Getting past 'doom or sacrifice'
How to communicate the climate and environment
“So,” I said to our friend, continuing the conversation we’d had inside over meat and wine. He was climbing into his car, but looked up at me with all the patience of a priest answering yet another silly question about transubstantiation. “What if science allowed us to fix all those problems, there’s no climate change. All gone. And what if the price for that was that people could continue with their behaviour, all the consumption, the flights, the cars. All that, all over the world, with no danger to the climate. Would you agree to that trade off?”
He paused a few seconds and then smiled. “No.”
And that, for me, was where climate activism stopped being about the climate, and became about piety. Yes, we’ll fix the climate, but we also disapprove of you and what you do. Degrowth isn’t a serious plan; it’s an ideology.
It’s easy to get annoyed with the blue-haired prophets that glean to the “Don’t look up” template of doom or sacrifice, of shrill and idealistic anger. Our friend was an older version of this, schooled in the hard knocks of waking people up about the climate crisis. But what might have been justified when he was younger is not what’s justified – or useful – now.
In Part 1 of this little series I explained how the environmental movement had moved from Why (because there is a climate emergency) to What (the measures and targets we can agree on taking), and was now in a How phase (how to reinvent modern industrial economies from the ground up, switching them from fossil fuel power to clean energy). In Part 2 I looked at why solving this complex challenge required a hefty injection of political will. Yes, there are sunlit uplands ahead, but the systemic change needed for them will not happen unprompted.
And that’s where Part 3 comes in. A massive injection of political sufficient for such a systemic shift will require the active consent of the governed, and that means thinking about the way the environment and the challenges and opportunities of this shift are communicated. It’s about people, ordinary people, and involves journalism, and involves communications and PR.
The first thing is that there is no simple choice between sacrifice and doom, whatever those chained to the nearest piece of infrastructure are telling you. This is partly because the situation is not simple, and not even. It is awful in some areas and marginal in others. There are scenarios where it all spins out of control, but a decent prediction is that the world will not end. There are good reasons to think that progress in everything from promising clean energy technologies to behaviour changes will not just be made, but snowball through learning curves into something extraordinary. The world has some lovely bits and there’s every chance we can save them.
But the bigger reason for avoiding talk of sacrifice or doom is simply because it will not win the support of the average voter. Galvanising the support of shouty teenagers does not translate into popular support for systemic change. These changes will be won in the supermarket aisles, at the school gates and during visits to the estate agents.
That means a reappraisal of the optics of climate action. Most people in most countries get the problem, although they shy away from thinking of it as ‘doom’, and would dearly like to do something about it, but not if it means ‘sacrifice’. That’s all a bit 17th century for me, or a visit to Singapore’s Haw Par Villa:
There needs to be much more talk about the opportunities of a new climate economy. Most people get this, as the response in public attitudes to the energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows. According to Eurobarometer 83% of EU respondents said the war made it more urgent to invest in renewables. What’s not to like about less pollution, energy security, and cheaper energy?
The transmission mechanism for making this happen is also important. Again looking at the positive, it’s about aspiration rather than sacrifice. The great gift that Tesla gave the world was making EVs aspirational, rather than the hair-shirt/look-at-me greenism of the Toyota Prius. (It also showed that going green is better in absolute terms too. Similarly, the green-washed products that used to stand out on supermarket shelves were about virtue signalling, whereas their modern successors are about doing more with less, nudged by legislation and welcomed by consumers.)
Aspiration is vital if inroads are to be made in the newly-affluent societies where the climate battle will be won or lost. If you live in the Philippines or India, China or Vietnam, you may be enjoying a lifestyle that your parents could not imagine: a car rather than a moped, a holiday that involved flying somewhere, air conditioning, a more varied diet. A message of sacrifice will not cut the mustard in Jakarta or Mexico City, especially if it’s delivered by a holier-than-thou westerner brought up on skiing holidays and parental SUV taxi services.
All this leaves me with very little space for what I’d wanted to say about climate communications and journalism, and I’ll probably return to it in a later post. Climate comms needs to be more about the systemic changes coming, and the opportunities they bring to fix things and make the world better – and the audience needs to be smack in the mainstream, not those already engaged. And two connected things strike me as immediately important on the journalism front, especially in the framework of seeing environmental issues moving from why to what to how:
Reporting on the climate is about far more than numbers and processes, people in suits shaking hands in conference halls and protestors with clever, photo-friendly signs. Numbers aren’t much good when they’re abstract. The 1.5 degree figure has become totemic, but is still nigh-impossible to communicate effectively (and that’s before we start to look at CO2 emissions).
Instead, reporting on the climate and the environment needs to be about systems, and the risks, challenges and opportunities of moving from one system to another – and about the people impacted by this. Look at this piece from The Economist about how clean energy is transforming the North Sea basin as a system.
Environmental journalism is normal journalism, not some weird sect where they get the invites to the conferences and talk with ease about tonnes of CO2. Newspapers and newsrooms have a habit of dividing people up – during my years at the BBC there were sports and business and science and politics journalists. Yes, it’s important to have domain knowledge, but one story could be business and science and politics all at once. Another could be sports and business and social. Environmental impacts, big and small, and awareness of them, are so universal now that most decent stories are in one way or another environmental. Report them as such!
I’m interested in how these things are now being studied, but for instance recent work at the Reuters Institute for journalism at the University of Oxford does seem to me to be rather stuck in the why and what stages of environmentalism. Get out of the ghetto!
I’ll return to all these thoughts in the future, as there seems to be rather too much to cram in all at once. And please contact me to tell me I’m wrong (or right). These first three posts have been a bit of an exercise of throwing mud at a wall and seeing if it’ll stick. Hopefully a bit more fiddling about with them will make them make sense a little bit more.
Thanks for reading.