Axel Bojanowski – Spiegel Online January 3, 2011
The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeps going up and up, but public interest in climate change is sinking. Environmentalists are trying to come up with new ways to make the issue sexy. But shock tactics can backfire all too easily.
Climate change used to make headlines. But these days the issue appears to have largely fallen off the radar.
World leaders recently negotiated a new climate agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, but public interest in the issue was limited. It was a marked contrast to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, which had been declared of historic importance in the runup to the meeting, only to then fail spectacularly. The theft of e-mails from the University of East Anglia had badly damaged the image of climate research shortly before the summit.
Environmentalists and scientists are concerned about the massive drop in public interest in the topic over the last year. Now they are looking for new strategies to turn the tide. They’re searching for so-called “mind bombs” — highly emotional images that reduce a complex problem down to one core message.
Fountains of Blood
Some environmental organizations are placing their bets on the shock factor. One commercial in a campaign by the British-based environmental organization 10:10 showed a teacher blowing up two students who were skeptical about cutting their carbon emissions, with fountains of blood spraying the others in the class. Other 10:10 videos have the same fate befalling recalcitrant office workers and footballers. But the campaign proved a dud — it sparked massive protests and was quickly withdrawn.
More successful was a Greenpeace advertising spot that targeted the multinational food company Nestlé. Greenpeace wanted the video, in which a bar of chocolate turns out to be a gorilla’s bleeding finger, to be understood as a symbol of endangered rainforests, where harvesting palm oil for chocolate production encroaches on great apes’ habitats. After the video caused a considerable stir, Nestlé promised to stop using products that damaged rainforests.
Video spots such as Greenpeace’s have drawn attention in the short term, but they aren’t enough to stop the media trend away from climate issues, confirms Sebastian Metzger from the Berlin-based organization co2online, which regularly measures public awareness on the topic using its “climate barometer.”
Climate researchers confirm a noticeable decline in interest. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, recalls that his telephone used to ring off the hook whenever extreme weather conditions set in. Now hardly anyone calls, he says.
Global warming as an issue is a “loser” in media terms, an editor at the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel recently explained on a German TV show. In a similar vein, the heavyweight German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked ironically in relation to the Cancún summit: “Wait, was there something about the climate there?”
While journalists debate whether the issue of climate change is even suitable for the media, the New York Times quoted one science filmmaker as calling climate research “bo-ho-ho-ring” and “quite possibly THE most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.” The communication problem in this field can be solved, but it requires the right person or group to find the right approach for reaching the public.
Greenpeace doesn’t seem to be that group. Although the organization is bringing in donations at record levels, only 1 percent of Germans associate Greenpeace with climate protection, an expert at the environmental organization complains. The topic is a difficult one to get across, the expert continues, adding that Greenpeace has a new campaign that is supposed to finally reach “Average Joe consumers.”
A survey of 13,000 people in 18 countries, presented by German international public broadcaster Deutsche Welle at the Global Media Forum in Bonn in June, suggests that ordinary citizens are less interested in climate change than was previously thought. The survey showed, for example, that only one in three Dutch people are concerned about climate change — even though the Netherlands is considered especially at risk from rising sea levels.
British science magazine Nature identified two reasons for this loss of credibility. One was mistakes, made public around a year ago, in the UN’s 2007 climate report. The other was the so-called “Climategate” scandal involving the e-mails stolen from the climate researchers at the University of East Anglia. This leaked correspondence revealed trench warfare that caused scientists to withhold some data and defend their own results at all costs.
Communications researcher Martin Ludwig Hofmann at the Ostwestfalen-Lippe University of Applied Sciences believes that the scandal caused serious damage. “The communication strategy up until now relied primarily on scientists’ credibility,” Hofmann says. The London Times deemed the PR damage to be worse than that suffered by BP after its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Part 2: Sex, Emotion and a New Messiah
Environmental activists have come up with various approaches to try to make the topic of climate change attractive again. SPIEGEL ONLINE presents an overview of their ideas.
- An emotional message: Longhaired environmental activists in rubber dinghies swept into whalers’ hunting grounds in the northern Pacific, capturing images of whales bleeding to death from harpoon injuries. These photographs formed the basis of Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign. It was a “mind bomb” that found a direct hit, and the whale pictures catapulted not just the campaign but also Greenpeace as a whole into global fame.But what worked for whale conservation has failed for climate protection — all the proposed symbolic motifs have fallen short. A lone polar bear on an ice floe is “too far removed from people,” says Metzger from co2online. A swirling hurricane cloud — the image Al Gore used to advertise his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” — has significance for only some regions of the world. The striking “hockey stick graph” of global temperatures, so named for its sudden upswing at the time of the Industrial Revolution, is controversial among scientists. Images of people suffering environmental disasters have the drawback that there is too much uncertainty as to whether global warming was indeed at fault for individual catastrophes. As for pictures of solar cells or wind turbines, they are “not emotional enough,” says Klaus Merten, a communications researcher at the University of Münster. ��
- Sex: Perhaps advertising’s most potent weapon can be harnessed for climate protection campaigns as well. One initial experiment showed an attractive female researcher posing in a bathing suit in front of Arctic ice. “Climate change is sexy,” was also the motto of several working groups at the Global Media Forum in Bonn.India has even managed to turn a sex symbol into an icon for climate protection. The Ice Shiva Lingam, an enormous ice stalagmite in the Amarnath caves of northern India, is revered as a fertility symbol. Major news outlets in the country have begun reporting on global warming since the frozen phallic symbol began to melt. ��
- A new kind of journalism: Climate activists have begun directing millions in funding into training programs for environmental journalists, with the goal of encouraging what’s known as “advocacy journalism.” This type of reporting is “pretty much dead in Europe,” says Markus Lehmkuhl, a media expert at Berlin’s Free University. British science journalist Alexander Kirby warns that journalists who remain neutral on the issue could endanger the cause of climate protection, but many of his colleagues refuse to take sides. The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for example, fears that the line between science journalism and advertising could become blurred. Owen Gaffney, director of communications at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, advises that, rather than leaving reporting about climate change to the media, scientists should establish their own media outlets, preferably online. “We have more credibility than journalists and we need to take advantage of that,” Gaffney says.
- Critical debate: Communications researcher Klaus Merten is critical of environmental conferences such as the Global Media Forum in Bonn, which he says often come across as private parties. He believes the debate is in danger of grinding to a complete halt, saying that it can be crippling when everyone is part of a tight-knit group that never disagrees: “Criticism gives rise to creativity.” Climate protection activists also risk harming their cause when they try to present themselves as being completely objective, Merten suggests. “Environmentalists have their own interests, like anyone else, and they should disclose them,” he says — otherwise, they risk their credibility.
- Think smaller: “Many people still see the climate catastrophe as something abstract that doesn’t have concrete consequences,” says Hofmann, the communications researcher. He recommends a three-step approach: Single out an individual climate-related problem, reduce it down to one aspect, then create a target area that can function as a goal for climate protection measures. “Save the Rainforest” campaigns have succeeded with this method by focusing on orangutans and their loss of habitat. “People want to help monkeys, so they support saving the forests,” Hofmann explains. Metzger too believes that a new approach is necessary, one with “less lecturing and more incentive to take action.” “We need to talk about solutions, not problems,” Ken Caldeira, an environmental researcher at Stanford University in the US, said at the Bonn conference.
- Get quieter: Amnesty International has been demonstrating for the past 50 years that it’s also possible to be successful using quiet methods. While environmental activists were busy causing a commotion, the human rights organization achieved considerable success while emphasizing restraint. “Fact and act” is the organization’s motto — no exaggerations, no single focus and members can decide for themselves in what areas they want to help. “In comparison,” Merten says, “environmental organizations sometimes seem like sterile corporations.”
- The search for a new messiah: Just as Martin Luther King Jr. awakened the civil rights movement, the climate cause needs its own messiah, says environmental researcher Andreas Ernst from Kassel University. That messiah’s analogous message might run along the lines of, “I had a nightmare,” Ernst suggests. Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his film that jolted viewers out of their climate complacency, seemed to be successfully fulfilling this role for a while, but he has since all but disappeared from the public eye.
- A new scientific language: Climate researchers have started setting up new organizations that will communicate climate data better. At the cutting edge is the Climate Service Center (CSC) in Hamburg, a new federal-level research facility. The National Research Council in the US has plans to establish a similar organization, and researchers at the renowned Australian climate institute CSIRO have even suggested composing a “national communication charter” to better coordinate the communication of climate researchers’ results among politicians and scientists.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also wants a more careful use of language. The international body sent scientists a code of conduct concerning their interactions with journalists. Scientists should avoid using words such as “risk” and “uncertainty” in interviews, the letter read, to prevent misunderstandings — and to keep from doing the climate protection movement any further damage. ��
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein