The tribal dance around climate change


Meeting your audiences where they are = the product of conscientious research, market segmentation, careful planning, etc etc. Right?

Yes, all that. But sometimes it’s the light it shines back on you that gives you the biggest insight.

I along with many others at the Communicate conference in Bristol in November experienced some uncomfortable moments of recognition as we heard from George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change.

He’s been exploring how people on the centre-right of politics think about environment issues. Lo and behold, the things that conservatives tend to value most dearly – such as prosperity, personal freedoms, their local landscape, stability – are all under severe threat from climate change.

And yet, conservatives are much less likely than left-leaners to believe that climate change is being caused by humans, and less supportive of action to try and prevent it.

Why would this be? Partly, the political framing of climate change itself.

George highlights some holes that many avid environmental campaigners are jumping into time and again.

Things such as:

  • deploying images of wind turbines to represent a blessed future;
  • potentially Communist-sounding calls to action (‘Be part of the energy revolution’, ‘Join the people’s movement’);
  • allowing party-political or anti-capitalist messages pride of place in your carefully-planned demonstration of togetherness.

It’s painfully obvious, once you stop to think, that these elements could well be scuppering many well-intended attempts to even start a conversation with many people, let alone change their minds.

And worse still: reinforcing the overall story that climate change can be best understood as a conspiracy of the Left.

I urge anyone who’s interested in moving beyond a tribal dance around climate change to read Climate Outreach’s report How to talk climate change with the centre-right.

And have a go at speaking ‘Thatcher frame bingo’ while watching Thatcher address the Conservative Party in 1989 on the topic of climate change. It’s a masterclass in appealing to ‘your people’ with a potentially controversial message.

A list of words & ideas to listen out for in Margaret Thatchers speech to the Conservative Party in 1989


An aside: the day after seeing George’s talk I went downstairs to the At-Bristol science centre, and walked around the impressive interactive exhibition.

One of the installations housed a feature about how we recognise and interpret people’s faces. And guess who was featured, in grotesque form:

thatcher image, from exhibiiton feature at At-Bristol science centre

It made me wonder: what had led the decision to feature her? And regardless of that, if I was an admirer of her, how would I feel about the message here?

Given that general science has comparable issues with climate change communication – lack of understanding & public engagement, outright hostility from some quarters – might this be serving in a small way to alienate rather than educate?

Top pic: People’s Climate March in NYC 2014, by Flickr user South Bend News, reproduced under CC 2.0 licence.