Category: Climate Change: PR hits and PR misses


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.

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

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.)

The centre-left, human-rights-aware liberals do not need convincing that climate change is a big deal. Conservative (with a small ‘c’) middle England may be harder to convince, and to keep from objecting to future legislation. Here are five suggestions for reaching out to them.

This story, unusually, starts with a poster in a toilet. I was at London’s Frontline Club on Monday, at an event dealing with U.S. foreign policy (an audience with Scott Malcomson promoting Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11 if you’re interested) and saw an out-of-date list of other events on at the venue which included “Should human rights be at the heart of climate change policy? This got me thinking, that inevitably such an event, while no doubt being informative, preaches very much to the converted, as does much of climate change thinking that focuses on human rights and the impact on the world’s poorest. The Guardian newspaper tends to be mocked as read by sandal-wearing, beardy types, so much so that I knew a temporarily unemployed (and decidedly both intelligent and liberal) middle-aged professional who ruled out reading its job section because “The Guardian is for people going nowhere”.

Reaching out to middle England – why it’s different

Sadly, talking about the world’s poorest, human rights, “the environment”, perhaps also peak oil and renewable energy seems to have no impact on a certain section of middle England. There are a number of possible barriers here

  • Belief in climate change
  • Belief that it will affect them and is not just an overhyped concern of the sandal-wearing (or perhaps closet sandal-wearing in the case of the Liberal Democrat leadership)
  • Belief that this is a policy issue worthy of wide interest and concern in the way that education or health is, not a niche concern for a minority of activists

Perhaps needless to say, concerns about fish stocks, colony collapse disorder in beekeeping and many other issues face the same kinds of barriers. The goal for communicators targeting this group should be to neutralise mainstream opposition to climate change legislation. Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown’s advisior on climate change and energy issues while he was in power, referred in a recent talk (at the LSE hosted by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy) to the “sphere of relative non-punishment” for government decisions. This is an area in which the public and media tacitly support a policy enough for the government to be able to follow it without any serious attacks.

Following “climategate” and other knocks to the credibility of climate change policy, there is a risk of important legislation sliding out of that category and gathering a vocal lobby of opponents capable of making it harder for the UK government to legislate. The Daily Mail presents such opposition regularly, and recent developments in the U.S. far right suggest a risk of this growing over here as well. This is also about the medium-term battle: so far climate change policy has been slight, low-profile and relatively painless. If the kind of emissions cuts envisioned by Stern and by the government’s legal obligation under the 2008 Climate Change Act (34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050) are to happen, all three of those characteristics may quickly change.

A second goal, of course, is to move the gentle believers into passionate activists, but that’s a question for another time.

FIVE WAYS TO WOO MIDDLE ENGLAND

1. – Conservation

Attenborough: Prepared to stand up for wind-farms

Conservationist feeling tends to come from a very different segment of the population to the typical liberal Guardian reader. I particularly remember this from the diaries of 1980s Conservative minister Alan Clark, who was irritated by a member of his staff talking about human rights (“his Guardianesque obsession”) rather than the British interest on a trade mission, but felt strongly about cruelty to animals and passionate enough about anti-fur legislation to consider resignation from the government when it was blocked by the Prime Minister.  Conservation groups like the RSPB tend to be singing from the same hymn sheet as Friends of the Earth (environmentalist) and Oxfam (development-focused) on this.

At present the middle England conservationist perspective risks being turned against climate change in general by windfarms. A more traditional form of environmentalism, focusing on leaving natural habits untouched and preserving landscapes is pitted against the strands of environmentalism that argue strongly for renewable energy wherever possible. As well as the RSPB’s support of windfarms, David Attenborough, as the popular face of conservation is a potentially powerful force against opposition, having spoken out in favour of a turbine in a local dispute a two years ago.

2. – Hard-nosed Economics

I have written in the past of the inportant influence of the Stern Review in presenting the economic case for climate change. Some have subsequently pointed to the differing conclusions of other economists like Tol and Nordhaus, but these criticisms are deftly dealt with in Stern’s more recent “Blueprint for a Safer Planet“, which allows Stern to demonstate the full range of his intelligence and understanding outside the confines of the more technical report. Experts disagree, of course, that is in many ways their jobs, but attempts to paint Stern as a lightweight or unduly biased by his political mandate should be dismissed as the nonsense they are, and details of argument and counter-argument can be found in this book.

Another aspect of the focus on economics is what I would describe as “industries of the future” rhetoric, drawing on the language and concerns of business and commerce.  and perhaps even fear of losing commercial ground to other countries, as in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times on on China’s growing investment in low-carbon technology. This was highly recommended by an article in The Guardian a little over a year ago, but on reflection this a good step but not the whole story – I strongly suspect that to a certain kind of worldview this kind of rhetoric is dismissed as overly-slick government (or at least “establishment”) rhetoric. Or just as “bullshit”. It tends to come out of the mouths of politicians in the Tony Blair mould (including, in this context,  Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg), all of whom risk seem a bit too polished and media savvy to be trusted when these kinds of optimistic claims are made.

3. – Steal the position of the “grumpy cynic”

Clarkson: Tells us a lot about middle England

Part of the ideological division on climate change may be categorised as the “Monbiot vs. Clarkson” problem. Guardian journalist George Monbiot can be classified as intellectual, globally engaged and interested in liberal concerns like aid, foreign policy and, of course, climate change. One of his most impressive features is his staggering grasp of detail. Jeremy Clarkson, best known as presenter of the BBC’s “Top Gear” on new cars tends to argue from the perspective of middle England, arguing for “common sense” rather than detailed grasp of the facts.

This attitude is described by two major reports on climate change communications, Warm Words and Warm Words II, by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) as “settlerdom”. To quote from their first report:

‘Settlers’ (so-called because they have sustenance driven needs associated with the home) tend to look backwards to yesterday, which was better, and tend to dislike anything new or different as they feel this threatens their identity, belonging, security and safety.

In this context, ‘settlerdom’ rejects and mocks the alarmist discourse – and with it climate change – not through any form of expert discourse or argument but through invoking ‘common sense’. This repertoire constructs itself (in other words, the speaker and implied audience) as ‘the sane majority’ in opposition to ‘the doom-mongers’ or ‘the global warming brigade’ who are ‘keeping us all awake’.

Increasingly, in my experience, that cynicism is shifting to a cynicism towards the sceptics. It is, as I have repeatedly argued, an unfair generalisation to dismiss all disagreement, however moderate and independent, as oil-company-funded lies. It may, however, be a useful generalisation to live with, if every time your grumpy cynic reads piece shedding doubt on climate change, they roll their eyes at them rather than at us. The idea that we’re all doomed due to government incompetence also seems to fit well with the traditional “settler” position. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, there seemed to be a sense of “the bloody government has let us down again”. This kind of attitude may be one that can be capitalised on.

4. – Include the moderate sceptics in the discussion

There is a tendency to vilify all climate change “sceptics” in the left-wing press. An article in The Guardian entitled “Coalition of denial” includes Bjø rn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson, even Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner in its list of enemies, contributing to the impression that climate change circles are intolerant and blood spitting. In reality all of the above make it clear that climate change demands government intervention and all propose different policy approaches to do this.

Lomborg: Not as sceptical as the critics claim

Despite this, Lomborg and Lawson in particular have become poster boys for climate change scepticism in the UK, much more so than hardline sceptics like  journalist Christopher Booker and Martin Durkin and the oil companies’ misinformation campaign that plays a big role in providing their information, whether they realise this or not. Lomborg has been accused of a “U-turn” on climate change in his most recent book “Smart Solutions to Climate Change” published earlier this month, arguing in it that climate change is a major problem facing the world. The idea that this is a changed position is obviously nonsense for those who have read his earlier work, which has long held that climate change is a major problem, just badly approached and less so than some claim. Both he and Nigel Lawson not only acknowledge that climate change exists (or at least probably exists in Lawson’s case) and both think it’s serious enough to merit policy action. Rather than demonising them, point out that while they disagree on the severity of climate change risks (an area in which there is wide discussion and disagreement in public and academic circles) they’re having the same conversation. The most high-profile sceptics can be treated as supporting the general conclusions of the consensus. I say “presented”, but this would not be illegitimate spin, it would be the reality of their arguments, detached from the rhetoric that typically surrounds them. Middle England is wary of a unified front of the environmentally friendly – the more we present consensus, the more it looks like there isn’t enough real debate. Such is the paradox of the modern media and its desire to present argument and debate. By acknowleding debate but pointing to areas of agreement, it establishes a baseline of shared understanding.

5. – Assume, assume, assume

This is perhaps the most successful and universally applied strategy to win over those dubious about climate change: assume the major conclusions to be certain. This is a powerful psychological tool, advocated strongly by the aforementioned Warm Words reports and practiced earlier this week when Ed Miliband told the Labour party conference of the need to act on climate change. No debate, no discussion of disagreement – it was presented, as it should be, like just one more policy issue that needs a solution.

The case could be made that this creates a dangerous orthodoxy, but this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Experts will continue to understand the detail and hold their nuanced positions irrespective of political speeches, newspaper columns or anything else aiming for a more popular audience. Climate change has never suffered from lack of informed debate, but frequently from ill-informed squabbling.

Concluding thoughts

There is a constantly fine balance between explaining seriousness of climate change and appearing alarmist. This demands that we keep our messages serious but not over-serious, and avoid flights of rhetorical fancy that alienate where they should inform and persuade.

It is essential to convince governments to take action on climate change and to provide a show of public support for legislation, but perhaps the most important thing for influencing the public mood is to keep climate change in that “sphere of relative non-punishment” to let policymakers get on with it.

As well as the trap of believing that climate change is not certain enough to merit action, we must escape the trap of believing it is too late. The science just isn’t that certain. What, then, for those who (almost) said Copenhagen was our last hope?

Lovelock: It's already too late for mitigation

Of the big names discussing climate change, only one, to my knowledge, has announced that it is too late for mitigation, and that is James Lovelock, who’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, argues that we must already look only to adaptation to preserve civilisation. Lovelock, the man behind Gaia theory, is smart and insightful has a good grasp of the facts but he comes from a point of view that some academics (Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) term “bioenvironmentalist” – broadly speaking it means he puts non-interference in the planet first at all costs. Besides the bias that gives him he is also just one voice of many who put the point of no return at many different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and we must recognise that this is an ongoing conversation. It will be a long time before despair is certain, just as it will be a long time since a safe future climate is assured.

Many others, however, have argued that the point of no return is now or very, very shortly, including NASA’s influential James Hansen, leading activist Mark Lynas and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot led the proverbial charge at Copenhagen and all but made it clear he considered this mankind’s last stand. In one subsequent article he pondered “I wonder whether the government of Denmark, whose atrocious management of the conference contributed to its failure, would have tried harder if its people knew that in a few hundred years they won’t have a country any more” and in another concluded: “Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.” Moreover in a recent article reflecting on the limits of achievements so far, despair seemed to be setting in to his rhetoric.

Monbiot: Managing the rhetoric carefully but risking crying "wolf" too often

I said earlier he “all but” claims this as mankind’s last stand. He wisely avoids saying anything that nails him too strongly to such a position, I suspect partly because he understands the science too well to believe that it is certainly too late now, but let this blog make it clear that the uncertainties in climate science make it impossible to make such statements with certainty at this stage. It may even already be too late to prevent a set of planet-warming positive feedbacks, or we may have more time than we think, but these are dangerous risks to be complacent about.

This truth puts Monbiot and the others in the position of gently backtracking from an implication that any one point is now or never. It will be hard call to make for them: for those less masterful in their prose every time they say it, it may be true and they may even believe it, but if they cry “wolf” at every conference or major bill passing then their credibility will go down. Making dramatic predictions at this stage make it harder in five years time when the next battles need to be won. No doubt there will continue to be cases of extreme weather, but these are always impossible to connect absolutely to the climate change, and the scientific community are rightly reserved about doing so (see the work of Roger Pielke Jr.): such an overstatement risks being pilloried.

As a result, the commentariat need to find new ways to persuade the public that the big agreements matter, without making claims they can’t stand by. Like the proverbial poker player, they mustn’t bet their whole hand each time.It’s a hard message to sell – “we need progress because it just might be too late this time, rather than last time or next time”. It will involve the language of risk management, another tough thing to get across when news headlines lend themselves to bold statements. Those are the challenges for talking about climate change when the big steps forward are promised.

Good hunting.

Vince Cable’s speech at the Lib Dem party conference seemed chaotic and anti-market, where his Labour predecessors might have positioned themselves more skilfully at a mid-point between business and detractors of the free market.

Disclaimer

First, let me hold up my hands and say


Vince Cable speaks to the Lib Dem party conference

1. I know this train of thought has little or nothing to do with climate change, but it interested me to explore some rhetoric as part of a wider project of thinking about communications.

2. My understanding of party political speeches is limited to what I read in the papers, and doubtless major conference speeches are carefully tailored to many different audiences and speechwriters do not just knock out anything they think sounds good and there are many layers there I can’t begin to fathom. So by all means take my thoughts with a pinch of salt.

WWBD?

In watching Vince Cable’s speech today to the Liberal Democrat party conference and the subsequent news coverage I found myself asking WWBD? – what would Blair do? The Business Secretary and high-profile Lib Dem coalition member’s staff leaked phrases which appeared on the Guardian website last night including his intention to “shine a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour” and “Let me be quite clear…the government’s agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Markets are often irrational or rigged”. These turns of phrases suggested an aggressively anti-business and anti-market approach that made the headlines but was nothing like the detail of the speech itself, which at one point explicitly agreed with Adam Smith.


Blair: Still in many ways the yardstick for political public speaking. He and his team earned the reputation "sultans of spin"

Buried as I am in the former Prime Minister’s autobiography, my impression is that the new Labour project in general and Blair in particular, always seemed to have a knack for stating their own mid-point between two positions. Most clearly this came from their positioning between the far left of Old Labour and the hard right of the Tories, but also time and again on other issues. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” springs to mind, but a quick flick through the internet shows me “An Age of Achievement is within our grasp – but it depends on an Ethic of Education” from Blair’s 1996 Ruskin speech. Both of these deliberate sound bites take a straightforward statement and modify it with a balancing statement to show the two strands of ideas being reconciled.

Rethinking capitalism

Cable similarly presented two ideas in his speech and vaguely sought to reconcile them. But the soundbites were unequivocal and the reality of the speech seemingly fudged. He argued at one point “we need successful business” but followed up that statement with two paragraphs of strong anti-capitalist rhetoric. He later returned to the need to drive growth in a section on where it would come from and has protested elsewhere that he is resolutely not as anti-business as the main soundbites from his speech suggest, but the overall impression was of schizophrenia rather than reconciliation of two conflicting perspectives into, if I may use the phrase, a third way.

My impression is that Cable, following much of the current climate of opinion is looking for a new model for capitalism, a popular topic following the banking crash and disillusionment with market economics. I can give you no better evidence of this wider sense of a public discussion moving that way than the recent New Statesman article on the recent wave of books on this topic. His suspicion of large-scale corporate takeovers, his chastisement of banks while also explicitly intending to rely on them to fuel recovery and his rhetoric in today’s speech of reining in capitalism to create “a level playing field for small business” suggest he favours state invention as a means of managing and aiding market capitalism. It is as if he divides his ideas into encouraging “good” aspirational, competitive, hard-working business and “bad” greedy, oversized and powerful business. If this state-enabled capitalism is his key message – and that’s a big “if” – it is not coming across.


Toby Ziegler, the fictional White House Director of Communications and principle speechwriter on TV series "The West Wing". Hero and inspiration to many fans

Your blogger’s failed Toby Ziegler moment

I thought I’d try my hand at writing a New Labouresque soundbite to this effect and see if I have a future as a West-Wing style political operator. This has gone absolutely nowhere, but here are my attempts:

Markets must be allowed liberty, but not licence” – not clear enough.

The wild horses of markets power our economy, but should not be allowed to stampede through the town” – ridiculous flowery metaphor.

A friend to business, an enemy to business gone bad” – “business gone bad” sounds absurd, vaguely like a zombie movie.

We must chart a middle course between the rock of too much government management, stifling innovation and restricting growth, and the hard place of markets raging out of control and damaging that same growth” – tortuous attempt to fit an idea round a cliché.

Lessons for climate change communication

Perhaps nothing too clear-cut, but there is no doubt that there are examples of polarisation in climate change debates to be overcome, not only the rethinking of climate sceptics following the storm of “climategate” but also the need to reconcile adaptation and mitigation, market approaches and bottom-up approaches, technological development and behaviour change and climate change with peak oil and sustainability. Much as New Labour tried to hold onto the support of both the old left and the centre-left middle class, so climate change policy and rhetoric may need to drag together nature-loving conservationists and hard-nosed economists.

Food for thought.

A Deutsche Bank report debunking out-of date climate sceptics’ science will help to lock up the centre ground and disprove ill-informed rants like that by Michael O’Leary. “Red greens” linking climate change to left-wing politics should ally with center-ground thought like this until climate change is under control.

The Deutsche Bank Logo: A valuable sign to have next to a thorough rebuttal of weak and disproven arguments

Last Wednesday saw the publication of a Deutsche Bank report systematically taking apart the main out-of-date climate sceptic arguments that still seem to get repeated at every opportunity. This is an invaluable reference point, not because the arguments are new, but because it’s published with the logo of Deutsche Bank on it. No doubt there will be a backlash, other studies cited and counter narratives drawn up by journalists in the right-wing American press. Understandably so, given that the report explicitly aims to secure investment in climate change technologies and relies on Colombia University experts: they are wide open to accusations of bias that are fairly unarguable. This blog has always been keen to point out that not all sceptics are right-wing, oil-funded sultans of spin, but such right-wing attack dogs exist, and no doubt they will make themselves heard. Watch this space.

The other benefit of this report, is that it can’t be accused of shutting down debate. Well, I’m sure someone will find a way, but come on. This is not about science, it’s about PR: the arguments the report rebuts are out of date arguments that have been widely disproven by the scientific community but continue to be widely cited. A case in point is the recent interview with Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, which one commentator described as like “inviting the audience to play ‘climate sceptic bingo’, such is the density of clichés and canards contained within each of the sentences he utters”. Several the claims regurgitated by O’Leary’s are rebutted by this report. Quotes are mostly taken from the one page summary on their website for simplicity, but the report is exhaustively researched and referenced:

O'Leary: Not convinced by climate change

O’Leary: “It used to be [called] global warming, but now, when global temperatures haven’t risen in the past 12 years, they say ‘climate change’.”

Deutsche Bank: “In fact, the decade of 2000 to 2009 is the warmest since measurements have been made. Multiple factors affect global average temperatures, including the long-term warming trend from GHGs. This time-varying interaction of climate drivers can lead to periods of relatively stable temperatures interspersed with periods of warming. The anomalously high global average temperatures in 1998 associated with the El Niño have been followed by comparably high values that reflect a combination of long-term warming and shorter-term natural variability. Periods of relatively constant temperature are not evidence against global warming.”

O’Leary: “We’ve also had a couple of very hot spells during the Middle Ages, so nobody can deny [natural] climate change.”

Deutsche Bank: “Northern hemisphere temperatures in the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) may have been comparable to today, but the estimates have high uncertainty because there are so few records and spatial coverage is spotty. However, a MWP warmer than the last decade does not challenge the case for anthropogenic warming.”

O’Leary: “Scientists argue there is global warming because they wouldn’t get half of the funding they get now if it turns out to be completely bogus”

Deutsche Bank: Page 14 of the report points out that climate change accounts for a relatively small amount of government budgets and barely filters through to individual researchers.

O’Leary: “it is absolutely bizarre that the people who can’t tell us what the fucking weather is next Tuesday can predict with absolute precision what the fucking global temperatures will be in 100 years’ time.”

Deutsche Bank: “We do not rely only on models for our understanding of the effect of greenhouse gases on climate. Theory (i.e. the physics and chemistry of the planet’s atmosphere and ocean) and observations are the foundation of our ability to understand climate and to assess and quantify forcing and impacts. Models represent the most formal way in which to project and quantify future conditions. Despite well known limitations to climate models such as the uncertainties of clouds, aerosols, and spatial resolution, climate models are increasingly able to reproduce a range of physical processes and feedbacks. They unanimously predict warming with increasing greenhouse gases of a magnitude consistent with estimates independently derived from observed climate changes and past climate reconstructions.” (Incidentally, no-one would argue that climate models show “absolute precision”, but they are considered at their most accurate between 40 and 60 years into the future. In the short term natural variability can mean temperatures don’t fit the models, but these tend to average out over time. In the longer term there are more and more incompletely understood factors playing a role).

Deutsche Bank: Not an obvious ally to left-wing agendas like climate camp (picture bottom right)

What’s important with these kinds of scientific arguments is not that they shut down debate, which they don’t, but that they contain it. One only has to look on the blogosphere, on news websites or on Amazon.com to see that there is not a lack of climate change debate, and the idea sometimes put about that the liberal intelligencia is trying to shut it down is self-evident nonsense. Scientific debates and discussions are important, but they tend to dominate discussion, including in the media. When climategate, “glaciergate” and various other more minor “gates” drag discussion back to scientific bickering over temperature records, we lose sight of managing mitigation and adaptation. If this report is widely distributed, the summary of the arguments will prove invaluable in debunking sceptic myths.

The hockey stick controversy gets significant attention in the report (indicative of its continued high profile) and recognises the role of legitimate criticism by McIntyre and McKitrick while still puncturing the over-hyped “breaking of the hockey stick”. This distinguishes effectively between real criticism and types of “attacks on science” spelled out in the introduction. The report is careful to cast its net wide, dealing with both the scientific disputes and other claims, like the argument that climate scientists spin results to secure funds.

Climate Camp: Capitalism needs to be rethought alongside climate change

This presents a problem for the “red greens” campaigning on climate change, who are probably unwilling to jump into bed with the likes of Deutsche Bank. Less than a month ago protesters at “climate camp” in Edinburgh were arguing that one can’t engage with climate change without rethinking the capitalist system . In all honesty I’m not unsympathetic – is there a link between the western world’s addiction to economic growth and various environmental problems, including declining finite resources (oil, precious metals), deforestation and climate change? No question. Unfortunately it is widely thought that the point at which catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable is about…now. Rethinking the world’s relationship with what goes into its economy (natural resources) and what comes out (pollution) is an important project, but one on a much longer timescale. It’s not going to happen overnight, while effective climate change mitigation and adaptation must. To put it another way: guys, Deutsche Bank is now your friend. Deal with.

Sustainability: A herculean task of modern times

At a meeting at PR firm Fishburn Hedges last week on communicating sustainability, one of the discussion topics was how much sustainability should be treated as one issue and how much a multitude. According to their own write-up, a “key conclusion” was: “A variety of ‘sustainability’ messages from water to conservation can conflict and cause confusion.” My impression was that it was a more contested discussion than that. In particular, Alan Knight OBE, who has a long history of making corporate sustainability happen, argues in favour of issue-specific eco-labelling, floating the benefits of seventy separate labels for different causes and rejecting the suggestion of one sustainability brand to rule them all. I have some concerns with this, not least the lack of scrutiny eco-labels currently get and the inability of consumers to get their heads around them.

To deal with the general point, however. I square this circle by viewing sustainability as a many-headed hydra: different issues have different faces and personalities, but are fundamentally one core problem. When Hercules cut one of its heads off the Hydra of classical mythology in the second of his twelve tasks, two more heads appeared in its place. The same can be said of taking a narrow view of individual environmental issues: if CO2 or over-fishing is tackled without reference to a broader systemic shift in society’s attitude to consumption and resource management, then we get nowhere. This problem was demonstrated in practice when at the same talk Doug Johnston, director for climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young, referred to many companies only reporting their carbon emissions with little or no reference to other areas.

Cutting off one head of the hydra: A carbon capture and storage site, one of many images of this developing technology from a feature article on the website of Scientific American

To stretch the metaphor further than is probably a good idea, that is not to say there isn’t a case for lopping off the head that’s biting you at any one time. Let’s take the example of carbon capture and storage (CCS): this technology, which captures CO2 from major sources like power plants and pumps it underground, achieves nothing except CO2 reductions, so is not ideal overall. That said, given the difficulties of reducing CO2 emissions, it is probably a good idea to have a broad portfolio of approaches. But if we can find ways to instead improve the supply of cheap renewable energy, that also solves our fossil-fuel supply problems and builds towards a future of cheap sustainable energy for the whole planet, not to mention easing the geopolitics of energy security.

Where this metaphor falls down, of course, is with the complexity of climate change outside a sustainability issue. I have previously argued that climate change should be disentangled from left-wing politics. I am increasingly of the opinion it should be disentangled from “green” issues and treated as a general policy issue (like universities policy, say, or debates on primary care trusts that appear regularly in the UK news media). Green messages engage an engaged minority, but climate change should be integrated into other areas.

It is a well-known argument in academic circles that the ultimate goal of environmental policy should be to fully integrated with all strands of policy making, but in the case of climate change an especially strong case is made by the recent Hartwell Paper, with a variety of impressive authors, on “A new direction for climate policy, after the crash of 2009”. This seeks to link climate change in with not only wider sustainability goals but also supplying low-cost energy globally for a growing world population,  equipping societies to “withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever may be their cause” (p.8).

In the News: This week saw the end of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission. Hopefully this will not damage understanding of environmental sustainability as one interconnected issue in policy-making circles.

Somewhere, a little swamped by the coverage of the (finally) capped oil leak, have been two other environmental stories in the last couple of days, one dry but important, one inspirational.

On the one hand, a UN-backed report tells us that renewable energy has grown steadily. To lift directly from the BBC:

The authors said the year was “unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices and slow progress with climate policy”.

One of the forces propelling the sector’s strong showing, they added, was the “potential to create new industries and millions of new jobs”. (BBC Website)

A different, Swiss-made manned solar-powered plane. Ok, the aesthetics could use a bit of work...

Good to know, and good context to the second story, that a small, solar-powered sports plane has completed a 7-day flight. Now perhaps I’m getting too excited about this, but, a solar-powered plane! I’m not normally one to get excited about technology or new machines, but this one I can get on the wavelength of. At this point we’re just talking about a tiny, unmanned plane (although there have also been short, manned flights) and no doubt we have years, probably decades, to wait before this becomes a commercial technology carrying the masses through the skies, but its potential as a symbol seems to me to be huge. Wind farms carry a lot of baggage with them, solar panels on the ground are very rarely glamorous or beautiful, but the idea of a solar has a kind of excitement factor to it. It’s easy to imagine fleets of beautiful, silent solar planes with huge wings flying through the sky. It’s futuristic, and not in a kitsch way. I highly recommend a google image search for solar-powered planes: this latest story is, of course just one of many developments of this kind, and the machines are mostly a good-looking bunch.

Somewhere in the last fifty years flying has turned from a glamorous pursuit, a symbol of the future and living at a fast pace, to something morally dubious and done by the packed-in masses with Ryanair or EasyJet. Surely there is something left in that original fantasy of taking to the skies to give this idea the kind of thrill that most renewable energy innovations or energy efficiency drives just don’t have. I would be sorry if this happened in a vacuum, but coupled with the UN report which places this story in an optimistic big picture, this feels like a good omen. I hope there are artists, writers, songwriters out there taking note.

For many of us, flying less is one of the most difficult behaviour changes to envision in a world with, say, high carbon taxes. Some of those most concerned about global warming also believe strongly in the value of a smaller world, myself included. This theme is excellently covered in the song ‘Flying’ by highly political folk-pop group Seize The Day, who I think it’s fair to say are slightly to the left of Gandhi reading the communist manifesto while on crack. This was written by a member of the group to show that she, while having stopped flying herself, understands the positions of their friends who still do. Climate change is not an easy subject to write songs about, but they manage it by making it highly personal (and, indeed, slipping in some fantastic vocal harmonies).

“I discovered so much of who I am

Sitting in deserts in the sand

Nothing and no-one to get in the way

No bills to pay

I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea

I don’t want to think about all the places I may never see

Living is hard but flying is easy…”

(from “Flying” by Seize the Day)

Your blogger aged 19, taking advantage of a smaller world by learning the facts of Mongolian nomadic life in the Gobi desert

And this from climate change activists! For anyone who has gained a lot from international travel, (or, indeed, from high quality international imports), the appeal is obvious. For now, many of us are ready and willing to push for local products and cut down our travelling. But hope is a powerful thing.

The PR angle seems to me to be this. “While personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint are still essential, and the questions posed about our society by the environmental issues it causes remain, it’s looking like technology could make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier. We’re seeing more innovation, more jobs, and some outright excitement, including the possibility of flying up towards the sun, powered by the sun.”

With my dissertation due to be finished in a month on Monday I promised myself less blogging. But some blogs just write themselves…