Archive for November, 2010


Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested he might devote after the Governorship to climate change work. How? By focusing on the business end and never mentioning climate change by name. And presumably by being very, very quotable.

The Governator may yet lead the way in the business of climate

One of the most interesting analyses of climate change communications out there is buried in a recent Guardian article on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future. “The Governator” has speculated he could spend his future after the governorship drumming up support and capital for climate-change friendly technology, a path not dissimilar to Tony Blair’s work on climate change since leaving office, including a recent Chinese low-carbon business initiative.

What’s interesting about this is the focus: future technology, business and big money. Hardly the hallmarks of traditional environmentalism, to be sure. What is even more interesting is that he consciously chooses his language to reflect this: he makes it clear that his strategy is to avoid referring to climate change or greenhouse gases, presumably to sidestep the entire climate change debates going on in the US. He also speaks of avoiding the polarised US politics in this issue, so perhaps by talking about “clean tech” and “future energy sources” he can avoid spooking the businessmen out there who shudder at environmentalism but smile on visions of future technology.

He’s certainly crystal clear when he says on climate change groups: “People get stuck and fall in love with their slogans and with their little agendas”. His pragmatic approach may prove just the ticket. It also chimes perfectly with the recommendations of the Hartwell Paper last May, which argues for “an indirect approach, which pulls on the twin levers of reducing the energy intensity of economies and the carbon intensity of energy” to avoid the “hyper-politicised” environment surrounding arguments over the science.

Those who have seen the film “Amazing Grace” about the life of William Wilberforce will know that the British slave trade industry was broken down through the back door by focusing on the trade with Britain’s enemies, reframing it as a patriotic issue and by the usual anti-slave-trade lobbyists keeping their head down so the bill passed unnoticed. The same slight-of-hand could come in useful here if those like Schwarzenegger are able to avoid the overblown battleground of climate science and get on with advancing the technology, in line with the Hartwell Paper’s “indirect approach” thesis.

Schwarzenegger is not the only one choosing his words carefully on this. Reading a typical article on “Renewable Energy News”, like a typically business oriented one on GE’s investment in “clean technology”, there’s a sense of a business community avoiding a guilty secret that renewable energy is associated with this hippie-Guardian-reader-sandal-wearer-tree-hugger stuff. Even after The Stern Review, a UK government cross-bench consensus, campaigning by both presidential candidates from 2008 and big reports by the likes of Deutsche Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, climate change is something some of those business feel a little self-conscious about discussing too openly.

Schwarzenegger also sees himself as a communicator who communicates clearly by simplifying: “I think that I have the talent of speaking the language in such a way so that the world understands it rather than making it complicated,” he said. This was a trait notoriously ridiculed in George W. Bush, but there is little doubt his plain-speaking style won him elections (as well as praise from former sultan of spin Alastair Campbell), and Schwarzenegger shows signs of some of the same talent.

It is well worth browsing Schwarzenegger quotes online. Among my favourites are “Gray Davis can run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but he can’t run a state”  and “One of my movies was called ‘True Lies.’ It’s what the Democrats should have called their convention”. Oh, and the famous “To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: ‘Don’t be economic girlie men'”.

I’m looking forward to more of the same on renewable energy.

This morning Unilever unveiled its big targets for making its supply chain sustainable. Never has it been more clear that it is big business that will now be leading the way in the sustainability revolution.

Unilever: A huge business behind innumerable well-known brand names including Flora, Colman's, Wall's, Cif, Dove...

In brief, Unilever, whose household brands range from Persil to PG Tips, intends to cut the environmental impact of its products by half, in terms of carbon, water and waste in ten years, while doubling sales, i.e. keeping its total environmental impacts steady while still pushing growth. While this seems like a mixed blessing, worldwide environmental impacts in all areas have gradually risen over at least the last 50 years, and levelling off is itself highly impressive. It will also pave the way for further improvements.

Technological fixes developed to meet these targets will have application in other markets. Cutting supply chains is an increasingly high-tech process, as the “food technology” section of IBM’s website demonstrates, and systems and software will be copied elsewhere. Any niches in which they find big carbon-emission cuts will set precedents for the rest of industry. If Unilever turns its own vehicles and those of its supply chain electric, then the surge of demand could have a real impact on some electric car manufacturers, or on setting up the infrastructure needed on regular supply routes for mass electric car adoption.

If, moreover, they recruit a large and well-qualified sustainability department, then it will presumably remain in place and pursue new and more ambitious targets in ten years time. If it is scaled back at some point then at least some of the sustainability-minded staff are like to be reabsorbed into the rest of its organisation, also no bad thing.

John Elkington: Now believes business, not consumers, will be at the heart of sustainability

There will be those who will criticise this initiative as greenwash (there always are) but so far it seems like this is an attempt to push through deep-rooted changes to their supply system, not simply produce eye-catching initiatives to seek headlines. If they had wanted that, surely they would have stopped short of the kinds of promises they are now making. It is revealing that John Elkington, who I know from my academic studies as someone driving a push for sustainability since at least with mid-1990s, has reflected in the Guardian “Now it seems as if the process is going into reverse with companies, rather than consumers, in the green driving seat.”

There will be those who will complain that they are motivated by the wrong things. To those people I say: who cares? If you give someone a gift then your motive does matter, because the meaning of that gift in that relationship is determined by your motive. If you are dealing with an abstract supply-chain change, then this is simply not the case. If Unilever “green” their supply chain, then the motives of those involved will have little or no impact. Moreover Jonathon Porritt has written in his piece on the announcement: “The data-gathering has been rigorous (as is always the case in Unilever)”, a throwaway line that rings very true: when companies as hard-nosed as Unilever decide to do something, they don’t mess around.

As time goes on there will be failures and questions over whether the target can be achieved, or whether the accounting system is effective. This kind of scrutiny is essential to avoid good intentions and grand designs falling by the wayside. Overall, however, we should praise Unilever for its efforts, or risk damaging the incentive for other companies to follow suit.

As an addendum, I will admit to being I am faintly jealous of my boss at the NGO at which I’m now working, who saw the launch with figures including John Elkington. Elkington is a semi-mythical figure for me, the inventor of the much revered “triple-bottom-line” of social business and CSR, referring to combining business, environmental and social goals. Reading about the application of this by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen bank was a seminal moment for me. As a boy I wanted (for reasons still unclear to me) to be the archetypal big capitalist man, but as I travelled and then became a humanities student, I became very much aware of the other side of life, what might be called a “people and planet” ethos. This was the framework that made me realise I could reconcile the two, and that this was where my future lay.

A recent exchange in The Washington Post reminds us all that in sometimes in PR, as in life, the best defence is a good offence.

Michael Mann: Controversial and adversarial paleoclimatologist

About a month ago, the controversial U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Washington Post attacking the politicians who are making threatening noises towards him and his colleagues. Mann argues that senior U.S. politicians are playing politics with what should be objective science. Senator Joe Barton has written a response completely ignoring this argument and framing the discussion instead in terms freedom of speech and freedom to challenge scientists.

Rarely is it more clear that public debates are won and lost not with different answers to the same question, but by arguing over the nature of the question. Mann has pushing the debate towards greater scrutiny of the right-wing attack dogs that threaten climate science. By pointing to this undue politicisation, the debate is dragged away from bickering over scientific detail and from the community of climate scientists constantly fending off attacks that steadily chip away at their credibility.

Joe Barton: Republican Congressman from Texas in the news recently for attacking the White House's "shakedown" of BP

Climate scientists, like many scientists, are often too happy to bury themselves in their work and ignore the arguments going on around them. The climategate fiasco of last December was largely a result of inaction by the scientists under fire failing to open up and get their message out quickly enough, a classic case of surrendering control of the conversation.

Hoggan the Spotlight: Expert Perspective

James Hoggan, the CEO of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and the man behind an award winning climate change blog (pictured below) puts it, good PR involves three stages

  • Do the right thing
  • Be seen to be doing the right thing
  • Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up

With the climate science community we are so often left to wonder what happened to number 2. (See here for Hoggan’s blog’s take on the Washington post exchange.)

On a similar note, after existing for more than twenty years the high profile Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have announced in their most recent press release, which is about as quotable as most tax returns, that they are going to put together a communication strategy.

It’s about time.

James Hoggan: Expert in both good communications and the "Darth Vader" PR of some on the right-wing of US politics

IPCC Plays Defence

After a year that has encompassed “climategate” and the IPCC’s own “Amazongate”, this seems long overdue. The IPCC has long kept its head down and played a purely defensive game in its PR, and while good defense is important, it keeps the conversation on “can the IPCC be trusted?” and “is climate science credible?”. Some proportion of those reading that debate are bound to come down on the side of “no”. If the attacks are fended off well, that may be 20% rather than 80%, but it is still lost ground.

It is widely known in insider circles that the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (2007), the most recent, was written at the conservative end of climate science to avoid giving a platform for its critics. In a 3,000 page report, however, there were bound to be weaknesses found sooner or later. On top of this recent ad hominem attacks (attacks on people to undermine arguments – “playing the man and not the ball”), on its chairman Rajendra Pachauri show that even the defence is not enough. (It is worth reading the column in which George Monbiot lays waste to the claims made against Pachauri.)

While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the IPCC, say, take out a set of attack adverts against their detractors in true US political style, it’s good to see someone showing a bit of fight-back.

Channel 4’s “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” presents a fairly convincing and useful narrative of the problems with the green movement. The detail, however, was highly questionable, and the programme drew superficial conclusions from a good starting point.

Last night’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong told the story of an environmentalist movement too caught up in its own out-of-date orthodoxies and failing to realistically engage with the challenges of the modern world. Particularly under scrutiny were their histories on nuclear power and on GM foods. It was claimed that environmentalists had over-egged the dangers of nuclear power and of GM foods and that this was harming the people of the world by misrepresenting the realities. In the subsequent debate it was clear this caricatured the position of those under scrutiny, particularly Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Their objections to nuclear power and GM in some contexts was due to specific concerns, including the cost of nuclear and the risks of reducing crop diversity and becoming dependent on big US companies business with reliance on GM.

Environmentalists Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand, who were at the heart of the documentary, were also consistently shot down on factual inaccuracies throughout the subsequent debate by the very environmentalists they claim were ill-informed and dogmatic. In particular Greenpeace representative Dr. Doug Parr shot down Stewart Brand for claiming that Greenpeace campaigned for a worldwide ban on DDT that was later achieved. His failure to provide a source for either claim, Greenpeace’s campaign or a resulting worldwide ban, is being chased by firebrand journalist George Monbiot, who has updated his website during the day with his correspondence.

(As an aside, there was also a revealing criticism from George Monbiot, both in the debate and since on his blog, that the film suffered from being drunk on techo-fixes without widening the discussion to structural problems. While undoubtedly making a good point, this did not undermine the central thesis of the programme.)

Factual questions aside, the film set up a dichotomy between “old” and “new” environmentalists that simply doesn’t exist. Do different self-defined “greens” have a variety of views on policy issues? Of course. But the idea that a new consensus is emerging or that an old one existed is, at best, out of date: there have long been different shades of green (and I’ve written before that to my mind the most useful tool for looking at this is Clapp and Dauvergne’s definitions of market liberal greens, institutionalist greens, bioenvironmentalists and social greens.)

I’ve written recently on the report by Deutsche Bank on climate scepticism. Add to that initiatives by Ernst and Young, and Zurich Insurance and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the oft-cited reports on abatement cost curves by McKinsey and a picture emerges of strong corporate environmentalism making a real contribution to shaping a new world. (No doubt some of the same firms are under scrutiny by other environmentalists, especially social greens, and that is a process of scrutiny to be highly praised. No doubt there are times when green action and greenwash become confused, but let us not shoot for hypocrisy the chain smoker proud of cutting back, as the chronically self-righteous are so often tempted to do. I digress, however.)

My experience is that there are tribal greens who share certain orthodoxies and for whom beliefs follow identity rather than reason. Where that is the case, there is a need for introspection and change on their part. The idea that this is blighting the environmental movement, however, is nonsense. When Greenpeace representatives speak at events, they are almost always extremely smart, specific and nuanced in their opinions and, most of all, well-informed.

Overall, the argument was not without merit. The green movement should avoid becoming an isolated group bound to its own orthodoxies, especially when the wider world is now relatively sympathetic to its beliefs about climate change and sustainability more general.

Particularly telling was Lynas’s comment “We’re losing the war for public opinion. The response of greens to that wall of public indifference is to shout louder and in some cases to exaggerate. And that of course makes you very vulnerable to a backlash.” The representative from the pollsters IPSOS Mori in the subsequent debate supported this argument, describing apocalyptic stories as “ a turn off”, a truth increasingly widely accepted by campaigners.

The recent 10:10 campaign is perhaps the clearest evidence of this. This premise, however, is not evidence enough to wholeheartedly embrace nuclear power, GM foods and geoengineering as the programme suggests. These are ongoing discussions in which Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups will continue to play a major role.

What the Green Movement Got Wrong and the subsequent debate will stay on the Channel 4 website until early December