How to sell the case for action against climate change

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AuthorFinancial Times
15 November 2018

Simon Kuper, author and columnist at the Financial Times provided this piece in the context of the GGKP's Sixth Annual Conference, which took place on 27-28 November 2018 in Paris, and focused on the theme of "Inclusive solutions for the green transition: Competitiveness, jobs/skills and social dimensions"

The green campaign to encourage actions to save the planet is “the greatest science communication failure in history”, wrote the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes in his book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. The ticking of the climate clock hasn’t prompted any major country into sufficient action. Climate change barely even features in most election campaigns. The recent US midterms, for instance, were influenced more by hysteria over 2,000 poor central Americans walking towards the US than by the future of the planet.

We need to rethink green marketing strategies. And this is a good moment to do so. The long economic upturn in the developed world, coupled with many recent extreme climate events, has shifted a little bit of political attention from economics to climate. In France, which is experiencing its hottest year of the century, pollsters say green issues are rising to the top of urban voters’ concerns. In the US, even some Republican voters in coastal states have changed their minds on climate change after the shock of hurricanes, wildfires, and toxic algae blooms in Florida waters. To keep this momentum going, greens need to improve their communications. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Be positive. Gay-marriage activists swept the west with upbeat campaigns in which they trumpeted every triumph: “Luxembourg leader marries his husband!” By contrast, greens often prefer negativity. Most media stories on climate invoke “the apocalypse of climate hell”, says Stoknes. The standard recommended solution is Christian: sacrifice! Give up your steaks, holiday flights, capitalist economy etc.

But neither doomsday talk nor economic sacrifice sells well. The new green narrative should be: “Yes we can, and without huge pain.” Greens need to ditchInstead of offering the hell and penitence, greens ought to promise. Instead, promise paradise and opportunity: let’s create a modern economy powered by renewable energy. After all, far more Americans work in the solar industry than in coalmining.  

2. Ditch the phrase “carbon tax”. It implies a higher tax burden, which is a turnoff, and in this case inaccurate: governments could tax carbon while cutting other taxes to compensate. Alternatively, governments could spend carbon taxes on goodies for citizens. Either way, carbon tax should be rebranded “green tax reform”.

3. Keep it simple. Professors of climate science talking about percentage rises and parts per million won’t persuade many people. The green debate has become too complex for public opinion to absorb. Advocates need to tell human stories in human language.

4. Talk about people today. Predicting catastrophe in 2100 does not inspire mass environmentalist action today. Nor do appeals to save the Arctic or the oceans. Maybe people ought to want to leave their grandchildren a better planet, but the evidence shows that most cannot be bothered.  

Rather, greens need to talk about actual living humans, just as the gay-marriage campaign used tear-jerking videos of old couples kissing over wedding cakes. Look at the current success of campaigns to reduce air pollution in cities from London to Beijing. Stories of children suffering asthma attacks today prompted action.

5. Don’t be liberal. Gay marriage triumphed partly because it stopped being a liberal cause. The word “marriage” won over many conservatives. Greens should take note. There’s nothing inherently leftist about keeping the earth habitable. In the US, farmers – who are among the biggest victims of climate change – should be enlisted as spokespeople to reach conservatives. But liberals have to want to win over conservatives. Many liberals seem to like the current situation, in which they can assert their own identity through joyous hunts for climate deniers.

6. Ignore climate deniers. They aren’t the block to action on climate change. They just wish they were. Instead, they are an irrelevant sideshow.

Believers and deniers quarrel about climate science because they both start from a mistaken premise: that science will determine our actions. The idea is that once we agree what the science says, policy will automatically follow.  

Mysteriously, though, the policy still hasn’t followed the science. Almost all scientists already agree on the science. And even in the US, most citizens do too. Roger Pielke Jr, political scientist at the University of Colorado, writes: “The battle for public opinion has essentially been won.” Nonetheless, the world hasn’t acted. Clearly then, science doesn't determine policy. Yet the pointless quarrel about science continues. 

Beating deniers around the head with the science just gives them attention. It also allows them to roar in triumph whenever the believers get any bit of science wrong, as happened some years ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unintentionally exaggerated the melting of Himalayan glaciers. The squabble also creates a one-dimensional argument about climate change: do you believe it’s real or not? This obscures a better question, namely: what should we do about climate change?

The deniers will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The US invaded Iraq, bailed out banks, passed universal healthcare and recently cut taxes for the rich with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the skeptics are not the block to action. The problem is the mass of apathetic citizens and politicians who believe in climate change but hardly ever think about it. Shift them, and all is not lost.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.