24 Dec 2019 15:51 IST

Activists must rethink the climate change campaign

The world needs excellent and powerful messaging, “climate change” or “Green New Deal” are not

Every grade-schooler is familiar with one of Aesop’s most famous fables. In the story, a boy keeps crying “Wolf!” to warn villagers that their flock of sheep is under imminent attack by a lone wolf. But when those attacks don’t materialise, the villagers begin disregarding the boy’s warning. When a wolf actually comes by one day, his shouts are again ignored. The wolf not only attacks the flock but also kills the boy.

Climate change activists are in a similar situation. They have cried wolf so many times that most people do not pay attention to environmental warnings anymore — at least not enough to change their behaviours or stifle their own consumerism.

When incomes rise worldwide, people tend to spend on things that are bigger and better. In America, some car companies are contemplating stopping production of cars altogether, planning instead to sell larger, fuel-inefficient but more-profitable trucks. Consumers just don't care about cars anymore.

Wants over needs

Worldwide, more people are building bigger houses in suburban and rural areas by flattening trees. Air travel is increasing — indeed, celebrities flew to the recently-concluded Madrid climate conference in their private jets. Our addiction to electronics has only increased. We buy bigger TVs, larger air conditioners, and hand out mobile phones to 10-year-olds. And we all want new phones every three years — throwing away older gadgets as trash.

Everyone knows that such activities contribute to a worsening environment but no one is really prepared to do anything about it. Yet, there have been numerous successful health campaigns — such as to limit sexually transmitted diseases or eradicate malaria and polio — that we must wonder why an existential threat like climate change has failed to change us and the way we live.

So, how did we get here?

Just look at the campaign of activists and the messaging that they have used since the early 1970s. For over three decades, they used the term “global warming”, popularised by former US Vice President Al Gore, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And many people understood exactly what it meant, although the problem seemed too far disconnected from their daily lives.

Why shouldn’t our climate change?

Even NASA was, at best, vague in its assessment, protecting its statements using a heavy dose of lawyer-speak. “The consequences of changing the natural atmospheric greenhouse are difficult to predict. On average, Earth will become warmer. Some regions may welcome warmer temperatures, but others may not. Warmer conditions will probably lead to more evaporation and precipitation overall, but individual regions will vary, some becoming wetter and others drier.” Many people went, “Huh? Is this the Armageddon threat to humanity that we have to worry about?”

So, the activists abandoned the term global warming and embraced a new term, “climate change” after years of testing it in focus groups.

Almost instantly, the movement’s messaging lost its bite. If there’s one thing that life teaches you, it’s that the one constant in life is change. We leave our homes to go to college, often in a different city, saying goodbye to our families and friends. We marry, change jobs, and have children of our own. We see that companies that served us growing up fail and new ones start. Governments change hands. We age and lose loved ones along the way.

When everything around us changes, why shouldn’t our climate change? And so what if it does? By definition, change can be positive or negative. Is it possible that the climate is changing that benefits some people? Of course, this is exactly what NASA is saying.

The term “climate change” is toothless and doesn’t convey the same sense of urgency or imminent harm, such as “terrorism.” This is the movement’s biggest undoing. If I were advising the movement from a marketing perspective, I would ask them to pick one extreme consequence of human behaviour — “Pollution!”, “Deluge!”, “Flooding!”, “Drought!” — and use that instead. A message which encompasses all of these impacts into one overarching, kid-gloved slogan is not effective.

Focus should be on the message

Not being successful to influence human behaviour, activists are focusing on the messenger.

Their latest recruit is 16-year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Teenagers are immune from criticism by adults, more so because the impact of climate change affects them as the next generation.

As a girl, Thunberg is even more insulated because any attempt to attack her can be termed sexist, even if she demands an absolute right to attack adults, in the starkest of expressions, because the condition is so grave. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, she has a license to be socially awkward. So when she goes up to the UN in New York and chastises world leaders to develop better policies with her trademark “How dare you!”, that kind of anger is just being her because of her medical condition. In Thunberg, activists have the perfect messenger — a female victim of assault — who is beyond reproach.

It’s little wonder that the media has warmed to her. Time magazine named her “Person of the Year.” She can command an audience anywhere in the world and millions have protested using her as an inspiration.

But when she is a beneficiary of so much effusive praise, she also gets scrutinised for what she says and does. She had recently tweeted out a picture of herself using the vastly efficient German rail network saying that she had to squat on the floor. It turned out that she and her party actually had seats in first class. Later, displaying characteristic anger, she said in the Italian city of Turin that politicians who don’t do her bidding should be “put against the wall.” Anyone who knows history knows that this is exactly what violent regimes do — put people against the wall and shoot them. She later apologised blaming her choice of words on the fact that English is her second language and in Swedish, the expression is harmless.

Initiate action

Policies that progressive political leaders have developed are far removed from reality. In the US, some leaders have floated the Green New Deal as a way to battle climate change. The problem is that these proposals also include ideas to battle income inequality. It’s always bad marketing when you have two major issues combined into one solution. So, the movement’s latest slogan — Green New Deal — is even more confusing than the term “climate change.”

Worse, the environmental ideas are so pompous. One goal is to meet 100 per cent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources. Currently, only about 11 per cent of the energy consumed comes from renewable energy. How in the world can you get to 100 per cent? Remember that nuclear energy for climate activists is off the table.

Four years after the Paris climate accords, the Madrid conference earlier this month had been hailed as the next important milestone in solving humanity’s existential challenge. But it ended with no major agreement to move the needle.

Talk is relatively inexpensive. Action is an entirely different ball game. But to initiate action, you need the right message. “Make America Great Again!” , “Get Brexit Done!” , “Achhe din aane waale hain!” — are excellent examples of powerful messaging. “Climate change” is not.