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altHow to win the argument on climate change: a five point plan (Part 1)


I’ve been worrying about how to win the argument on climate change. When (perhaps if . . .)  I become Prime Minister, this is my five step plan:

  1. Find a simple way to tell the story;
  2. Create a positive message on the transformational benefits of taking action;
  3. Craft a policy package which aids transition and helps losers;
  4. Build a leadership group which will deliver long-term consensus; and
  5. Focus relentlessly on implementation

There’s too much material here for one piece, so this is Part One. More to follow.

Why do I need a plan? Because tackling climate change is tough. It often feels like we take two steps forward and one step back. Every now and again a tragic event like Typhoon Haiyan dominates the news bulletins and people make a link between climate change and the frequency or severity of natural disasters. But then we are back to normal, arguing about who will do what, and about the fine detail of taxes, subsidies or regulations.

That is not surprising. All policies have winners and losers. Ask German industry, worried about high energy prices caused by ‘energiewende’, the transition to renewables. Or Australian electors, apparently so opposed to a carbon tax that they voted out the Government of Kevin Rudd.  Or talk to citizens in the UK, campaigning vehemently against windfarms, gas fracking, or a rise in energy prices. Of course, in the long term, everyone wins if climate change can be avoided. In the short term, however, the number and geographical distribution of potential losers makes policy design exceptionally tricky. I remember once being at a dinner with a UK climate change minister, who said quite openly ‘you have to understand that for every company lobbying for more support to renewables, there are three standing outside my door lobbying for less’. And do you know what? Ministers are right to worry about the future of jobs in depressed parts of the country, where many of the current jobs are in power-hungry heavy industry .

So, what to do? I’ve just come back from Colombia, so some examples below come from there.

Find a simple way to tell the story

The science is unambiguous that human-induced climate change is real - but the science is far from straightforward. Frankly, I’ve read the latest ‘Summary for Policy-Makers’ from the IPCC, the headlines are clear enough, but it is hard going. You (well perhaps you don’t, but I do) need help to understand such things as Radioactive Forcing and Representative Concentration Pathways. There is a good explanation of RCPs here, they turn out to be different and unrelated models, rather than linked scenarios. That’s quite important if you are trying to read the report.

Also, the aggregate numbers are hard to comprehend.

For example, I understand the point that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have reached 400 parts per million, and that that is 40% higher than pre-industrial levels – but then, I think, hang on, that means CO2 has increased by about 100 parts per million, which is equivalent to one part in every 10,000. That doesn’t seem very much. Imagine 50 one-litre bottles of water and you add one teaspoon of CO2, and it makes all that difference? And adding one more would end the world as we know it? I suppose so.

Or take another example. Current emissions are getting on for 50 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year (see the UNEP Bridging the Gap Report). That sounds like a lot, and it is. But how much is a gigatonne, actually? I read somewhere that one gigatonne is enough to fill the Black Sea, but that doesn’t help, unless you can visualise the area and depth of the Black Sea.

So, public messaging needs simple examples which mean something to people. Sometimes numbers are best, sometimes stories, sometimes pictures. That’s why, as I have argued before, we need to understand the Myers-Briggs profile of the audience: see my thoughts on disrupting the psychological status quo. Also, as I learned from Jonathan Haidt, different people respond to different triggers – empathy, duty etc . . ., so the message needs to be crafted accordingly.

Here’s what I do:

First, as noted, keep it simple, by rounding-up, rounding-down, and avoiding ranges and probabilities. For example, on gigatonnes, it is important to know that we have a total global budget for all time of about 1000Gt of CO2 and that we have already used half of it. So, at current rates of use we only have enough left for 20 years – and emissions are still rising. That’s helpful.

Second, use high-level ‘killer facts’ – like the global carbon budget. I find the cost of disasters to be powerful: the Pakistan floods in 2010 cost 8% of GDP, Superstorm Sandy over $US75bn.

Third, some good images. For example:

A sobering map in the World Bank’s World Development Report on climate change from 2010, which shows which places European capitals are likely to resemble by about 2050.  As you can see (or find the original here), Oslo and Stockholm are relocated, so to speak, to Northern Spain, London to Northern Portugal, and Berlin to Chlef in Algeria. Try googling some images of Chlef . . .


Another sobering map, this time showing the area suitable for robusta coffee in Uganda, now and if temperature rises by 20 C. This is from the Uganda National Climate Change Adaptation Plan of 2007, and shows coffee almost disappearing from Uganda unless new technology can be found. Coffee, remember, employs 3.5m people in Uganda, and provides 30% of export earnings. There are many similar examples – tea in Kenya, for example, or coffee in Colombia. In Colombia, coffee will move up the mountain by 400m, a very significant change. If there is a mountain up which to move.


 Fourth, make it personal. The previous examples relate to impacts. How about emissions? I’ve tried various ways of visualising gigatonnes. Ask me about Olympic swimming pools or the Iguazu Falls. In the end, however, I come back to current and future emissions at a personal level. Overall, we seem to be emitting about 7 tonnes per capita on average at present, from all sources, of course much more in rich countries and much less in the poorest. By 2050, that figure will have to come right down, to perhaps no more than 2 tonnes (a figure endorsed by the UK Climate Change Committee, but which may well be on the generous side if mitigation efforts do not pick up speed. The OECDOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Secretary General has recently called for a target of zero net emissions by 2050).  

In order to see what that means, it’s good to encourage people to complete a personal carbon calculator, of the kind that is found for most developed countries, though probably not for most poor ones. For the UK, a calculator is here. Colombia has a calculator, here. How many developing countries have personal calculators, I wonder? Has anyone done a register?

Two tonnes, of course, is not much in a modern economy. Most of us working on climate change emit more rather than less than the national average for our country, especially if we fly for work. For anyone living in Colombia, 2t is enough to fly to Beijing, but not fly home.

As an alternative, here is an example I used in Colombia. The country already emits 1.6t per capita and is growing at 4% a year, which means the economy is doubling every 18 years. At that rate, GDPGross Domestic Product will go up by four times by 2050, as it needs to if poverty is to be tackled. But Colombia will only be able to use 25% more Co2 per capita. In Colombia, by the way, and this is not unrelated, the most dynamic sectors are petrochemicals and coal, which together account for over half of exports. Of course, the emissions are counted at the point of use, rather than the point of extraction, so do not appear on Colombia’s carbon budget.

Fifth, make an emotional connection. Ideally, people need to experience the reality of climate change on the ground, but failing that, television can help. Images from disasters like Haiyan move people. Or a great communicator can touch people’s hearts. I remember once being in Davos and hearing Bill Clinton tell a story about the tsunami. When he paused, you could hear a pin drop. I have repeated the story, of course citing the source, and had a similar impact. Clinton has used the story elsewhere, and here it is, taken from a speech he made to a meeting on disaster prevention and preparedness’:

‘I'd like to close with just a story to remind you of what this is all about. The last time I went to Aceh, I went to one of the camps for the internally displaced where there were thousands of people living. All these little communities, these little makeshift communities elect a community leader to represent them while they are there. I had at my side a young Indonesian woman who had been a television reporter. She quit her job to be an interpreter and to work with people in the camps until the reconstruction was done. So we walked into the camp and I was greeted by the elected leader of the community, a fellow just like everybody else living in the camp, and his wife and his son. This little boy of theirs, nine years old, was the most beautiful child I have ever seen. It was shocking; I could hardly get my breath when I looked at him: luminous eyes, bright smile. So I said to my young interpreter: I believe that's the best-looking boy I ever saw in my life. She said: “Yes, he is a beautiful boy. And before the tsunami, he had nine brothers and sisters. Now they are all gone.’

Did you hear the pin drop? The penny drop?

Finally, but we will come to that in the next piece, leave people feeling empowered not powerless, with an optimistic message that something can be done. As Anthony Giddens observed in his book on the politics of climate change, Martin Luther King did not stir his audience in 1963 by declaiming ‘I have a nightmare’ . . .

.     .     .

I’d like to know what your strategies are. What are your favourite stories? Or key facts?


(A revised and consolidated version of these three essays has been published by CDKN and can be found here.)


# RE: How to win the argument on climate change: a five point plan (Part 1)Guest 2013-11-15 10:12
I have to say I found it odd that the international climate change community has been slow to take on this 'behavioural psychology' approach to high impact messaging. Previously when working in the UK focussed CC and environment world, finding stories and messages that householders can relate to is high on the agenda. You will not find a local authority worth its salt (OK there might still be laggards) talking about tonnes of carbon to the public. They talk about household bills, or 'energy for a home for a year'. The UK is also trying to stop energy companies talking about kWh as no one knows what these are. Yet for seem reason we think politicians can digest gigatonnes, parts per million and RCPs (including our own work at ODI). I suppose in short I agree, and I am concerned that no one invests more effort in finding narratives that appeal.
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# On the five stepsGuest 2013-11-21 23:04
On the five steps:
1. Totally agree with the outstanding importance of simplicity. For example, I believe the Carbon Footprint tool from Ecopetrol is very powerful due to its simplicity over other more complex carbon footprint calculators. Simplicity usually deviates from accuracy and, unfortunately, climate change has all been about accuracy

2. Agreed, this is what moves people rather than threats, the church gave us a historical example of this, jajaja

3. Yes and no. I understand and agree with the importance of transition plans but I believe more in Schumpeter's creative destruction. Businesses that do not adjust to new realities simply ought to disappear. Help is a dangerous word, it's what keeps many poor people to remain poor and can make lobbying more important than customer satisfaction and social responsibility. There is a saying in Colombia that goes like this: "Los buenos somos más", unfortunately masses have quite low lobbying capacity, once the elections have passed your lobbist example make policymakers make decisions based mostly on lobbyists (notice the emphasis in making). I believe not only for climate change, but for environment in general that the issue has to be followed up quite closely and reach back to voters, have organizations that follow-up closely on political commitments and give feedback generate enforcement and accountability. Unfortunately we economist rule the world and have managed to make every decision based on the economy, I believe this is a huge mistake and will just give you an example I keep thinking of. Every time a developing country or a country in crisis is competing for hosting a sports event (world cup, Olympics, etc.) there is a recurrent Miss Universe question: How can you think of organizing this event with such unemployment and poverty rates? To be honest its a trick question, one thing has nothing to do with the other, poor people also do sports and actually love sports. If you ask me in such cases the economy is a very poor for proxy well-being. So can you go out jogging when you haven´t payed your credit card bill? Yes you can and actually while jogging a great idea on how to pay it might pop up. So don´t be afraid to burn down those highly pollutant companies, from their ashes better companies will emerge.

4. Probably the second most important point. Where do I sign in?

5. Yes, yes and yes!
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# Policy SpecialistGuest 2013-12-02 18:27
Thanks Simon. Rushing a bit to respond and would love to write a more detailed response but towards the goal of simplicity here is my take:

1) I think your five points are spot on but they too also live in different realities and political realities at that. For example, the IPCC reports are that complex and complicated because of the politics of climate change as well as because of the scientific language itself. In this politics, one error or lack of clarity can make the whole report invalid to some and thus it is not so simple. Still, I agree that we have to find ways to communicate. I should also say that this works in different ways for different people and the public is diverse. Its a challenge. I have been grappling with while writing on Green Growth, climate change and equity originally targeting MPs.
2) Part of the issue is sequencing and focus. We shouldnt perhaps be asking everyone to be all people. The scientist needs to get it as right as he can and someone else can help with the communication and these two should probably come together before the end-game as it were.
3) Good images are really important but there is still a lot to be done on good images. And many even the ones you use are about absolute changes and not about linkages and interactions and the dynamic aspects. Thats where more image or infographic investment is sorely needed.
4) I agree with making it personal. It does ground this seemingly abstract issue. However, that can also have the downside of making it specific to a location and not necessarily relevant to everyone. And yes a penny dropped for me with the story of the community leader in Indonesia. We need to make some of these very personal stories accessible. Sometimes colleagues are so busy doing that these meetings and stories dont get told or told soon enough.
5) Agree with the empowerment and not powerless but the fact is that the facts are sobering reading and people are not going to feel the need for action unless some level of urgency is communicated. We all suffer from the manana complex and the structure of politics always suggests that its best to leave it to the "next person". A balance between communicating "no regrets", that sooner is better than later and that action can be taken today and by anyone is absolutely key. I think part of that is that the response relies on all of us and everyone has the capacity to act and how. It all adds to the whole.

Hope to be able to send more very soon and thanks again for this - and taking the conversation in a positive direction. This is sorely needed.
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# RE: How to win the argument on climate change: a five point plan - Part 1Simon Maxwell 2014-01-20 15:45
Feeling the urgency viscerally. 'Hm. Here's a quote from Jean Giraudoux: 'The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.' Hope we're not that cynical.
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# MrGuest 2014-02-13 16:26
Thank you for a great post. One comment: the benefits (transformation al or otherwise) and who realise and value these by taking action should be communicated, along with those who lose out; and this should be done as relentlessly as implementing the actions that bring these about. No?
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