On the bright side of Labor's climate policy

Labor has fallen into the trap of 'bright-siding' the climate policy debate. And in doing so is making the same mistake as US President Barack Obama.

This is part two of a three part series on Labor's climate policy. Part one was published yesterday.

The Obama administration, Australia’s Labor government and the 2011 ‘Say Yes’ campaign by Australia’s environment NGOs share a common view on how to market action on climate: sell ‘good news’ about ‘clean’ or renewable energy,  and avoid ‘bad news’, such as climate impacts and discussions about coal and gas.

The Obama administration tried, unsuccessfully, to frame legislation to reduce greenhouse emissions as being about “energy independence”. It did not pass, although that was not principally Obama’s fault. But taking climate off the agenda was, says Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute:

“I don’t blame the president for the failure of climate legislation, but I do hold him accountable for allowing opponents to fill the void with misinformation and outright lies about climate change…. By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.”

The same is true of the Gillard government, which is now abandoning leadership on the issue. 

Saying ‘yes’ to good news is a form of bright-siding – a belief that although you can’t control the outer events of your life, you can control your outlook with relentless positive thinking and a sunny disposition, and by refusing even to consider negative outcomes. It’s behind RMIT University’s recent ''behavioural capability framework’’ edict to staff to present a happy face, even if they’re not, and the subject of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. She says bright-siding undermines critical thinking in government, business, and everyday life: the understanding that the worst may happen, and we need to be prepared.

“We need”, says Ehrenreich, “to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.” Ehrenreich says enforced optimism obstructs the liberal (progressive) agenda, producing an enforced stupidity. In other words, optimism is conservative, while realism is progressive. 

Bright-siding is attractive for differing reasons. For government it means avoiding talk about how climate change will adversely affect peoples’ lives, which is mistakenly understood as a negative. For some NGOs close to Labor, there is a desire not to talk too much about coal and gas, because that would make it hard to explain the virtues of government policies that won’t reduce domestic emissions in the next decade. Clean energy is safe territory. Who could disagree?

Often quoted in defence of the ‘positive only’ approach is: Apocalypse Soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting Just-World beliefs. But this study is actually consistent with the literature on communication indicating that the strongest possible science-based messaging is effective. It is deceptive to claim the study supports ‘only positive’ messages, because it samples messages with zero efficacy (messages that don’t suggest a path of action that would solve the issue), which is why they induce the ‘scepticism’ they do. 

There is also a common view that most campaigning is simply negative and apocalyptic, and doesn’t work. But Joe Romm, prolific author of the Climate Progress blog, and a former acting US assistant secretary of energy, says that the two greatest myths about global warming communications are that constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy, and that strategy doesn’t work and is counterproductive:

“The only time anything approximating this kind of messaging – not “doomsday” [but] blunt, science-based messaging that also makes clear the problem is solvable – was in 2006 and 2007,” with the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the IPCC reports. “You’d think it would be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless one explains why they should be concerned about an issue. And the social science literature, including the vast literature on advertising and marketing, could not be clearer that only repeated messages have any chance of sinking in and moving the needle."

Peter Lewis of Essential Media says if you wish to mobilise public opinion, then "focus on the science first, second and third – and then start talking about the impact on our carbon-exposed economy if we wait for the rest of the world to act first." Making the science and impacts part of the narrative seems essential, in light of consistent polling (for example here) that finds only half of Australians say that, “climate change is happening AND is caused by human activity”.

US pollster Mark Mellman says suggestions that one shouldn’t talk about global warming are "politically naive, methodologically flawed and factually inaccurate." He finds that even dire science-based warnings are an essential part of good climate messaging – along with a clear explanation of the myriad clean energy solutions available today and the multiple benefits of those solutions. 

If you avoid including an honest assessment of climate science and impacts in your narrative, it’s pretty difficult to give people a grasp of where the climate system is heading and what needs to be done to create safe conditions for living, rather than increasing and eventually catastrophic harm. But that’s how the Labor government and the big climate advocacy organisations have generally chosen to operate, and it represents a strategic failure to communicate.  

David Spratt is the co-author of “Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action” and writes at climatecodered.org.

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