Effective communication needed to avoid tipping points on climate disaster

A woman installs solar panels on the roof in Bhutan (photo: Asian Development Bank (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the IPCC report warns disaster beckons, Tim Root discusses extensive research showing how climate emergency campaigns could become much more effective

Climate breakdown threatens all humanity in a much more devastating and final manner than any other problem, but a recent IPCC report emphasises that it is not yet being given the overriding priority it needs. Extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe, causing destruction which cost seven times more in 2010-19 than in 1970-79. Even in the very unlikely event that all governments’ climate targets were achieved, a dreadful temperature rise of approximately 1.8°C is estimated, causing even more death and destruction. As many experts have emphasised, every fraction of a degree is significant to prevent increasing devastation. We are approaching various tipping points at which temperature rise would set off Earth system reactions, causing even greater temperature rise. Therefore, we must work out how to gain the economic and political power to cut emissions drastically. 

Yet again, governments have shown that they are very unlikely to take sufficient action to slow climate breakdown. When world economic activity climbed back up towards pre-pandemic levels in 2021, government support for fossil fuels rose enormously. This led the director of the International Energy Agency to emphasise the need for “a surge in investment in clean energy”.  But governments are allowing the exact opposite. Since 2020, fossil fuel producers have spent $160bn developing new sources of oil and gas, which would lead to additional emissions equivalent to those of the USA over a staggering 24 years.  

Some climate successes

These huge setbacks should not cause us to overlook the influence of the climate movement, which has achieved some very significant breakthroughs. For instance, the Biden government’s Inflation Reduction Act will stimulate considerable increased investment in renewable energy. The European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is likely, in a few years’ time, to cut most major global manufacturers’ emissions from goods production and may be copied by other developed nations. The Welsh Government cancelled all its major planned new roads

Governments seen as incompetent

However, governments should not be the chief focus of our campaign efforts. A 28-nation survey published in January found that governments are trusted substantially less than both business and NGOs. People perceive governments more negatively than the other entities about which the researchers asked, with a woeful competence score of minus 42 and an ethics score of minus 12. An August 2022 22-nation poll asked whether countries had worked together very well or fairly well on a range of issues. When asked this question about climate change, only 28% said yes, and this figure fell to a mere 16% in the OECD (developed) nations. 

The responses regarding global poverty and hunger and inflation were both somewhat lower. This negative view of governments strongly suggests that trying to get people to campaign for their government to do more on climate breakdown would not succeed enough. The vast majority of people would feel that it was not worth their effort. This difficulty will be compounded on 21st April, when Extinction Rebellion are calling for a mass presence at Westminster to try and influence the British Government. Polls have repeatedly shown that Extinction Rebellion are liked by very few of the British population. This makes the Government believe that refusing to concede Extinction Rebellion’s demands is unlikely to lose them significant public support.   

Banks – some improvement, more needed

We can potentially influence enough citizens to make significant dents soon in the profits and future prospects of key polluting companies, most obviously the banks, which play a massive and central role in the world economy. Unlike oil companies, banks can readily switch investments away from polluting sectors of the economy if they believe this would enhance their profits. In response to campaigns’ pressure, a few banks have taken steps to reduce their fossil fuel funding significantly. A high profile campaign threatening the “reputation, trust and strong branding” for which banks strive, by naming and shaming those which finance fossil fuels the most, could attract huge support. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among those who have drawn attention to banks’ awareness of their vulnerability to customers who “vote with their wallets”. The massive consultancy McKinsey recently stated that European banks in particular “face intensified pressure from a potential recession”. Therefore, their efforts to preserve their customer base and income will make them more receptive to our pressure to cut fossil fuel investments sharply. A high proportion of bank bosses’ pay is linked to various performance metrics including the share price. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to respond promptly to the downturns in the bank’s prospects with which climate campaigns could threaten them. 

To achieve such advances, we would need a significant improvement in our campaigning effectiveness. The 22-nation poll mentioned above found that only just over a third of people considered climate change to be one of the three most significant issues facing the world. Greta Thunberg recently said, “People are really living in denial. There’s still no sense of urgency whatsoever, anywhere.”  Chris Packham expressed similar concerns recently, saying “our tactics are failing… We need to come up with some new ideas.” 

Arousing sustained climate concern

The most obvious improvement needs to be in our communications. Thunberg pointed out that the term ‘climate change’ is far too weak, causing “so many people” to think of it “as a slow, linear and even rather harmless process.” Research analysing people’s reactions to a range of climate messages found that “We owe our children a better future but if we don’t act, they will pay the price” was overwhelmingly the favourite. As many researchers have noted, it is also important to balance the arousal of anxiety about climate breakdown with hope that we can alleviate it. Otherwise, most people experience anxiety, and therefore avert their attention. The respected American political communication expert Anat Shenker-Osorio emphasises that regarding all issues, it is vital to communicate about clear practical matters which directly affect people’s lives – for example, “air we breathe, water we drink”.

Another study points out that it is important for climate campaigns to “give people tangible things to do to build personal efficacy so that difficult emotions can be translated into action rather than despondency”. Taking account of the research showing that most people who have a worry are inclined to take only one action to alleviate it, we should propose a fairly simple and brief action which could be very impactful. This could be signing a petition stating that the person would switch banks within six months if their bank failed to make a specified level of reduction to its fossil fuel investments. Campaigners could gather signatures for this petition both on social media and outside branches of targeted banks, showing them that there is considerable public disapproval of their continuing support for fossil fuels. We need to sustain a well-targeted campaign of this type, showing the targeted bank that we would inexorably increase the harm to their reputation unless they took radical steps to cut their fossil fuel investments. Concentrating our fire on one particularly guilty bank in each country would maximise our impact, also showing the targeted bank’s competitors that while they would be targeted next if they failed to improve, they could gain a competitive advantage if they took significant climate-friendly actions. We also need to get much more celebrity backing for our campaigns, as this has been shown many times to boost media coverage.      

Trusted spokespeople

It is also vital that our messages are delivered by spokespeople who command a high level of public trust. Research found that in the climate context, David Attenborough is trusted far more than other prominent people, with 65% more trusting him than those who distrust him. Chris Packham came second with a net trust level of 35%. When the researchers asked about types of spokespeople, people who had experienced the effects of climate change, climate scientists, and health professionals were trusted much more than others. Campaigners who emphasise the need to listen to climate science need also to take account of the above scientific research on campaigning.

The well-known political scientist Erica Chenoweth has emphasised the need for campaigns such as ours, seeking a massive economic change, to attract and maintain support from as much as 25% of society. This is needed partly to counter the opponents who are likely to mobilise against us with more and more determination as we become stronger. Therefore, our communications must be worded to attract as wide a swathe of society as possible. For example, we should note the disappointing impact of the vaguely titled film about climate campaigners To The End. Even the New York Times‘s positive review stated that much of the film evokes an “atmosphere of hopelessness”.

In addition, we need a holistic strategy to encompass not only the largest emitters, but also the tactics enabling our movement to use near-term successes to build our influence and reach promptly. We should select relatively ambitious targets, partly as we need substantial emissions cuts, but also to inspire support, by showing that we have confidence in our movement to rise to the large challenge we face. Our targets need to include companies selling products from nations which are failing to stop deforestation, large government-controlled fossil fuel companies such as those of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and fossil fuel companies which are central to the economy in nations such as Canada and Australia. Canada’s oil sands use a very carbon-heavy production method. Its government’s Emissions Reduction Plan is not ambitious enough, and far from certain to be implemented fully. Australia’s government is refusing to stop new coal and gas projects, but is being pressured by the Green Party. International campaigns need to discuss strategy with allies in each of these countries. One promising tactic could be promoting a tourism boycott, as tourism is a significant part of the economy in each of these countries. Many people would respond to calls not to travel to any of these countries until the government had taken sufficient action to cut emissions. They would have a wide choice of alternative holiday destinations.         

Help find a great slogan

We also need to learn from the impact of slogans such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘#MeToo’. We urgently need a brief slogan which can sum up the importance of climate breakdown in a memorable, encouraging and widely appealing way. ‘Clean Energy, Safe Climate’ might be such a slogan, evoking the danger of climate breakdown while naming a hopeful solution. This could be in the centre of an image, with a photo of a wildfire on the left, and on the right, wind turbines, homes with solar panels and children playing. Evidence shows that the images of extreme weather which most effectively arouse people’s concern show locations relatively nearby, for example in the same country. We all need to apply our minds to come up with campaign slogans and images to help us gain the greatest possible support from people of all backgrounds across the political spectrum. In doing so, we should take account of the research finding that “the most consistently persuasive messages were all simple narratives of shared destiny or concern.” While climate breakdown has hit disadvantaged people hardest up to now, we will gain the much greater level of support we need by emphasising its terrible existential threat to us all.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.