'Cool' technology and 'positive visioning': could these hold the key to the climate communication challenge?

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How to persuade people to take action quickly enough is the ultimate planet-saving question

How to persuade people to take action quickly enough is the ultimate planet-saving question, and something no government has successfully mastered yet. But as the climate talks in Copenhagen disintegrated into disarray this week, a British a communications and social innovation organisation working on climate change, offered up a more positive way forward to those still left in the city to ponder how to make progress without the politicians.

Fair Knowledge is behind Ecotopia, a forum attempting to create a shared strategic vision of a sustainable future. Yesterday it held an event in Copenhagen where presentations ranged from those about the clever technology that can help us adapt to climate change to communicating the climate message through ‘positive visioning’.

Positive visioning is something of a zeitgeist phenomenon at the moment – even Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband spoke about it on his ‘Road to Copenhagen’ tour before attending the UN Climate talks. “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare”, he said “I have a dream”, Miliband said.

Research by Futerra Sustainability Communications, commissioned by the UK Government to find out about how the public in the UK and China react to climate change messages, shows definitive results.

Solitaire Townsend, who carried out the research published in a report entitled ‘Sizzle: The New Climate Message’, said it boils down to four clear rules which take the route of vision – choice – plan – action.

“Rule one is you have to open with a vision. You can’t get away with even a couple of minutes of ‘we’re all going to die’. If you start talking that way – if you start with the ‘climate hell’ it means you lose the right to people’s attention even if you’re telling them fantastic stuff afterwards,” she explained.

Part of rule one is to make it visual in order for people to be able to imagine what a low carbon economy will look like through describing it or drawing it. Futerra’s study also concludes that keeping the vision local is important so that people can relate to it.

Rule two is about how you communicate the choice. “If you do the positive stuff first then the people you’re speaking to will be wearing the life jacket of a low carbon heaven. Then you can throw them the ‘climate hell’ scenario and set it as a choice.”

Counter to lots of thinking, films and narratives just don’t work, she said. “You need to embed your message in entertainment culture – we need the positive vision in Eastenders and Desperate Housewives. It mustn’t smack of being taught. People have the ultimate veto – they can just switch off their attention.”

Townsend said she is now “100 per cent a low carbon heaven proponent because peoples eyes just go blank when climate hell is described – it just sows the seed of climate denial.”

Rule three is that they need to know what the plan is. “That’s where we fall short at the moment,” said Townsend. A five year plan should be offered with “memorable, significant achievements.” And it’s important to have a financial reality check built in and explain how costs will be covered otherwise no one will believe the plan. The same is true of showing it to be fair.

The final rule is giving people an idea of action that links to the vision so that every step will take them closer to the goal. This time numbers can clinch the deal and always let people see what’s in it for them.

These rules are as relevant whether you’re talking to the public, politicians or businesses, pointed out Lars Lunbbye, ceo of management consultancy Blue Sky Innovation, which works with big building property producers, city authorities and waste management companies to help them determine what their business should look like in five to 10 years time in terms of their sustainability. In fact, selling the vision rather than the technical detail is what’s most effective with politicians and business leaders in particular, he said: “Politicians and business leaders thrive on visions – the technical arguments tire them out and they glaze over.”

Describing simple technological solutions to adapt to climate change can also create ‘positive visioning’.

Ronan Uhel of the European Environmental Agency described how the Netherlands is building floating houses in response to the increasing threat the country faces from flooding, which could raise the water level between 60 and 130 centimetres.

“We have built three floating municipalities for up to 200,000 inhabitants. We are moving fast as this is very much a matter of survival. It does cost, but it’s cheaper than repairing the damages,” he said.

This is far from a niche need – something that is evidenced by a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yesterday, which maintains that global sea levels could rise by up to nine metres in the next few hundred years, even if the world manages to stabilise average temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial levels. Hundreds of millions of people around the world would be affected as low-lying coastal areas became inundated. New Orleans would be lost to the sea, much of southern Florida and Bangladesh and most of the Netherlands.

“The business people who have been able to get these techniques in place are really teaching the world – 50 per cent of people in world are living on the coastlines,” said Uhel. “Our biggest clients are municipalities – Rotterdam want to build city ports, Amsterdam want to build lake properties.”

The water can also be used as a solar collector energy source and as a coolant. As the houses don’t need fossil fuels, they have a C02 reduction compared to conventional houses of 60 per cent.

Golo Pilz from Rajasthan in India showed dramatic pictures of 4,000 ashrams in India, which through their impressive use of solar and other renewable technologies, are activating India into adopting environmental technologies in a big way. In one large ashram they have built the world’s largest solar steam cookers to cook 34,000 meals a day. The technology is also used in hospitals and the Indian government hopes 10 per cent of power generation will come from non-conventional forms of energy by the year 2012.

“Our vision for the future is a one megawatt solar thermal power plant with storage and co-generation and a 60 square meter parabolic dish,” he told conference delegates. “We want to give an idea to everyone how things can be solved.”

Mitigation is the low-hanging fruit that must be picked first, however, insisted Hunter Levins, author and promoter of sustainable development for over 30 years, and founder and President of Natural Capitalism.

“No future makes sense unless we use all resources much more efficiently. Doing that is profitable – the business case for sustainability is definite.

“I walked into a company where they left 6300 computers on 24 hours a day – [the company] would save $700,000 every year if they switched them off at night. $2.4 billion is wasted in US every year from computers – that’s pure waste. So first step is efficiency. Then can talk about all the cool technology – but the cost of those is not trivial and unless we use resources efficiently we can’t afford any future.”

Fair Knowledge brought together world-famous environmental commentators in London three weeks before the Copenhagen talks to think through a positive vision of the future, including Bill Becker, director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, former director of the US Department of Energy’s Central Regional Office in the US, Dianne Dillon-Ridgely, chair of Plains Justice and previously part of President Clinton’s President’s Council on Sustainable Development in the 90s, Frijof Copra physicist, author and founder of Devon’s Schumacher College and John Elkington, British sustainability consultant, amongst others.

It has recently been asked by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to advise on its climate communication strategy. “We thought that was a really incr

edible move,” said Jobeda Ali, Fair Knowledge’s managing director. “It shows they’re really beginning to understand that we can’t cut corners with communication on climate change any more. It’s vital to get it right.”

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