The new video for the 10:10 climate change campaign has attracted a lot of attacks and stirred up a lot of controversy. The film went wrong, however, because it aimed to pick up headlines rather than raise the level of public understanding or slam home a key message.

This has been an interesting discussion to watch unfold in the press. One of the supreme advantages of being a blogger is that I don’t have to jump in with an opinion early on if I don’t want to – I can wait for the dust to settle then poke about a bit more. For those who haven’t followed it, the 10:10 campaign, which seeks to persuade people/organizations/cities to cut their carbon by 10% by the end of 2010, put up a video on youtube (SPOILER ALERT) directed by Richard Curtis in that was quickly rubbished as in bad taste. The film features people who aren’t interested in contributing to reducing their carbon emissions being blown up in a cartoonishly gory manner.

The video was then retracted, but reposted by sceptic groups capitalising on the circus of debate and criticism that followed. 10:1o’s apology (admirably swift and thorough)  revealed the plan behind the video which reveals part of its reasons for failure: “With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh.” It is not hard to understand where they are coming from – presumably the people at 10:10 spend a lot of time with much of the frankly depressing climate change literature out there that suggests we’re facing a tipping point after which runaway climate change will have dire consequences. Translating the urge to act into hasty strategy trying to be as hard-hitting as possible is understandable, but a mistake.

I also feel the film narrowly missed a chance to more overtly mock the earnestness of climate change activists. This can be read into the film, just, but it’s far from clear. Instead the film seems only to make the opposing case, that climate change activists are all homicidal and intolerant, more widely available. This media-stirring approach is at the heart of the problem here. Climate Change has rarely struggled to grab headlines, partly because of groups like 10:10 being supremely good at this kind of attention-grabbing. Unfortunately it’s not clear what it achieves – by and large everyone knows about climate-change these days: it’s the next bit we’re not sure of.

I referred in my last post to the “Clarkson vs. Monbiot” divide in the country, and I should add that if you put “Clarkson” and “climate change” into google, the story you get (particularly in a 2009 Telegraph piece) focuses less on “I disagree” (although he does also say that), but more “we’re bored with this”. As far as the target audience goes, this kind of stunt seems likely to overwhelmingly preach to the converted. The Clarkson mob won’t be convinced by this kind of activism – it looks too much like the usual activist suspects making noise (as Clarkson puts it “Government, Al Gore, Channel Four News and hippies everywhere”) rather than a grownup conversation. There is even some evidence that association with activism pushes scientists into a more sceptical position to avoid losing face over association with campaign groups, and this may be true of other bodies or individuals seeking to appear mainstream and hard-nosed.

There is, of course, a role for getting key messages in the media by repeating them and using stunts to drive them home.  James Hoggan, president of Hoggan & Associates and behind the influential climate change “DeSmogBlog” describes “the echo chamber” as a technique of “Darth Vader PR” – repeating something so often, at every opportunity, that people just come to accept it. (This is in his compelling book “Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a Skeptical Public”.) This has the potential to be more than a little ethically dubious in its application, but one of the key messages of climate change at the moment is “a consensus/majority of scientists believe climate change is happening and man-made”. Of course there is lots of counter-argument drifting about, with blogs and books citing study and counter-study but overwhelmingly the message gets through. 10:10’s video, however, seems to lack a clear key message beyond the slightly vague “do something”.

10:10 mostly do extremely good work pushing for action on climate change, and the film Age of Stupid by its founder Franny Armstrong is one of the cleverest approaches to explaining climate change and related issues there is out there. But they, like so many of the climate change lobby, need to remember that they’re not a minority cause fighting to be heard, they’re a mainstream cause trying to translate its high profile into concrete action and results.

(See also: Good discussion of this video on the Climate Change Denial blog which points out that the film focuses overwhelmingly on small actions rather than expanding that to political lobbying.)