Putting climate in the corner

The evidence of climate change is all around us, so why is the government so afraid to discuss it?

This is part 3 of a three part series. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

Labor has not succeeded in selling its climate legislation, and neither has the environment NGOs because of a strategic failure in communicating the case for climate action. 

In ‘The real climate message is in the shadows. It’s time to shine the light’, Daniel Voronoff drew on lessons from health promotion to argue persuasively what effective climate messaging requires. He identified the problem as bright-siding:

“The risk we face with the present suite of messages is that without stating the problem – namely the severity of the threat and our susceptibility to it – there is no argument for change. Without stating the threat, the public mind is lead to question, why a tax for innovation and jobs when the mining industry makes jobs anyway? Imagine the anti-smoking advertisement that fails to mention mouth and lung cancer, telling the smoker they should give up a pleasurable habit of ten years because, well, they’re certain to feel better. The evidence shows this appeal just doesn’t work.”

meta-analysis of research on health promotion campaigns and their outcomes found that the most successful approach is to combine a striking honesty about the problem with a message of personal efficacy: it is about you, and you are part of the solution. The study found no negative effects of messages honest about the severity and likelihood of the health impact, provided there was a clear articulation about what can be done to stop the problem.

In fact, the more detail about the severity of the impact, the more effective the message. People’s well-founded fear has a key role in political messaging, when connected to efficacious solutions. The WorkChoices campaign by Australian unions in 2006-2007 showed that. And modern environmentalism was born from the dire warnings in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

So how can the story of climate change be related to peoples’ lives? One obvious opportunity is to “connect the dots” between the extreme weather people are experiencing right now, and future climate change. 

It is stunning that the (then) Labor state governments in Victoria (fires) and Queensland (floods) and the federal Labor government consciously chose not to say clearly that the remarkable run of extreme weather (record floods, temperatures, fires, storm, cyclones) people have experienced in recent years is linked to climate change. In fact, Anna Bligh, John Brumby and Julia Gillard went out of their way NOT to make the connection, and a federal Labor MP who did was told to desist. 

It’s a free kick to connect future climate impacts to the present, and the words aren’t difficult. Here’s climate scientist David Karoly: “Australia has been known for more than 100 years as a land of droughts and flooding rains, but what climate change means is Australia becomes a land of more droughts and worse flooding rains.”

The real benefit in joining the dots is that people are more concerned about climate change when they experience extreme weather and natural disasters: “Overall, public risk perceptions and understandings of the threat of climate change in Australia appear to be strongly influenced and informed by knowledge of direct or indirect experience with both acute and chronic natural disasters in the Australian environment.”

And research finds that: “… media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the public perception of the threat associated with climate change [and] the greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern.”  

In other words, people who want climate action should publicly make the connection between extreme weather and climate change. But Labor has consciously done the opposite, which suits Tony Abbott and the Minerals Council perfectly.

Ninety per cent of Australians think climate change is happening, but only 50 per cent believe it is human caused. The other 40 per cent believe that climate change is happening, but that it is natural. The voting intention of this 40 per cent is overwhelmingly conservative.

If we are going to save our climate, then we must engage with these people – and we will not engage them by talking about loss of species, the dying coral of the Great Barrier Reef, or the demise of Kakadu National Park. All the lines of evidence show that framing climate change as an environmental threat is ineffective when talking to conservatives.

We need a frame that can reach across the divide of world-views and speak to common values. That frame is climate change as a threat to health, wellbeing and livelihood. It is a frame that projects our movement as the preservers and protectors of life: yours, your family’s, your community’s, your country’s.

It is a frame that says – in this ever-changing world, a world of threats that seem insurmountable – that everyone has a role to play in making it safe again, bringing security, bequeathing certainty.

David Spratt is the co-author of “Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action”. His series on climate bright-siding is at http://www.climatecodered.org/p/brightsiding.html