Wednesday, 18 February 2009

New article for mediacat

Climate Change as a Brand

Climate change is going to get renewed attention in the media this year. The main reason for this, apart from ongoing news about melting ice caps, forest fires and freak storms, is the meeting in Copenhagen where representatives of 170 countries will attempt a new international agreement to limit global carbon emissions. Add to that the ‘green new deal’ initiatives, where green energy infrastructure jobs are created to stimulate economies. It's likely to be a year when climate change is going to be driven as an agenda by politicians, whereas for the last 3 or 4 years business seemed to have taken the lead.

The origin of climate change, at least in common usage, was a most unlikely place - the policy team of the Bush administration in the USA. They preferred the term to its predecessor "Global Warming". The USA was dragging it's heels about signing up to Kyoto. Global warming was too definitive in acknowledging that there was a problem that urgently needed fixing. Climate Change was a more neutral position. It said "there may be an issue and we have scientists looking into it". It was always intended in other words as a neutral, scientific, "leave if to us and we will get back to you" sort of brand. Not a public cause which people needed to rally behind like Live Aid and Make Poverty History. We have inherited a brand that was designed to neutralize rather than mobilize. A brand about measurement rather than action. Yes it is memorable, thanks partly to the alliteration. But compare it with the more evocative language around the economy; the credit crunch or the great depression... The poetics of branding does matter, especially as it acts at a mostly unconscious level.

How about the brand awareness? Here at least some success. Surveys across the world show that about 90% are aware of climate change. And about 80% are concerned. A much lower percentage, usually around 30%, believe that their own actions have any impact (actually the motor car alone in my country accounts for 11% of total emissions). And a lower percentage still (in the West), according to HSBC's Climate Confidence survey believe that climate change is a problem which we can solve. The net result - high awareness of a catastrophic problem, but also a feeling of powerlessness and a lack of any hope.

Compare climate change to another recent apocalyptic brand: the y2k bug. It's hard to remember today how this seized the public, political and commercial imagination in 1999. Half of all the money spent that year on IT (a consultant told me) was spent on y2k compliance - ie making sure that when the date changed your systems didn't shut down and lose their data, or stop controlling your nuclear power stations! Here we have something which really did mobilize people: it was not just a branded problem it was a branded ‘fix it or else’. And also I like the fact that it was based on a number. It reminds me in some ways of recent attempts to brand “350”. This stands for “350 parts per million”, what James Hansen of NASA thinks is “the red line” (ie the safe limit) in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Rather worryingly we passed this line in the 1980s. And it takes about 40 years for CO2 to produce actual warming. So we could already be in trouble we now cant avert. And the need to reduce CO2 means taking some out of the atmosphere.

The Y2K Bug also had a deadline. It wasn't a problem "someday". There was a count down. The nearest thing to this in the environmental scene is peak oil: fossil fuels being a finite resource. Whether you think the affordable (taking little energy to extract and hence high net yield) oil will last another 3 years or 30 years, it will still run out one day. And when it does we had better be ready. In fact we had better be ready long before. The slightest global shortage can lead to local hoarding and sudden energy crises in regions (China springs to mind) most reliant on imports. As a result Peak Oil has aleady proved to be a more powerful mobiliser of governments and communities, such as the rapidly spreading transition town movement (400 towns have signed up by now) whereby local citizens create their own "energy descent plan".

Peak Oil still sounds like something (transition towns aside) that the government needs to plan for on a society wide level. Sweden already plans to be oil independent by 2020, using biofuels from forest waste instead. The ideal version of climate change would actually be about human change not policy change though. No elected government in the world will do anything but defend the status quo. Unless the people decide they want more. Climate change is a side product of a human civilization in opposition to nature. That is not a contest we can win, and if the climate doesn’t get us water, food, lost biodiversity and so on will. What many in sustainability talk about is building a new world system. John Elkington, the environmentalist, calls this ‘the Phoenix Economy” ie being reborn from the ashes of the old. Most transition to new social orders have involved dramatic and painful and violent collapse, from the Aztecs to the Soviet State. It seems like this is the precondition for human’s accepting change, otherwise the resistance is too great – ‘why should I give up my car?’

I think the best chance for climate change as a brand is to be more about empathy and co-operation; humanitarian and heartfelt concern for fellow human beings and endangered species. And the emergence of a new core value of partnership with nature and each other. The net result of climate change is failed crops, drought, flooding, spiraling food prices, increased poverty, spreading diseases. And many of the solutions lie not with grand energy infrastructure, but actually better farming. One third of the net carbon emissions are due to deforestation, to plant cash crops like soy and palm. Studies in the USA have found that organic farming, because it doesn’t kill a particular yeast in soil that absorbs carbon and fixes it for 1000+ years, can be a great carbon sink. Better farming with healthy soil could hence be the solution to removing CO2 too. Whereas conventional intensive agriculture using chemicals derived from oil damages this healing property of soil and creates huge emissions of its own. Add that to moves for less meat in our diets and the fact that 2 billion of the world’s poorest people are slaving in the field to fill our supermarkets. I’m not saying we all need to go back to farming, it’s more about recognising that it is ‘the base of our pyramid’. We can manufacture robots, but we can still only grow food. It’s about time we took notice of farming again, and the farmer as sustainability hero is a great archetypal story – it’s about the long suffering little guy stepping in to save the day. I don’t a have ‘name’ for this new brand yet but the spirit of it might be to paraphrase an old song: ‘we’ve got the whole world in our hands’. Every time you buy a packet of sugar you are making some vital decisions about the future of the world.

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