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Promoting Climate Change: Hits and Misses

If you heard my story today on Marketplace, you know there's some debate over exactly what sort of messaging is best suited to climate change. Coming up with a message that resonates with people and makes them care about our warming planet can be tough.

One of the environmental movements biggest ad failures comes from the climate group 10:10UK. It produced a video in which kids who don't want to participate in a plan to reduce pollution get blown up.

I emailed back and forth with a spokesperson at 10:10UK to ask about future climate messaging and why they think this ad didn't work. Here's our exchange:

Adriene H: What do you all at 10:10UK see as the challenges around climate change messaging?

10:10UK: Most people in the UK understand that climate change represents a big problem, but because it's so big people don't feel empowered to do anything about it.

10:10UK: If you speak to people here they say they want to tackle climate change, but then they'll ask why business or government isn't doing more because they don't feel their personal contribution will be enough. If you speak to business they'll say they want to do more to stop climate change but they need support from consumers and government, then when you speak to government they'll say they want to do more but they need the support of people and business.

Climate change messaging needs to be better at encouraging people to work collaboratively, to show that their collective efforts do have an impact and to help them envision what a desirable lower carbon world looks like and motivate them to get there.

AH: What sorts of messages seem to resonate?

10:10UK: For 10:10 the message we find resonates is "everyone's at it", which is entirely true. All over the UK, people are cutting carbon in their personal and professional lives, and our approach has been to celebrate the good work that's already going on and to inspire people to go further.

This works because it makes people who are already cutting their carbon feel appreciated, so they want to continue rather than feeling that they've "done their bit". Sharing their experience helps those who are new to the issue understand that reducing your carbon footprint is not only possible, but maybe even enjoyable.

AH: What sorts of messages don't resonate?

10:10UK: There are no penguins in my garden. It's tragic that climate change threatens incredible animals like penguins and polar bears, but this can feel like a rather remote concern when you're juggling lots of day-to-day pressures.

The majority of people working on preventing climate change are motivated by the fact that they care about other people and want everyone to be able to flourish in a world un-threatened by climate change. They give up their weekends to go on marches and spend their evenings writing to politicians because they want their grandkids to have the same, if not a better quality of life, than they had.

Yet the conversation around climate change tends to focus on places most people will never go to, like the Arctic or the Amazon rainforest, and animals you'll almost certainly never see in the wild. As much as you might theoretically care about penguins, when you've got a job to do, a house to run and kids to take care of making sure penguins are ok will not be top of your priority list.

Climate change messaging needs to talk to people about their lives and the things they value. It needs to talk about the positives - saving money in a recession and the pleasures of living in an unpolluted, uncongested neighbourhood.

We also need to communicate through the right channels. We could write another op-ed piece in a left-wing paper which will only be read by people who agree with it already, or we could suggest to the producers of Glee that their characters switch off the light when the leave the room.

AH: Why do you think people responded so negatively to the ad you put out last year?

10:10UK: For us the major lesson from the ad was to stay positive. People responded negatively to a negative message. It's unfortunate that even though we're not an American organisation, the film got the most views in the US, an audience who were unaware that before and since then we've been a purely positive campaign. Positivity is why we've been so successful and that's certainly what we'll be sticking to from now on!
When you consider creating a new campaign or ad or message, who is your target audience?

10:10's supporters are a pretty broad spectrum and we like to be able to get as many people involved as possible. Our target audiences are people who would like to do something about their carbon emissions but don't know where to start, and people who would be interested in reducing their carbon if the outcomes were a little more appealing.

AH: How do you think climate change messaging will change this year?

10:10UK: For the UK the climate message is now about opportunity.

Let's talk about saving money as individuals and business by ensuring we're not wasting energy. Let's talk about being energy independent, not helpless victims of an oil price which yo yos up and down day to day. Let's talk about that next big innovation, that new product or idea that will save some energy, create some jobs and give our economy a boost.

Climate change is a challenge, no question. But our civilization has a long history of overcoming such challenges, and there is no reason to believe we won't succeed now.

More ad hits and misses
Here for your viewing pleasure, a few more climate ads that caught our eye.

  1. You might have missed it during the Super Bowl, it wasn't the flashiest ad that aired; but, Chevy ran a clean energy commercial:

2.Nissan's polar bear commercial is worth the time.

3.Looking for the sexed-up version of the "climate change" message? Here's Supermodels take it off for climate change

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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The "350" ad is so bad it's astounding. What were they thinking? Apparently nobody noticed that its "message" is so confused it's indecipherable and annoying.

The exploding kids thing? -- That is *not* "negative." It is tasteless. So tasteless, in fact, and so obnoxious that it could run as an anti-environmentalist ad almost without change. Again, what were they thinking?

These are both great ways to delete all public credibility, and fine examples of what happens when ideology overcomes common sense. One plus: the propagandists who dreamed these up have themselves lost credibility.

One of the more sensible voices on the climate change issue was the author Michael Crichton. He had no time for the hubris of scientists who, lacking any kind of handle on massive, chaotic, non-linear systems, armed with incomplete data and under-powered, non-validated and (necessarily, to simplify the calculations) skewed models, nevertheless claimed to be able to predict the climate 100 years out. Nor did he have any time whatever for the evangelical/apocalyptic/man-is-evil wing of the environmental movement.

That the climate is changing is so obvious that anyone who says otherwise just hasn't been paying attention. I knew it in the 1950s, as a kid growing up in Scotland, based on the winters I experienced and the much colder winters I saw depicted in 19th Century paintings. That the change is anthropogenic, or even "mostly anthropogenic", is another issue entirely. The data in IPCC still don't match the highly politicized, heavily edited summary for policy makers (not written, for the most part, by scientists), public pronouncements to the contrary.

Quite possibly the biggest disservice done to the debate was by Al Gore. Besides his palpable insincerity, his presentation was clearly over-dramatized and highly inflated, giving fuel to the propagandists (okay, nutcases) on both sides. As a result, the entire discussion has spent several years floundering in the wilderness of politicized irrationality, no common sense need apply. No wonder so few in the US, by survey, have much concern about climate change.

Yes, it's getting warmer. But a dispassionate climatologist will tell you nobody knows whether this will be a bad thing or a good thing (or both, depending on where you live). There used to be vineyards in the north of England; Greenland was once not just green, but rich in agriculture, before climate change froze it over. Dramatic and semi-apocalyptic outcomes of climate warming are not necessarily the most likely: they do make the best news stories, novels and movies.

Pollution, on the other hand, kills people right now, today, as I write this. London smog killed tens of thousands before the smokeless zone regulations banished it in the 1960s. LA smog hurts and kills many fewer people today mostly because lead-free gas, catalytic converters and smog regulations got things more under control. Air quality in China's big cities is about where the "black country" (black because of soot) of England was, 60 years ago. People just like your mom or your favorite kid die there every day because of it.

Pollution and non-degradable trash wreck ecosystems, turn rivers and parts of the ocean into death traps for plant and animal life, and are direct causes of debilitating and fatal illness. This takes no great effort to observe for oneself, and is well documented, so it's hard to see why anyone would be against recycling, electric vehicles, reducing oil dependency, solar or wind power -- or even nuclear power, despite all the fear-mongering.

Reducing pollution, reducing the amount of trash we push off on our neighbors and the oceans -- these are good things, and everyone can do something about them. And we can encourage our representatives to keep on with the clean air, clean environment thing. If enough people DO, rather than merely discuss, we can hand our grandkids a healthier, cleaner place to bring up their kids. If we don't, we will obviously give them something a step closer to the garbage-filled world of WALL-E. Kind of an easy choice, when you look at it that way.

We need to reframe the debate about energy supply. It has often been portrayed as a tension between the moral imperative of protecting the environment on the one hand and preserving the economic interests of the energy industry. This simplistic view misses the more difficult challenge that we face: namely, balancing the tension between protecting the environment—which would require us to turn off the use of fossil-fuels—against the equally important call for social justice of providing people around the world with sufficient affordable energy so they can live a healthy productive life. There are choices to be made, and the public at large must get engaged in making them.

Note in full disclosure:
[With idea of increasing public literacy about energy, my colleagues and I have written a book, A Cubic Mile of Oil. The book is a call for an informed public debate on energy, arguably the biggest challenge we face. The book is written for an interested layperson and makes all the technical discussion accessible and relatable by dispensing with mind numbing multipliers like billions, and trillions or unfamiliar units, like Watts, barrels and Btu. The book describes how much energy we use and from what sources, where we are headed, and what it would take to utilize alternate sources. It uses a cubic mile of oil (CMO) as the metric for comparing global energy flows from all sources.]

Dear Ms. Hill and staff at Market Place,

I listen to you folks on KCND 90.5 FM here in Bismarck, ND. I listened to your piece on global warming – all the way through too :). You are correct that many tend to tune out stories of impending doom linked to this subject. I think you missed another important point – that many of us don't buy the human caused link to this phenomenon. Those that have if you will, swallowed man caused link tend to just roll their eyes and say oh one of those people. There are many credible scientists that do not support the idea that humans are a major factor in climate change – Example: Roy Spencer – University of Alabama. Check out his book “Climate Confusion”. Perhaps he might be an interesting guest?
The continued reporting by many journalists covering stories on global warming and implying that the human caused link is a certainty does not do wonders for their credibility. There are many truly bad attributes linked to burning coal and petroleum products – heavy metals and other toxic substances being emitted in the air. CO2 is not one of them. I notice it is always reported in tons because it sounds like it is far more significant that way. If it was reported in the percentage of CO2 added to the minuscule amount normally present in the atmosphere (about .037% - pick your encyclopedia) it wouldn't sound very significant. I think many tune out this subject because they see it as a moot point – they don't perceive how they can truly make any difference.
I will now climb down from my soap box and wish you all a good afternoon. I am a supporter of public broadcasting and despite my occasional disagreement with some of the things I hear I think for the most part it is certainly worth the investment. Every one I have ever met from other affiliates have been first class people.

Best Regards,
Lorne Campbell

Thank you for making this story! I want Marketplace to come to the Green Long Beach! Festival. We will be expressing the hope of a new economy, of a new America that is happening in our city.
We are very aware of the solutions needed to jumpstart the economy. We will create a marketplace of solutions and provide the community within the opportunity to realize what "green" investments there are in this city. We will have a solar powered stage and booths of solar powered companies. We will talk about the oil rigs on our beaches and throughout the city and how we have the resources to change those oil rigs into wind turbines. We will power our stage on the sun and play great music and tell everyone LOOK! energy from the sun, and let them know we don't need to keep living this way. We don't have to be victims of the "powerful oil industries", those guys are fools. We will let people know that they have resources in their own city that can offer opportunities to create the economy we want to see. We'll have music and art and politicians and schools and teachers and parents and guest speakers and the "Green" port and vendors, of all kinds, investors in the green economy. We'll bring them all together and create a marketplace, an actual marketplace that offers local solutions to our local and global problems. Please come and cover this event. Marketplace, you inspire me to continue to believe in this economy. Someone please contact me! (562) 646-SOIL

I agree that so much of the discussion on climate change does not take into the account the concerns of "real people."

Take fewer long haul flights - how many people can even afford to travel?

Buy an energy efficient car - how many people can afford to own a car, or to replace the old one that they've got.

There won't be any more penguins/polar bears - My kids have never seen a penguin or a polar bear because I can't afford to take them to the zoo, so they won't notice.

And treating "greenness" as a fashion and creating peer pressure to "be green" just makes the whole thing seem even more elitist.

Tonight’s piece on making global warming a national priority seems to me to overlook the elephant in the room: the fact that so many “average Joe’s and Jane’s” don’t believe it exists. When we lived in Madison, WI—a liberal, university town--most of our acquaintances (religious and non) at least accepted it as a reality, but when traveling in rural WI and now moving back to TX, we find most people we know—or even bump into—see it as a fraud. What environmentalists fail to recognize is that political conservatives see global warming as a liberal fraud perpetrated on the masses by either corrupt or atheist scientists (and it’s not too hard to find reasons for this belief) or by a liberal government who wants to increase its presence in American lives. By and large, global warming is seen as a LIBERAL issue, and no amount of exposure will change that. Every time it snows or we have even cold temperatures, I hear the following: “Yeah, this looks like global warming!” I hear that from my 72-year-old farmer friend, my stay-at-home mom neighbor, and even the 12-year-old fencer at my son’s fencing class! Though my husband is a Ph.D. chemist who accepts global warming, we cannot get my libertarian brother to even acknowledge that ANY scientific claims for global warming are credible, and he constantly has tons of blogs and articles critiquing every part of the “data.” I suspect this is the case in more neighborhoods than ours, and no number of sensational commercials or pleas for awareness will change it until it becomes divorced from its strong political associations. And I agree with MotherLodeBeth that framing the debate in terms of frugality, stewardship, reasonableness, etc. without all the apocalyptic language, carbon marketing “schemes” (like credits), and intense political rhetoric would be more effective.

Excellent, very sensible comments, so far. This is a very daunting crisis and Big Oil, Big Coal, Big" You name its" have spent enormous amounts of money to spread doubt and misinformation on Climate Change (Global Warming). It hasn't helped to have it so politicized either. I've spent most of my life as an MD, trauma, reconstructive & hand surgeon trying to make life a little better for folks and it's been a very long frustrating uphill battle. It took years to expose the tobacco industry, get seat belts, air bags, catalytic converters, child seats in cars, ozone killing chemicals under control, etc. and an incredible number of people died of heart disease, cancer, auto wrecks, etc. before we began to have sensible laws and standards regarding these threats to our survival. Climate change is a much bigger, more insidious, world-wide, complicated problem and we're much closer to the point of no return than people realize. Unfortunately, the well-meaning 350.org people don't seem to realize that there is no way we'll ever get CO2 back to 350 ppm, even if we stopped all fossil fuel emissions (very unlikely) because it'll take decades to degrade the stuff. People don't seem to realize that Climate Change (Earth warming) is producing Extreme weather, extreme cold as well as hot, due to excess water vapor in the atmosphere>excess snow and ice in Siberia>making the jet stream wobble erratically>bringing arctic air much farther south, just to mention one complicated result. We've got to do a much better job of graphically demonstrating this to the public. This is a frustrating business, I've been at it for decades, helping to found EcoVilllage at Ithaca, live in a small solar house, driven small hybrid cars since 2000, et al and it seems like nobody is paying attention. Hope we can do a better job at educating before it's too late to reverse it.

Sorry, didn't edit.
Thank you for making this story! I want Marketplace to come to the Green Long Beach! Festival. We will be expressing the hope of a new economy, of a new America that is happening in our city. We are very aware of the solutions needed to jumpstart the economy. We will create a marketplace of local solutions and provide the community with the opportunity to realize what “green” investments there are in this city. We will have a solar powered stage and booths of the small clean energy companies. We will talk about the oil rigs on our beaches and throughout the city and how we have the resources to change those oil rigs into wind turbines. We will power our stage with the sun and play great music and tell everyone LOOK! Energy!, from the sun, and let them know that we don’t need to keep living this way. We don’t have to be victims of the “powerful oil industry”, those guys are fools! We will let people know that they have resources in their own city which offer opportunities to create the economy we want to see. We’ll have music and art and politicians and schools and teachers and parents and guest speakers and the “Green” port and vendors, of all kinds, investors in the green economy. We’ll bring them all together and create a marketplace, an actual marketplace that offers local solutions to our local and global problems. Please come and cover this event. Marketplace, you inspire me to continue to believe in this economy. Someone please contact me! (562) 646-SOIL

Sometimes I wonder how many of the climate change leaders ever ask the average person what the first images of climate change are when they hear the term 'climate change'. Let me state that I have been green all my life, so I am not some wannabe or jump on the bandwagon newbie. But I know way to many people who when they hear of climate change, think of some elitist akin to a Al Gore living in a huge house that isn't off the grid, or is flying all over the world living a high on the hog lifestyle. Whereas when I tell them I am green, they stop and note that 'no Beth, you are frugal and common sense'. And yes, they are right. For me climate change and green living is all about using less, buying less, wasting nothing. NOT building a McMansion which is labeled green, but is for me a symbol of conspicuous consumption. Look at any green show on tv where they show off the 'green' home that has dozens of pocket lights in room ceilings. Sure the bulbs used may be using less energy, but why have so many in the first place? Sure the new french door refrigerator may have high Star Energy ratings, but do we really need such a big refrigerator? And just how much at home cooking with NO food waste, are homes with these mega appliances really creating? How many of these 'green' homes have a vegetable garden which saves money? Growing up my Dad used to explain to us that the reason we needed to turn lights off when not in a room, or not leave the water running, was because he didn't like making some company CEO rich, because he preferred to save the money and use it for something worth while.

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