Here is an excerpt from a report published in 2006 by the Institute for Public Policy Research, one of the government’s favourite think tanks. It is called Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?
Many of the existing approaches to climate change communications clearly seem unproductive. And it is not enough simply to produce yet more messages, based on rational argument and top-down persuasion, aimed at convincing people of the reality of climate change and urging them to act. Instead, we need to work in a more shrewd and contemporary way, using subtle techniques of engagement.
To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.
The disparity of scale between the enormity of climate change and small individual actions should be dealt with by actually harnessing this disparity. Myth (which can reconcile seemingly irreconcilable cultural truths) can be used to inject the discourse with the energy it currently lacks.
Opposing the enormous forces of climate change requires an effort that is superhuman or heroic. The cultural norms (what we normally expect to be true) are that heroes – the ones who act, are powerful and carry out great deeds – are extraordinary, while ordinary mortals either do nothing or do bad things. The mythical position – the one that occupies the seemingly impossible space – is that of ‘ordinary hero’. The ‘ordinary heroism’ myth is potentially powerful because it feels rooted in British culture – from the Dunkirk spirit to Live Aid.
The first paragraph provides a clear admission that rational arguments have failed to convince the public that anthropogenic global warming is happening. This will surprise few people who have taken an interest in the scientific evidence and the political froth with which it is presented. The IPPR suggest that simulated conviction will be much more effective than being frank with the public; a very ‘shrewd and contemporary way’ of misleading people. All this is chillingly reminiscent of Tony Blair’s claim in parliament that evidence for Iraqi WMD was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’, when the Joint Intellect Committee had already warned him that it was ‘sporadic and patchy’.
The next paragraph hammers the point home suggesting that, if all government agencies pretend that the evidence is irrefutable, then everyone will come to believe this even if rational arguments are unconvincing. But there is a caveat. Apparently this is only a position to be adopted in ‘popular communications’. Apparently it is acceptable to treat the subject rationally, and acknowledge uncertainties, behind closed doors when the children are not listening. This sentiment is acknowledged by placing the rather important term ‘facts’ in quotation marks. The ‘facts’ that we are talking about here are evidently not quite the same as real facts but, if the government pretends that they are, then its authority will persuade people that what they are being told is true.
Warm Words then moves into a world of fantasy, where the authors seem to have become victims of their own propaganda. Having admitted that deception is necessary to persuade the public to adopt a politically correct attitude to climate change, the authors now speak of its enormity as though they too are convinced. No wonder that this is followed by an exhortation to use myth to pep up ‘the discourse’. Remember how that evil genius Saddam Hussain was known to be deploying filthy WMD from his command bunker deep below Baghdad when we helped invade Iraq?
The puerility of the last paragraph says far more about the authors of this report than it does about the climate change debate. Anyone who is capable of linking historical events surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation with a pop concert should be kept well away from the formulation of public policy. The attempt to vilify ‘ordinary mortals’ who do not buy into the governments version of the ‘facts’ is an invitation to use moral coercion to impose conformity on dissenters; those who do not sincerely believe must be portrayed either as lazy or simply scum.
One of the useful purposes that think tanks like the IPPR serve is to think the unthinkable, and by doing so shock policy makers into unconstrained discussion of the options open to them. In this case their intention seems to have been quite different. The IPPR expect their recommendations to be taken seriously and, as we will see, that is what happened.
None of this would matter very much if Warm Words was just an example of a minor think tank flirting with some rather grubby brain-washing techniques that would have been familiar in any of the authoritarian East European states twenty years ago. But the IPPR is very a influential organisation indeed who claim on their website that ‘deepening democracy underpins all of the IPPR’s work’. What contribution they are making to ‘deepening democracy’ by formulating a strategy to help the government deceive the electorate on a matter of great public importance is not explained.
This thoroughly nasty document was well received in government circles. The Climate Change Communications Working Group, comprising DEFRA and five other government departments and agencies, enthusiastically embraced Warm Words, commissioning a consultancy called Futerra to turn the IPPR’s recommendations into action. This in turn lead directly to an even more startling publication called, The Rules of the Game, Evidence for the Climate Change Communications Strategy, intended as a rule book for all future government related utterances on global warming. Another post in a few days time will describe the kind of rules that the government has sanctioned for climate change communications as described in this leaflet.
The strategy outlined in Warm Words had one clear objective; to close down rational debate about the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming and replace it with mendacious government sanctioned dogma. Government agencies are to speak authoritatively and with a single voice, concealing any uncertainties that they recognise, and avoiding rational discussion of the evidence by replacing it with ‘myths’ and by ‘facts’ that must not be questioned. By these means it is intended that the public will be persuaded to adopt the government’s preferred view of climate change even if they are not fully aware of the issues. It only becomes necessary for politicians to close down a political debate when they know that they cannot win it by deploying rational arguments.
In 1859 John Stuart Mill suggested in his essay, On Liberty, that:
Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for the purpose of action. On no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
Tampering with the precepts that define liberty is not acceptable behaviour in a modern liberal democracy, nor can it be justified by any threat however grave, whether real or imagined. Indeed it can be argued that the graver the perceived threat, the more pernicious such behaviour will be.
[NOTE: The version of Warm Words (here) that I have referred to was downloaded in August 2006, but I believe that it has been updated since then. It provides a rare glimpse of aspects of policy making that are seldom seen in public and is well worth looking at.]
UPDATE: 05/03/2008 Another post here explains what happened next