No Pressure: An ill-advised piece of climate change communication

Imagine you were part of a highly successful environmental campaign group, that had spent the best part of the last year enthusiastically building a broad coalition of organisations – from schools, to local councils, to football teams – committed to cutting their carbon footprint. How might you choose to mark such a successful 10 months?

An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…

But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin.

That the video was panned by the usual suspects is unsurprising. Delingpole spluttered that “the environmental movement has revealed the snarling, wicked, homicidal misanthropy beneath its cloak of gentle, bunny-hugging righteousness.” But while Delingpole’s wilfully literal misreading of the video is unremarkable, there is a genuine reason for concern: as a piece of climate change communication, it is disastrous.

At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?

Beyond these general faults, many of the pitfalls of communicating climate change are gleefully skipped into. It is now well established that using shock tactics to pressure people into caring about climate change is of limited use: while fear of a negative outcome (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of promoting behavioural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the behaviour must be personal and direct. Typically, climate change is perceived as neither a direct nor a personal threat – and so shocking people into doing their recycling is probably not the way to go.

We also know that while ‘peer pressure’ can be a remarkably effective way of promoting and spreading environmentally friendly behaviour, this is a process of social comparison that cannot be controlled by ‘outsiders’ to an individual’s social group. People make their comparisons to people who are ‘like them’ – people that they respect, admire, or empathise with in some way. Observing other people engaging in pro-environmental behaviour is a fantastic way of generating a positive social norm. Blowing them up for failing to get with the programme is not…

Of course, its easy to be critical of any attempt to engage the public with climate change – it is a formidable challenge finding the right way of encouraging people to embrace low-carbon lifestyles. But gradually, social scientists and climate change communicators are starting to piece together good evidence on how to effectively communicate climate change. The recent report by the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG), a network of climate communication academics and practitioners, set out seven principles for communicating climate change to mass audiences:

  1. Move Beyond Social Marketing
  2. Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
  3. Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
    1. Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
    2. Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
    3. Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
  4. Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
  5. Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks
  6. Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone
  7. Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action

The 10:10 film may yet prove to be a success in terms of the level of attention that is paid to campaign – once people scratch the surface, they will find that exploding children are not actually a part of the plan, and that the aims of the 10:10 campaign are both reasonable and fair. But the danger is that more people will be persuaded that the pastiche of environmentalism that James Delingpole promotes is real.

At such a crucial juncture for campaigning on climate change, with public scepticism higher than a year ago, international negotiations tying themselves into a knot, and the British government taking enormous chunks out of the budget for tackling climate change, don’t those in the public eye have a responsibility to do a better job with their climate change communications?

Update: We recommend this great response from Rob Hopkins.

  • http://jamieandrews.name Jamie
  • http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com Dwight Towers

    A very good list of advice I shall try to folow.

    Marc Roberts, the brilliant cartoonist, has done a funny cartoon on the subject of this film.
    http://​www​.marcrobertscartoons​.com/

  • http://www.mattwardman.com/blog Matt Wardman

    Generally a good piece, but…

    >“Think about the language you use”

    >“Spluttered”

    Oh.

  • http://biofreshblog.wordpress.com BioFreshBlog

    Thanks for an interesting blog Adam — it’s fascinating how the 10:10 commuication strategy has essentially backfired through this video. As you say, the video also illustrates an interesting wider debate in environmental communication — whether crisis/fear based environmental messages (like this video) are useful in changing public perceptions and behaviours; or whether subtler hope-based messages are more effective? We’ve blogged here (http://​tinyurl​.com/​3​8​f​h​p58) about the debate the video has caused, discussing how such messages of worry may attract the attention of politicians and policy makers, but turn off regular people, tired by ‘doom and gloom’ environmentalism.

    Cheers.
    Rob @ BioFresh

  • Rick Bradford

    The reason the film missed its mark is because its makers have no empathy with the people they were trying to reach, and little or no awareness of what normal people find acceptable.

    The makers are not stupid (in an IQ sense) but are utterly clueless (in an EQ sense). That’s another way of saying ‘They don’t get it.’

    They possess a sort of dehumanized sense of moral self-righteousness and certitude, which backfired in this case and will inevitably do so again.

  • http://alexjc38.wordpress.com/ Alex Cull

    One interesting aspect of “No Pressure”, which is something that some of my fellow AGW-sceptics have not picked up on, is that the characters that were killed were not actively questioning or opposed to the global warming meme (the closest to an active sceptic, I suppose, being the David Ginola character, who simply thought 10:10 was a bad idea because it would be a distraction from football.) No, the reason they were killed was that they were not compliant enough. When the authority figure said “frog”, they didn’t jump — or didn’t jump high enough.

    One commentator has expressed it thus: “The children who were exploded, remember, were not against the idea of 10:10 — they were merely insufficiently enthusiastic. Healthy scepticism is obviously not part of the 10:10 creed — it’s ‘believe or be marginalised’.”

    There’s one moment in the office-workers segment where the boss has just asked for a show of hands in favour of 10:10-like activities, where a man puts up his hand, then quickly looks around him to see what the others are doing. He survives because he is in line with the rest. If there had been only a very small showing of hands, would he have wavered, I wonder, thus dooming himself? The four office workers who are killed are “not quite convinced about it yet”. Again, like the schoolchildren, they are not actively against 10:10, just not interested, and not persuaded yet.

    The Gillian Anderson character is killed however, because she is motivated enough to take part in the voiceover (and thus, it can be assumed, agrees with 10:10’s aims) but makes the fatal error of not appearing enthusiastic enough at the right moment. She thought the work she had already done was enough — her 10%, as it were. With hindsight, she should have committed herself to a further 10% or even more, to leave herself a good safety margin, or at least to make a good show of compliance for the powerful man with the button.

    The message? Be compliant. Show us that you are compliant. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that you have been compliant enough.

    I find that it’s when I look at and think about the nuances in the film, that I understand much of the online outrage that has been expressed regarding the chilling and totalitarian aspects of “No Pressure”. And I think that these nuances will have been picked up by many people on seeing the film, not necessarily at the conscious level. This has been a truly fascinating and revealing episode in the history of climate-change activism.