First published in the New Scientist magazine
The struggle to persuade the inhabitants of industrialised nations to rein in their carbon emissions is well documented, but how is climate change viewed by people in developing countries? My research in Uganda provides some surprising insights. Opposing the scientific consensus on climate change has become something of an article of faith for the socially conservative religious right in the US. But in Uganda - a deeply religious and superstitious nation infamous for its rampant homophobia - climate change scepticism is nowhere to be seen.
The climate is a constant topic of conversation among ordinary Ugandans. More than 80 per cent of them are farmers, and people are in no doubt that the climate is changing. The seasonal rains that once arrived with precision are now erratic and unpredictable. When your living depends on the fertility of your farmland, the climate is vitally important. In an office in London or New York it is less of a big deal - and the invisibility of climate change in developed countries is a barrier to communicating the risks.
The fact that climate change is viewed through a local lens in Uganda has another important implication: there seems to be very little anger or resentment directed towards the nations that bear the historical responsibility for climate change. Instead, the national conversation focuses on the ways in which Ugandans can make their environment as resilient as possible. The stark reality is that even though Uganda has done little to cause climate change it will be forced to adapt to its effects.
The Ugandan approach poses an interesting question for communicating climate change in developed countries: are the grand narratives about moral responsibility and catastrophic climate chaos putting people off? Perhaps a more pragmatic framing of the challenge of decarbonisation would deflect the more hysterical objections of climate sceptics - but also allow climate change to break out of the eco-warrior niche that it frustratingly still occupies.
An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…
But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin.
That the video was panned by the usual suspects is unsurprising. Delingpole spluttered that “the environmental movement has revealed the snarling, wicked, homicidal misanthropy beneath its cloak of gentle, bunny-hugging righteousness.” But while Delingpole’s wilfully literal misreading of the video is unremarkable, there is a genuine reason for concern: as a piece of climate change communication, it is disastrous.
At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?
Beyond these general faults, many of the pitfalls of communicating climate change are gleefully skipped into. It is now well established that using shock tactics to pressure people into caring about climate change is of limited use: while fear of a negative outcome (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of promoting behavioural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the behaviour must be personal and direct. Typically, climate change is perceived as neither a direct nor a personal threat – and so shocking people into doing their recycling is probably not the way to go.
We also know that while ‘peer pressure’ can be a remarkably effective way of promoting and spreading environmentally friendly behaviour, this is a process of social comparison that cannot be controlled by ‘outsiders’ to an individual’s social group. People make their comparisons to people who are ‘like them’ – people that they respect, admire, or empathise with in some way. Observing other people engaging in pro-environmental behaviour is a fantastic way of generating a positive social norm. Blowing them up for failing to get with the programme is not…
Of course, its easy to be critical of any attempt to engage the public with climate change – it is a formidable challenge finding the right way of encouraging people to embrace low-carbon lifestyles. But gradually, social scientists and climate change communicators are starting to piece together good evidence on how to effectively communicate climate change. The recent report by the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG), a network of climate communication academics and practitioners, set out seven principles for communicating climate change to mass audiences:
- Move Beyond Social Marketing
- Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
- Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
- Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
- Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
- Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
- Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
- Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks
- Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone
- Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action
At such a crucial juncture for campaigning on climate change, with public scepticism higher than a year ago, international negotiations tying themselves into a knot, and the British government taking enormous chunks out of the budget for tackling climate change, don’t those in the public eye have a responsibility to do a better job with their climate change communications?