.
     As Voronoff wrote recently on this blog:
Although this message is clearly true, it’s painful to watch as opportunities to communicate the problem we face are lost, mainly because each moment is a rare and valuable opening to let people know, honestly, and in a way that connects with something that is precious and tangible and that everyone has, whether poor, fair or excellent – that is, their health.
It’s a free kick to connect future climate impacts to the present, and the words aren’t difficult. Here’s climate scientist David Karoly:
 Australia has been known for more than 100 years as a land of droughts and flooding rains, but what climate change means is Australia becomes a land of more droughts and worse flooding rains.
The real benefit in joining the dots is that people are more concerned about climate change when they experience extreme weather and natural disasters:
… It is clear that the evidence and projected consequences which respondents refer to in the context of their belief and concern about climate change are often related to extreme weather events and natural disasters.
37 per cent of Australian respondents reported having had direct personal experience with differing natural disaster events. Overall, public risk perceptions and understandings of the threat of climate change in Australia appear to be strongly influenced and informed by knowledge of direct or indirect experience with both acute and chronic natural disasters in the Australian environment.
And research finds that:
… media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the public perception of the threat associated with climate change [and] the greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern. 
In other words, people who want climate action should talk about the extreme weather and climate change, and push in onto the public agenda. But Labor, in government federally and in opposition in the eastern States, has consciously done the opposite, which suits Tony Abbott and the Minerals Council perfectly.
     Ninety per cent of Australians think climate change is happening, but only 50 per cent believe it is human caused. The other forty percent believe that climate change is happening, but that it is natural. The voting intention of this 40 per cent is overwhelmingly conservative. If we are going to save our climate, if we are going to come close to ‘winning’, then we must engage with these people – and we will not engage them by talking about loss of species, the dying coral of the Great Barrier Reef, or the demise of Kakadu National Park. All the lines of evidence show that framing climate change as an environmental threat is obsolete when talking to conservatives. We need a frame that can reach across the divide of world-views and speak to common values. That frame is climate change as a threat to health, well-being and livelihood. It is a frame that projects our movement as the preservers and protectors of life: yours, your family’s, your community’s, your country’s. It is a frame that says – in this ever-changing world, a world of threats that seem insurmountable – that you, everyone, have a role to play in making it safe again, bringing security, bequeathing certainty.
     Communication and messaging is only a small part of the task we face as climate activists. Behaviour change is crucial. As we have already seen, engagement grows by giving people an active, meaningful choice between good and bad. With extreme weather affecting local communities in all sorts of immediate ways, there is an expanding space at the local level to engage communities in action, whether it be about local flooding and severe rain, the effect of heat waves on the old and the very young in their local government area, the future of gardens, or of the local coastline. Such action allows an understanding of the science and impacts of climate change to be understood through local involvement. As Grist’s David Roberts says:
Belief doesn't come first; action comes first. Changing people's behaviour -- in small, incremental, but additive ways -- is the best way to open their minds to the science. It all comes down to change on the ground. Climate hawks need to get smart about driving behaviour change wherever they can. Those behaviour changes will pull changes in consciousness in their wake.
We need to give more people the opportunity to learn the behaviour change needed with acts of civic participation, whether it be petitions, letter-writing, talking and surveying neighbours and friends, participating and organising local meetings or groups, sitting down and refusing to move, and so on, and thereby developing community leadership. The climate action movement’s role is in facilitating, supporting and reinforcing civic participation, helping to build an enabling infrastructure for a political transformation that always has the strategic goal in focus of 100% renewable energy, the closure of fossil fuel infrastructure and large-scale carbon drawdown. And that contrasts sharply which just “saying yes” to legislation which was always going to pass on the numbers.
      What is lacking is, in Roy Neel’s term, courageous leadership. That includes confronting several uncomfortable truths:
  • We face an organised denial-and-delay lobby prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars a year in Australia in lobbying, public relations and advertising, buying mass media, and funding the professional denial industry;
  • What needs to be done cannot be achieved in today’s neo-conservative capitalist economy, because a rapid transition will required a great deal of planning, coordination and allocation of labour and skills, investment, and materials and resources, that can’t just be left to markets and pricing;
  • There is a choice between two dystopias: some very significant social and economic disruptions now while we make the transition quickly, or a state of permanent and escalating disruption as the planet’s climate heads into territory where most people and most species will not survive: our task now is to chart the “least-worst” outcome;
  • So this will not be painless, and the mass of the population will need to actively understand and participate in  some personally-disruptive measures, but they will do so because they have learned that the transition plans are both fair and necessary, and the other choice is unspeakable.
Amongst those prominent in public life, there are people who do understand these problems and the challenges discussed here. With some nimble-footed cooperation, they could establish a new public platform.
     Amongst the not-for-profit, advocacy, union and welfare sectors there are a few organisations and senior staff who would in general terms already agree with the ideas presented here. But there are too many focussed on the fight for sectoral advantage, or are paralysed by fear or conservative organisational norms, or lack the imagination to break from strategies which are not working. As the federal Labor government falls apart, and the realisation grows that the conservatives may win not just the next election, but Senate control as well, there is a sense of crisis in the eNGO sector.
     Amongst grassroots groups and activists there is energy and commitment, but often a strategic failure, a lack of effective coordination and review, and far too few resources and tools.
     Let’s be blunt. The change we need is not going to happen without mass civic participation and a people power’s movement for transformation. We must all help to build these. It is here that the big advocacy groups are already facing a stark choice: to stay inside the Canberra beltway, do make-a-video-tick-a-box-send-an-email-give-us-money and but fail to empower their membership and supporters or, on the other hand, put serious resources into supporting community organising, spend less time competing as brands in the climate advocacy supermarket, and share resources to help build mass civic participation.
If you think there's an existential danger facing the country, you say so. That's part of what it means to be a leader. – David Roberts, Grist

Connecting the dots... between extreme weather and climate change in Australia
  • “Perth swelters through record 8th summer heatwave: Perth is sweltering through the eighth heatwave of the summer and autumn seasons, the first time such an event has happened since records started being kept in 1897.” – ABC News, 11 March 2012 
  • “It’s official - Australia has had its wettest two-year period on record.” – Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 2012 
  • “The heatwave that accompanied the bushfires on Saturday smashed records, as much of Victoria, including Melbourne and 20 other centres, registered unprecedented highs, the Bureau of Meteorology says.” – Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 2009 
  • “The proportion of Australia experiencing hot and wet extremes has increased in line with predictions of the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions.” – The Age, 15 January 2011 
  • “Basic physics and climate models both suggest that a warmer Earth will likely see both more intense droughts and floods over Australia, with some regional differences. The succession of events in the last decade or so is consistent with this prognosis.” – Br Barrie Pittock, The Conversation, 24 February 2012 
  • “An extreme heat event in 2050 could kill more than 1000 Brisbane people in a few days unless emergency response strategies are significantly improved, according to a new report on heatwaves.”
    – The Age, 20 February 2012 
  • “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. I like to think of the weather as a game of dice. Mother Nature rolls the dice each day to determine the weather, and the rolls fall within the boundaries of what the climate will allow. The extreme events that happen at the boundaries of what are possible are what people tend to notice the most. When the climate changes, those boundaries change.” – Dr Jeff Masters, Weather Underground 
  • “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.... there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago.” – Dr Kevin Trenberth, US Nat. Center Atmospheric Research


  1. This is an excellent and timely article although I would go even a bit further with the premise.

    "...whether renewable energy is the sizzle..."

    is getting at the heart of the communication problem, because too often climate activists - prominent among them Dave Roberts - are attempting to present clean so-called renewable energy as the solution. This simply enables the deniers, who point out, quite rightly, that renewable energy is not going to and perhaps is NEVER likely to replace the power of CONCENTRATED energy from millions of years embedded in fossil fuels. And this of course also ignores the equally important issue of other non-renewable resources essential for the continuation of industrial society, including minerals and energy necessary to build "renewable" infrastructure.

    Furthermore, by isolating climate change from CO2 as distinct from the other converging catastrophes - ocean acidification, the nitrogen cascade, overpopulation - the CO2 cult is cutting out the substantive paradigm shift that is the only way humanity can avert total cataclysmic collapse. They do this because be limiting the discussion to CO2, they maintain the fantasy, for themselves and their foundation supporters, that we can wiggle out of disaster by continuing to use the same failed system perpetuated by politicians and corporate media.

    I would go a step further and frame climate change not as a threat to health - people routinely risk their health with all sorts of bad habits -but keep the focus on the threat to their SAFETY. Violent weather, famine leading to a breakdown of civil society and marauding gun-wielding zombies - that's the sort of scary thing that unleashes a visceral urge to fight.

    As for the "sizzle", you can't be unrealistic here either. Climate change IS baked in the cake, hell and high water are the new normal, and clean energy isn't going to enable us to continue to live the consumer-oriented, globalized travel lifestyle many in the developed world have taken for granted the past few decades. The sizzle will have to be a redefinition of what is meant by a valuable life towards slower, localized, truly sustainable communities.

    And the climate activists need to be clear. Sacrifice, not just "personal disruption" and "civic participation" will be required. Drastic conservation - ideally through a just system of fuel rationing while we power down and transition - is a minimum requirement for any significant positive impact.

    During WWII people willingly agreed to forgo all sorts of non-necessities, and essentials were rationed. People volunteered for combat duty. Climate change is a far greater threat and that is how it should be presented. At least as much effort as went into defending the free world from fascism is now required and probably could be successful if, as you say, we had some leadership!

    Personally, I believe that it would help if scientists and activists start openly discussion the elephant in the room, which is the persistent background level of pollution in the atmosphere. Not CO2, but toxic ozone, which is invisibly poisoning vegetation all over the world. There is a vast body of research, going back to 1950 with both field and controlled fumigation experiments, documenting what happens to trees and annual crops when they absorb ozone through foliage. But just like activists and scientists don't want to be "alarmist" about climate change, they want even less to be accused of being "terrifying" about the collapse of the ecosystem, as forests die off and the yield and quality of everything from corn to soybeans to rice is reduced.

    There is an extensive summary of research here for anyone who is interested in this topic:


  2. As a big brands marketer for 35 years I am encouraged by David Spratts idea to focus energy on communicating the impact of climate change in people's own lives (ie the storms, floods, heat etc). Behavioural change only occurs with the realisation of how I stand to be affected - the experience of all the 40% of the population who believe climate change is man made is a solid foundation on which to build change. I would agree with Gail that rather than HEALTH, the story should focus on SAFETY. Health is usually perceived as something we have more control over and won't be understood as directly related to them/us, because we can't yet perceive a reality where disease, water contamination, food shortages will exist here in Australia. However, safety is an idea people relate directly to what they see on Australian tv news (flooded pastures, roads subsiding etc) and experience on their own property (land erosion, trees falling over, flooded creeks)so it is easier to understand.
    As a climate change community group member (WarrandyteCAN,Vic)I'm convinced that we need a more radical approach in line with David's recommendation and focusing on safety of our people is a powerful idea to motivate community action.

  3. Sorry I have had a couple of drinks but I get so ... sorry this is going to be French ..fucking angry when I compare this e-debate like the eNGO s David rightly scorns, to the way the highly committed folk behave i.e. suicidal bombers I can't believe how pathetic we are.
    Right now there is a by election in Melbourne where growth is downright cancerous. The electorate concerned has lots of cars and air-conditioners, none of which should be permitted to exist so why not get a gang out there to burn all the cars it can and put out a press release to say why. As I am presently overseas I can help with the PR until I get the Julian Assange treatment.

  4. Sorry, this is not a rethink, what I just read is the same old stuff that has been tried over and over, with limited success. More effective communication will fall on deaf ears.

    Cultural change is the key; only then will people be able and willing to listen.