In a previous post (here) I described how recommendations in an Institute for Public Policy Research report called Warm Words were adopted by the government as a template for all communications on climate change. Even the most charitable reading of this spine-chilling document reveals it as a cynical strategy for misleading the public about anthropogenic climate change for political purposes.
In February 2005, a consultancy called Futerra prepared some recommendations for the ClimateChange Communications Working Group which comprises DEFRA and five other government departments and agencies. This is how Futerra describe themselves on their website:
Futerra is a communications company. We do the things communications companies do; have bright ideas, captivate audiences, build energetic websites one day and grab opinion formers’ attention the next. We’re very good at it. But the real difference is that we’ve only ever worked on green issues, corporate responsibility and ethics. Here
Their brief seems to have been to develop a climate communications strategy that would convince the public about the undeniable existence of anthropogenic global warming even if the facts don’t quite bear this out. With the government already beginning to introduce measures to ‘win the battle against climate change’, this was a matter of some importance if they were to avoid accusations of alarmism.
Recommendation 1: Objective
We recommend that the objective for the strategy be:
To use effective communications to encourage attitude change and acceptance of policy change for climate change in the UK.
The reference to ‘attitude change’ looks innocent enough on its own. A campaign to change people’s attitudes to drink driving, food hygiene or child neglect would be perfectly reasonable for any government to undertake; it is beyond doubt that drunk drivers, contaminated food and negligent parents do harm. But the situation with climate change is very different. The government’s intention in this case is to persuade the electorate that a threat undoubtedly exists, although it was tacitly acknowledged in Warm Words that there are uncertainties. And they are doing this after they have introduced policies to avert this supposed threat, apparently to retrospectively justify their proposed remedies. This is to be achieved by pretending that no uncertainties exist, when they are aware that the existence of the risk has yet to be verified.
An interview that Sir David King, the government’s very influential chief scientific adviser, gave to Radio4′s Today programme on 20th December 2007 throws some light on how policy was being formed at that time.
In that early period in 2004 there was much discussion about what we would be doing during our G8 presidency, and the response – and I think that was because it was taken up by so well [sic] with the media, so let me say something nice about the media – um, the result was that we lead the G8 with climate change and African development, both of which I was very, very strongly in favour of. And I do think that it was our leadership of the G8 in 2005, and the invitation to the rapidly emerging economies, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa to send their heads of state to the meeting, that really began to turn the corner on climate change.
Tony Blair has thanked me enormously for the work I have done on climate change. We did work closely after that.
Climate change was therefor to become a crucial part of foreign policy for a prime minister who had becoming increasingly unpopular at home where his leadership was under fire from all sides. The opportunity to earn some favourable headlines by seeming to take the lead in international politics by campaigning to save the planet must have seemed irresistible. The problem that would face the Downing Street spin-doctors when it came to selling this version of Tony Blair to the voters would be that many of them were not yet convinced that the planet was in danger. Clearly the need for ‘attitude change’ was urgent to avoid one of the prime minister’s key policies during his presidency of the G8 being written off as just another opportunity to launch an eye-catching initiative.
Here are some more recommendations made by Futerra:
Recommendation 13: Guidance and skills
The development of a Network for climate change communicators (and for fund awardees) to share experience and creative concepts
Recommendation 22: Words and story
Working Group members should use similar effective terminology when referring to climate change. To this end we have provided:
- A ‘word bank‘ of terms that are helpful and those that are not so helpful
- A ‘core script‘ for the branded statement
Recommendation 28: Press Training
We recommend that Press Officer Training be carried out across Government departments, to maximise the potential for making connections with the climate change agenda.
Recommendation 29: Press releases and specialist media
That climate change targeted press releases be issued by all relevant Government Departments and Agencies (not just Defra), to make connections with climate change wherever possible.
That specialist media should be targeted, to take advantage of the scope for linking lifestyle and climate change
So we learn that a cadre of ‘climate change communicators’, drawing on a ‘word bank’ and reciting ‘core scripts’ should be created. Press Officers are to ‘maximise the potential’ of newsworthy stories about climate change while ‘making connections with climate change wherever possible’. It can be no accident that from about this time the media were flooded with stories that promoted anthropogenic global warming as a factor in events from droughts in drought prone areas of Africa and Australia, to floods in flood prone areas of the UK, a shortage of snow in ski resorts, a warm summer and even the failure of the rail net work to run services on time.
More recommendations from Futerra followed in the form of a snappy little leaflet also prepared for the Climate Change Communications Working Group with the following message on the cover:
The Rules of the Game
Evidence base for the Climate change Communications Strategy
The game is communicating climate change; the rules will help us win in it.
The use of the word ‘win’ seems significant here. It suggests an aspiration to be victorious, but over what; common sense and the kind of natural scepticism that protects people from political indoctrination?
A little more detail is added in the first couple of paragraphs of this document, and a reference to ‘evidence’ is intriguing:
Why were the principles created?
The game is communicating climate change; the rules will help us win it.
These principles were created as part of the UK Climate Change Communications Strategy, an evidence-based strategy aiming to change public attitudes towards climate change in the UK. This is a ‘short version’ of a far longer document of evidence [Warm Words] that can be found at www.defra.gov.uk.
Anyone who has taken the trouble to read Warm Words will know that this report is not in any way concerned with providing scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming, but with developing a strategy for selling this concept to the public without the inconvenience of having to provide evidence. We now seem to be floundering in a world of doublethink where the term ‘evidence’ has a specific meaning for the authors that has nothing to do with the dictionary definition. In this case ‘evidence’ is not fact based rational argument, but any spin that can be used to sell an idea to the public, and selling is the real name of the game as we discover a few paragraphs later:
“Changing attitudes towards climate change is not like selling a particular brand of soap – it’s like convincing someone to use soap in the first place.”
So the object of the exercise is to create a market for this new product: the government’s climate change policies. The authors go on to explain that this leaflet signals a new phase in ‘climate change communications’ that will ‘confront dearly held beliefs about what works’.
…. these principles are a first step to using sophisticated behaviour change modeling and comprehensive evidence from around the world to change attitudes towards climate change. We need to think radically, and the Rules of the Game are a sign that future campaigns will not be ‘business as usual’. This is a truly exciting moment.
Many of the oft-repeated communications methods and messages of sustainable development have been dismissed by mainstream communicators, behaviour change experts and psychologists. Before we go into what works, our principles make a ‘clean sweep’ of what doesn’t:
If you have read the post on Warm Words (here), you will remember that rational arguments were one of the first casualties of this ‘clean sweep.
The idea of spreading anxiety about anthropogenic global warming is discouraged, not because it would be irresponsible given the lack of certainty, but because it might be counterproductive:
Don’t create fear without agency
Fear can create apathy if individuals have no ‘agency’ to act upon the threat. Use fear with great caution
However it is fine to scare people if you do give them ‘agency’; the impression that they may be able to control the climate by installing windmills on their houses, using low energy light bulbs, or not flying to warmer places for their holidays.
In July 2007 an Ipsos MORI opinion poll on people’s attitudes to the climate debate revealed that only 22% of respondents either tended to disagree, or disagreed strongly, with the proposition, ‘many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change’. In order for the government’s communications strategy to work it is clearly necessary to sideline and discredit any well-informed critic who is unwise enough to express doubts or ask politically incorrect and inconvenient questions. The authors of The Rules of the Game hasten to suggest just how this should be done:
2. Forget the climate change detractors
Those who deny climate change science are irritating, but unimportant. The argument is not about if we should deal with climate change, but how we should deal with climate change.
If this is the government’s public attitude to scientists who are sceptical about global warming it is not difficult to imagine what goes on behind closes doors when a dissident climate researcher applies for funding. Such pressure is likely to ensure that few do so.
Every cause that relies on dogma rather than rational argument needs its advocates:
16. Create a trusted, credible, recognised voice on climate change
We need trusted organisations and individuals that the media can call upon to explain the implications of climate change to the UK public.
The Climate Change Communications Working Group and Futerra must have been aware that public trust in the government’s pronouncements on a range of subjects, from the Iraq war to crime figures, the state of the health service and party finances was not high. Giving credence to the views of organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as ‘trusted voices’ must have seemed very attractive. But these are deeply committed and highly politicised advocacy groups that have views on global warming that are anything but objective. Some may even question whether their pronouncements are even truthful or rational.
Finally, perhaps with a note of desperation, there is recognition that the objective is to market a concept, not provide information that will allow people to make up their own minds. Political dogma may not succeed, but the uninformed will always be susceptible to more stealthy techniques:
17. Use emotions and visuals
Another classic marketing rule: changing behaviour by disseminating information doesn’t always work, but emotions and visuals usually do.
When ‘emotions and visuals’ take the form of vulnerable looking polar bears apparently contemplating imminent extinction, or vast walls of ice crumbling into the sea, they are certainly extremely potent, but they are also misleading. Recent studies of polar bear populations show that they are not in danger and a glaciers calving into the sea is a common and perfectly natural phenomenon. Such images are just a way of triggering an emotional response in the uninformed that bypasses the need for evidence.
By these means political propaganda has been spread throughout the ages.
The whole of the last page of this leaflet is devoted to a single quotation:
“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.”
Even if one sets aside the risible notion of casting Margaret Beckett – who was the Secretary of State at DEFRA at the time – in the role of a latter day Gandhi, this is a very ambiguous choice of parting shot.
Gandhi was a dissident who had the courage to question the right of Britain to govern India. Imperial power, supported by propaganda intended to justify this assumption, was the orthodoxy of the day. He was an irritating sceptic that the authorities attempted to belittle and ignore; the very attitude that Futerra is suggesting should be applied to ‘climate change detractors’.
The techniques described in the documents referred to here are concerned with deception, and have no place in a liberal democracy.