Wednesday, 11 March 2009

New Article for Mediacat Magazine

It’s Time to Help People Understand

I’ve been reading with great interest about Turkey going green this year. It seems like things are really starting to move over there. And that’s my feeling with my contacts in other parts of the world; that we are in a year when things are really shifting again and green issues, climate change especially, are getting fresh interest and attention.

I was particularly happy to read that Turkey has now ratified the Kyoto agreement and will hence be playing a full role in the new global carbon talks in Copenhagen in December. This will also of course have big effects within Turkey; there will be new opportunities and new green jobs as reducing emissions will mean huge cleantech investments and initiatives in transport, agriculture, manufacturing, energy. There will be lots of opportunities for citizens to do their bit too, often in ways that will benefit them as well, like saving money and energy through home insulation, getting fit through Paris-style bike sharing schemes (I read you now have one in Konya) and of course buying eco products and services; from energy efficient home appliances, to staying in green hotels.

All of this comes down to one thing really; the public will. If large numbers of people want something then politicians, marketers and others are only too keen to comply. This means that if like me you are keen to see this all develop, and to perhaps take a lead with your company or brands, then it is vital that we make this the year when we consolidate public understanding and motivation.

I’ve recently been doing focus groups across the country for the UK government. Public education on climate change I’ve found is quite poor, certainly in my country. Everyone has heard of climate change. But very few actually ‘get it’. The thing is that it has been presented in a way which is very intangible. Ice caps and polar bears. Weather and seasons. Imperceptibly gradual change. It’s the sort of issue it is very hard to integrate in those terms. People either don’t truly believe it is really happening. Or that it wont really affect their region much (because they don’t live at the North Pole or sub-Saharan Africa). Or that it probably wont really have much effect for 50 or 100 years. Some have picked up what the media often say (and which is totally untrue by the way) which is that scientists disagree over whether it is really happening. And they fundamentally don’t see it as something which their own behaviour could be contributing to all that much.

We really need to be creative about helping people understand climate change. It’s not a ‘news task’ (if you don’t understand an issue, then news updates simply aren’t integrated). We need powerful public education campaigns, from the government or quite possibly from leading household brands. Here is what we need people to ‘get’:

1. climate change will affect all of us, it is already affecting us in fact; through higher food and energy prices, massive insurance and banking losses (destructive storms and flooding are increasing at an alarming rate) and so on

2. looked at economically the situation is a bit like a leaking pipe. To fix it now could cost us a bit of money and effort (1-2% of GDP according to Economist Nicholas Stern). But if we leave it, then the damage it can do – when ‘the ceiling falls in’ - will cost us more in prices, insurance losses, economic disruption, jobs. (Stern estimated these losses as 5-20% of GDP, every year, permanently).

3. It isn’t a distant issue, only a tragedy for polar bears and poor farmers. For instance the polar ice cap reflects away heat from the sun equivalent to 70% of all the CO2. If we lose this ice permanently, as looks likely, global warming will accelerate quite sharply. There are other such factors that mean we could get into a ‘runaway climate change’ scenario. That’s why we need to act fast. Put the brakes on now before the slope gets too steep, and we are skidding out of control.

4. Consumer behaviour has everything to do with climate change. For instance the motor car accounts for 12% of all CO2 emissions in society. Cars are responsible for more emissions than vans, trucks, trains, buses, airplanes, ships added together. If people use their car less, or share lifts, it would have a HUGE impact. So would insulating their home as space heating (and cooling) is another big contributor. So would buying organic, as new studies show that with organic agriculture the soil is able to act as a carbon sink (on top of the fact that pesticides and fertilisers mostly come from petrochemicals).

5. In answer to the ‘what’s the point in us acting when China is growing so fast?’ question, I think it is important that people know about COP15, the meeting in December where it is very likely that (unlike Kyoto) the USA and China will sign up. We all need to act together and 181 countries are coming together to try to agree a global limit, then reduction, of CO2. The citizens of the world really ought to know this is happening; it’s a much more significant global event than for instance the Olympics and it will have much more effect on the economy and people’s lives than the recession which is what leaders seem to focus on more.

There is a new cinema film just out called “The Age of Stupid” which I think stands a really good chance of bringing home to people, in an emotional sense, the dangers of letting climate change run out of control. I’d urge you to try to watch this, you can order the DVD online soon and arrange a screening if it doesn’t make it to your local cinema. But films and pop concerts and rousing causes are still no substitute for helping people truly understand – not just to feel threatened, but to fully incorporate these issues, so that it just makes common sense. As the French say an uninformed person is a subject, only an informed individual is a citizen. And that’s our job – we are the storytellers.

The other thing I discovered from my recent focus groups is that people really do want to know about this. They know they are hazy on the details but yet they can sense it must be a vital topic from the amount of news it gets. I don’t think I have ever seen an issue where people are so hungry to learn. The tragedy (at least in my country) is that we have been shielding people from the full truth. Hopefully this year we can start changing that.

1 comment:

Andrew Smart said...

HI John,

Do you know the people behind Age of Stupid? I was thinking of helping them push it over here in Scandinavia, if they need help that is. My wife may have a couple of good contacts.