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August 21, 2006

Climate porn

‘Climate porn’is turning the public away from action on the environment. So argues the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). In a report called 'Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?', the think tank has accused the media, the British government and environmental groups of indulging in the promotion of 'climate porn' through promotion of 'alarmist apocalyptic climate change scenarios'. The alarmist language used to discuss climate change, says IPPR, 'offers a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distances the public from the problem'.

Having reviewed 600 articles and news stories, the report identifies ten different ways of talking about climate change. Two are dominant. The first, Alarmism, are variants on ‘we’re all going to die’. This pessimistic approach refers to climate change as awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control, says the report. It excludes the possibility of real action. ‘The problem is just too big for us to take on’. Alarmism might even become secretly thrilling, say the authors – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’. It is seen in almost every form of discussion on the issue.

The second most common form of climate change discourse identified by IPPR emphasizes small actions. An approach along the lines, ‘I’m doing my bit for the planet – and maybe my pocket’ is dominant in campaign communications from government and green groups, states the report. This approach asks a large number of people to do a few small things to counter climate change. 'The language is one of ease and domesticity with references to kettles and cars, ovens and light switches'. But this approach to communication, say IPPR, 'is likely to beg the question:how can this really make a difference?'

The accumulation of small changes can, in fact, make a big difference. But the IPPR addresses a real issue. The tendency for ecological gloom-mongering to demotivate us, rather than change behaviour, has been a recurring theme in Doors conferences, too. Back in 1995 for example, at Doors 3, we criticised the promulgation of gruesome scenarios about the future of the planet and added: "Eco-gloom is bad enough, but adding guilt is a real turn-off. Being told that a vast, unfolding calamity is your fault almost guarantees that you'll go into denial".

Unfortunately, the IPPR report clatters off the rails way when it proposes solutions. It suggests that communications from government and green groups should 'treat climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be sold, making it feel natural to the large numbers of people who are currently unengaged with the problem'. According to Simon Retallack, the think-tank's head of climate change, “Climate-friendly behaviours need to be made to feel like ‘the kinds of things that people like us do’ to large groups of people'.

Are marketing and brand management an appropriate response to climate change? I suspect the opposite. The slightest hint of spin and branding will distance the public from the problem even more.

Bottom line: It's not just about language. The human contribution to climate change is based on the material reality of an insanely wasteful consumer culture. It will make no difference to that reality if politicians start spouting sunny eco-speak without changing fundamental drivers of consumerism such as cheap consumer credit, or tax breaks on freight transport.

The recourse to brand marketing in politics is getting weirder by the day. One of the authors of the IPPR report, Gill Ereaut, is principal of 'Linguistic Landscapes, a consultancy that combines techniques of linguistic and discourse analysis with commercial expertise to address marketing and communications and organisational problems'.

Posted by John Thackara at August 21, 2006 08:10 AM


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