Information overload: a risk for activists (image from http://medicblog999.wordpress.com/)

In a recent post I discussed whether climate change should be discussed in relation to the ecological limits to growth (here). I argued then that although public discourse is not ready for too much discussion of that particular issue, it must be quietly phased in. There is, however, the wider issue of the risks of discussing climate change alongside other issues at all.

At the (wittily entitled) seminar “A little less Copenhagen, a little more action – tackling the obstacles to climate justice” at the Compass conference, a representative for Friends of the Earth said it was key to get issues connected in the public consciousness: gender, equality, poverty, development and environmental issues.

Problem 1

I have mixed feelings about this argument. In the first place, there’s a real risk that for anyone who doesn’t put a great deal of time and effort into understanding the relevant issues, they slide together into one great humanitarian-disaster-mush. While it is absolutely right for groups like Friends of the Earth and Oxfam to engage with these various and genuinely interlinked issues (Friends of the Earth engaging with the humanitarian side of their core environmental issues and Oxfam engaging with the environmental causes of their core development issues), they become increasingly daunting and even off-putting.

Problem 2

The UK Green Party: risking binding climate change to the political left

The second issue is that climate change runs the risk of becoming an issue of certain political forces if placed alongside other issues. Groups that campaign for on climate change frequently have a strong left-wing bias. The UK Green party, who are (unsurprisingly) very strong on Climate Change issues is a case in point. Among their policy positions are a strong scepticism of free trade and globalisation, a radically higher minimum wage and support for a “robin hood tax” on financial transactions (see pages 46, 11 and 47 of their manifesto respectively, available from their website here). I am personally quite sympathetic to all of these policies and do not mean give the impression these views are illegitimate, but they are unattractive to the huge body of centre-right figures who arguably voted the British Conservative Party the largest number of seats in the current parliament.

The starkly economic warning of the Stern Review put climate change in terms that make it an issue no longer reserved for lefties and bleeding heart liberals (like me, dear reader), but aligning it with everything else could jeopardise that and draw suspicion from political enemies.

Hansen: politicisng the science more than he should?

On a similar note, NASA’s Jim Hansen is a leading climate scientist but also a highly politicised figure has drawn criticism for his outspoken views, especially his criticism of cap-and-trade systems. This was particularly pronounced after his arrest for activism against the burning of coal (see news coverage here), and it is not hard to see why, when the scientists are also activists for specific political causes that their scientific expertise does not obviously extend to, their scientific claims may draw suspicion. Far be it from a serious blogger to reference Wikipedia, put it has a very strong section on Hansen and “Controversies”.

Conclusions

After my (slight) U-turn on my views on BP’s media management, I should be clear that I’m not backtracking from my last article saying climate change should not be linked to any other issues in explanations given and narratives established by climate change campaigners and other interested actors. What I will say is this:

  1. Decide on the key issues to link climate change to. Don’t tell us climate change is linked to every other social issue under the sun. Not even when it is true. There is only so much information people can take in.
  2. Establish clear, simple arguments. “To mitigate climate change we need X, Y and Z”. “Climate Change is a symptom of BLAH”.
  3. Say them again and again. Preferably using the same words. Where possible, set up broad coalitions of actors to say them.
  4. Avoid left-wing rhetoric. References to “inequality”, attacks on “global capitalism” (or any other kind of capitalism) and “neoliberalism”, attacks on the rich and discussions of globalisation and world trading systems should not be avoided altogether – these are important and relevant issues. But be wary of using them too liberally and in every context.

An example of good message management is the line we hear time and again from campaigners: “climate change will hit the poorest first.” While perhaps a little left-leaning, it doesn’t smack of marxist rhetoric. Think about the Live 8 statement: “a child dies every five seconds”. It was repeated so much it annoyed even many of the more sympathetic of us by the end, but it was memorable.

Climate change does need to be seen in wider contexts. The public are busy people, however. Be wary of information overload, and be wary of losing your centre-right audience.

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