Can love be more effective than science in communicating the urgency of climate change?
We know by now that climate action is not happening fast enough to mitigate climate change, and communities are already feeling the impacts. This makes our task as environmental communicators even more urgent: to inspire the public to take individual action, put pressure on policymakers and drive big business to get to net zero. But climate change is by no means leading the news every night or at the top of public discourse, meaning we still have a way to go.
To explore the big questions around how we can most effectively incorporate climate into broadcast content, the BBC held its second Climate Creatives conference in London, drawing on experts from the field to share what works and to spark new ideas.
To illustrate the poignant impacts that culture and the arts can have on us as individuals, the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage gave the keynote and talked about his recent trip to the Arctic. He read a moving poem he wrote after an expedition with British scientists to measure the fast-receding edge of a glacier.
Armitage made a compelling case for how the common approach of climate scientists reeling off statistics on TV and radio is failing. He said it’s not connecting with people because they make climate change seem “tangible, invisible and happening somewhere else”. He believes we need more poetic language and to reimagine how we talk to the public by focusing more on the messenger than the message. People don’t like a saint, he said, and they want to see other people who look like, sound like and represent them – able to ask the questions that the average member of the public wants asked.
Jennifer Pullan from BBC Audiences presented polling that backed this up with data. While the majority of people say they are concerned by climate change, one third don’t know what certain jargon means including net zero, 1.5, green jobs, and COP. At the same time, many people are actively turning away from the news (41%) as problems seem overwhelming and make them feel hopeless. She concluded we need ‘proactivity and practicality’ with stories in drama and culture that offer personal examples of what people can tangibly do, and positive stories of impact.
A key session saw commissioners from our five biggest broadcast channels concur, and show clips from shows trying to bring climate change stories onto our screens in a way that connects with the general population – the ‘moveable middle’, who are aware of climate change but who don’t act on it. Notable examples included Channel 4 engaging petrol-head Guy Martin to fly over Hornsea 2, the world’s largest wind farm; the BBC’s Earth series where Chris Packham revealed the 4.5 billion year story of the earth, couching climate change messaging in a geological narrative; and ITV overlapping nature and entertainment by following actor Kelvin Fletcher’s family as they took on the challenge of chemical-free farming. All argued these were channel-appropriate ways to introduce the issue of climate in a palatable way for their usual audiences who tend to connect with presenters, rather than facts.
The Climate Creatives Conferences included speakers such as John Marshall, Jon Alexander, Lisa Merrick-Lawless and Sunita Ramani
The following session ‘Selling the Story’ featured our inimitable Greenhouse colleague and climate campaigner Sunita Ramani, who talked passionately about how much more interested the media and public are in stories we pitch when they are fronted with relatable people to tease out the human interest. She argued convincingly for the need for greater diversity and representation in climate change content.
A novel new approach was presented by John Marshall, an experienced marketeer from the USA who has set up the Potential Energy Coalition in the US, a non-profit that ‘brings together America’s leading creative, analytic and media agencies to shift the narrative on climate change’. Marshall framed the planet as our client, our goal being to use the best tools of marketing to evoke empathy and understanding. He and his team undertook a major research project to aggregate data on millions of advertisements in order to find out what resonates with audiences. They followed this up with focus groups and message testing to work out how to get people to engage more quickly.
Marshall pointed out that the language we currently use in climate change communication is too jargon-heavy, and is neither vivid nor visual. He argued that most terms are not landing, joking that “nobody wakes up and says ‘today’s a good day for decarbonisation’”. He gave an example of more vivid language that tests well: ‘pollution blanket’, he explained, helps people see a visual image of the impact pollution is having on our planet.
Marshall cited the three communications lessons to come out of the research:
1. Simplicity is key: scientists and policymakers speak in jargon. 50% of people claim to know about the Paris Agreement but half do not, and most think ‘4 degrees’ is about the overall temperature not the temperature change relative to pre-industrial levels.
2. Humanity works: we create a concept called global warming and we have message carriers talking about economy and transition conceptually - but what works best is a person who looks like the audience, and talks about how climate change is affecting their lives.
3. Ensure accountability: Meet people's need for connection by keeping the focus on fighting polluters - not the climate.
Marshall and his team have just carried out the largest message testing experiment across the G20, which represents 80% of global carbon and GDP. This involved showing participants three narratives and getting them to rank them. One narrative was about our children, the second was based around the argument that polluters should pay, and the third was that solutions are all around us. In every country, the narrative about our children won by a large margin.
Marshall pointed out that the climate debate is too often framed as fear versus optimism. His work shows that what tips the balance is something different: love. The love of our children and their future is the most profound value we can use.
Ramani and Marshall were joined on the panel by Lisa Merrick Lawless, who co-founded Purpose Disrupters - a network of 4000 industry insiders working to ‘redirect its creative superpowers to help drive sustainable behaviour and rapidly transform society’ - and Jon Alexander, who set up the New Citizenship Project to emphasize the need for a shift away from seeing people as consumers and towards empowering them as citizens. Both views married up with Marshall’s.
At Greenhouse, we are inspired by this love framing, and considering how we can use it more in our climate communications. We are striving to provide richer case studies from a broader and more diverse range of voices to increase representation; offer more first-hand experience from those on the frontlines of the climate crisis; and support mechanisms like the Children and Youth Pavilion at COP28 to raise up the voice of younger generations and their futures – for whom the public has clear empathy and love. We will continue to make our stories more vivid, told through and to people, and using the frame of love to connect with the public more effectively. We hope media and advertising do the same.
As John Marshall said: “This is the largest crisis humanity has ever faced, but it’s not getting the coverage it deserves. When history looks back on us, did we talk about it enough as media folks?”
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