Be positive Greens!

Green groups need to start accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative when it comes to climate change says Simon Birch.

Good news. A new environmental magazine has just been launched. ‘Recognise’ is a ‘socially aware lifestyle magazine’ that promises us fashion, food and fast cars all served up with a large dollop of glitzy showbiz eco-celebs. But oh dear, what with millionaire Tory Zac Goldsmith as its pin-up boy and endless pages of – well nothing much really apart from gorgeous models wearing the latest ethical fashion, Recognise is sadly, in reality, nothing more than a masterclass in greenwash publishing.

However, if you can manage to wade your way through the eco-baloney, there is one nugget of sense in what the Recognise team are trying to achieve.  Here’s part of the editor’s intro letter: “We’re not asking you to walk around in brown sacks, heavens no. Our duty is to offer a little encouragement to giving something back by making smart choices; with new companies surfacing everyday, it means that whatever you enjoy, be it bangers and mash or travelling to luxury holiday resorts, they can still be part of your life.”

In other words (and I admit I’m probably being over generous here) what they’re saying is: ‘OK, so you’re concerned about the environment, but that doesn’t mean that we have to go back to living in a cave. You can have your organic fruitcake and eat it’.

Plane stupid

Now compare this essentially positive message with that of the cinema ad that the anti-airline campaign group Plane Stupid ran recently. The ad shows polar bears falling out of the skies to illustrate the point that every time you take a short-haul flight, you’re responsible for CO2 climate-changing pollution equivalent to the weight of a polar bear being pumped into the sky.  The intention is simple and brutal: to shock and guilt-trip you into thinking twice before you book the flight for your next city-break to Berlin or Barcelona.

But is this kind of ‘shock and awe’ tactic likely to have the desired effect? Green PR guru Ed Gillespie thinks not: “As climate evidence mounts up the temptation to become shriller, angrier and more shocking in climate campaigning communications will only grow,” says Gillespie writing in the Guardian. “The risk is that this will simply step up the vilification of public behaviour, leading to people increasingly ignoring the very real threat of climate change and their responsibility in driving it.”

Bryony Worthington from the climate change campaign group Sandbag agrees with Gillespie: “I don’t think that the Plane Stupid ad really works. If you’re wanting to change the behaviour of the masses you’re not going to get there by using negative imagery,” says Worthington. “We need to be presenting a positive vision of what a low-carbon future will look like to inspire people. So let’s talk about green investment and a new economic infrastructure that’s not based on carbon, one which will create thousands of new green jobs.”

Such a change in communication strategy can’t come soon enough. Worryingly a recent opinion poll showed that the public’s understanding about the threat of climate change has declined sharply after months of controversy over the scientific claims behind climate change and growing disillusionment with government action.

“It’s going to be a hard sell to make people make changes to their behaviours unless there’s something else in it for them – [such as] energy efficiency measures saving money on fuel bills,” said Edward Langley, Ipsos Mori’s head of environment research writing in the Guardian.


Ben Stewart, who heads up the communication team at Greenpeace, recognises the enormity of the fight that we now face in convincing the wider public of the dangers posed by climate change: “We’re not winning the climate change battle,” admits Stewart bluntly. “Climate change is quite unlike any other environmental campaign because it poses such a profound challenge to humanity. No one’s ever run a campaign like this before and like every environmental campaigner around the world we’re learning on the job.”

Stewart accepts that shocking people into action just isn’t working any more. “Bashing people over the head with the results of the latest doomsday climate research isn’t getting anywhere. Instead we’ve got to talk about what is engaging and positive in terms of the response to climate change which can have many benefits to society, for example energy security and green jobs,” says Stewart. “We need to start being more sophisticated in how we communicate our message to the public.”

Letting people know that they’ll still be able to eat organic fruitcake in a low-carbon future would be a good start.

First published in Ethical Consumer 124, May/June 2010