19 April 2012

What bright-siding climate advocacy looks like

by David Spratt / Part 2 of 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
What do the Obama administration, Australia’s Labor government, the 2011 “Say Yes” campaign and many national climate advocacy organisations, share?  They share a common view on how to market action on climate:
  • 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 and closing down coal.
    The Obama administration tried, unsuccessfully, to frame legislation to reduce greenhouse emissions as being about “energy independence”. It did not pass, but that was not principally Obama’s fault. But taking climate off the agenda was, says Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute:
    I don’t blame the president for the failure of climate legislation, but I do hold him accountable for allowing opponents to fill the void with misinformation and outright lies about climate change… By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.
    Much of the Australian government's
    advertising campaign for its climate
    legislation did not mention...  climate
    Taking the “climate” out of climate-change policy public messaging became the rage. Lash’s criticism could be equally made of Australia's Gillard government, whose “Clean energy future” campaign in 2011 was classic bright-siding. All clean energy and barely a mention of climate change or impacts. Check this, or this, government TV ad for any mention of the word “climate”. It’s all win–win clean energy. The 100% Renewables “Big solar” campaign in 2012, largely focussed around the Clean Energy Finance Corporation legislation, is similar in emphasis.
          And so was the “Say Yes” campaign run by  a number of Australian environment/climate non-government organisations (eNGOs), together with the ACTU and GetUp, in 2011. The word “climate” only just got a mention in the "Say Yes"  Reasons poster, the Morning tea kit and this Fact sheet. Of 13 posters, just two mention climate. You would have thought that how climate change and extreme weather might affect a family’s life might be relevant in talking to your neighbours, but it wasn’t.
         The bright-side mantra ran deep. Good news! It’s all about “Yes!” Just “Say Yes!”. The campaign asked people to “Say yes… ” to… almost anything. If there was one message, there was a dozen messages, a bad public relations strategy.

    Say Yes
    The “Say Yes” campaign's aspirations and materials were difficult to distinguish from those of the Labor government’s “Clean Energy Future” campaign. Reasons include:
    • A lack of political acumen, leading to a misreading of the situation, which resulted in a defensive strategy to “keep the multi-party climate committee talks going”, based on a fear of failure, when there was no reasonable prospect of that happening. 
    • No agreement or aspiration to significantly improve the outcomes above Labor’s position (for example, on the level of the carbon price), despite the Greens and grassroots activists advocating for this. Campaign research was based on marginal Labor south-east Queensland seats, with messaging that many eNGOs found unsuitable for the rest of the country, and which most punters did not understand (“A price on pollution”, for example). 
    • A confusion between the public affairs and community mobilisation aspects of the campaign, which was exemplified by the character of the 5 June rallies
    The coincidence in approach between the government and Say Yes may be reflected in the government funding made available to some NGOs at the time: ACF received $398, 421.75 for community education, AYCC $271,560 to “raise awareness” and the Climate Institute $250,00 for “Independent assessment of the effect of carbon pricing on the cost of living“.

    Bright-siding is attractive for differing reasons. For some eNGOs close to Labor, there is a desire not to talk too much about coal and gas; because that would make it hard to explain the virtues of government policies that won’t reduce domestic emissions in the next decade. Clean energy is safe territory. Who could disagree? In parts of the community climate movement, there is concern that talking about climate science or impacts is “too depressing” or “we already know all that science stuff” (which is not self-evidently the case), in favour of “getting on with doing something positive”. The case for bright-siding includes the following:

    “Sell the sizzle”, a manual on climate messaging produced by Futerra Communications agency,  which emphasises that one’s narrative should start by selling the “sizzle” (a positive vision of the future) rather than the “sausage” (identified as climate change impacts) because “climate change is no longer a scientist’s problem – it’s now a salesman’s problem” (my emphasis). “Sell the Sizzle” says:
    There is one message that almost every audience responds to. A narrative that changes hearts, minds and even behaviours. An approach needed now more than ever before. And it’s the opposite of climate hell. We must build a visual and compelling vision of low-carbon heaven. This guide outlines how to communicate that new positive vision.
     And if that is as far as you read, you could be quickly be bright-siding with just the good news about clean/renewable energy. But that is not all that Futerra says:
    The second step in our narrative is ‘choice’, because now we’ve got heaven we’ve got to show hell. Today we have a choice between that positive picture and the alternative of unmitigated climate change. It’s extremely important to hammer home that this moment is the moment of choice between the two paths. You don’t pull your punches here – lay out the climate chaos we’re trying to avoid. People can actually listen to this now because they are sitting in the life raft of a positive vision watching the Titanic of climate chaos." (emphasis added)
    There will be more discussion about this in the third and fifth parts of this series.

    • Often quoted in defence of the “positive only” approach is:  Apocalypse Soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting Just-World beliefs. But this study is actually consistent with the literature on communication that the strongest possible science-based messaging is effective. It is deceptive to claim the study supports “only positive” messages, because it samples messages with zero efficacy (messages that don’t suggest a path of action that would solve the issue), which is why they induce the “scepticism” they do.

    • A view that most campaigning is simply negative and apocalyptic, and doesn’t work.  “Sell the Sizzle” says that “The most common message on climate change is that we’re all going to hell”. But Joe Romm, prolific author of the Climate Progress blog, and a former acting US assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy, says that the two greatest myths about global warming communications are that constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy, and that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive:
    These myths are so deeply ingrained in the environmental and progressive political community that when we finally had a serious shot at a climate bill [in the US], the powers that be decided not to focus on the threat posed by climate change in any serious fashion in their $200 million communications effort… The only time anything approximating this kind of messaging — not “doomsday” but what I’d call blunt, science-based messaging that also makes clear the problem is solvable — was in 2006 and 2007 with the release of An Inconvenient Truth (and the 2007 assessment reports of the IPCC)… The data suggests that strategy measurably moved the public to become more concerned about the threat posed by global warming... You’d think it would be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless one explains why they should be concerned about an issue. And the social science literature, including the vast literature on advertising and marketing, could not be clearer that only repeated messages have any chance of sinking in and moving the needle.

    Next blog (the third in this 5-part series) will ask: Is all “good news” and no “bad news” a good strategy?