Mixed-up confusion and climate change policy

July 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog

In 1962, mixed-up confusion was killing Bob Dylan. His head was full of questions, and his temperature rising fast. Forty years later, amid other rising temperatures, mixed-up confusion is confounding Australia’s efforts to respond to climate change.

One the one hand, the case for action seems straightforward. The debate over whether or not anthropogenic climate change is real is over, at least in the scientific community. Treasury modeling of
the potential impacts of climate change makes it clear that taking action on climate change is in Australia’s national interest. Much of corporate Australia agrees with this. And all major political parties advocate taking action on climate change.

So why, according to figures just released in the Climate Institute’s annual survey of Australian attitudes towards climate change, Climate of the Nation, do 65 per cent of Australians believe that there are too many conflicting opinions for the public to be sure about the claims made about climate change? Where does all this confusion come from?

It certainly does not come from a lack of information. If Bob Dylan had a cent for every media mention of climate change, he would probably never have got the tombstone blues, the freight train blues or even the subterranean homesick blues. Australians have had climate change shoved down their throat. Thousands of views have been canvassed, thousands of views have been offered.

Amongst this discordant cacophony, no one has been able to make their message resonate – not the government, not the opposition, not scientists, not climate science ‘deniers’, not NGOs, not community activists, not the private sector.

This has confused the population, and clouded their response to carbon pricing. Only 28 per cent of respondents in the Climate Institute poll (carried out by John Scales for JWS) said they supported the government’s scheme. However, when basic aspects of the legislation are explained, the number jumps to almost 50 per cent. This is not to make a comment on the merits or otherwise of the government’s particular scheme – it rather illustrates the point that people don’t support things they don’t understand. And they don’t understand carbon pricing.

This is fair enough. As public policy goes, it is complex and nuanced. Even the policy wonks struggle to get their heads round it at times. Several popular criticisms of action on climate change stem directly from misunderstandings about how the government’s scheme might work (these criticisms may also be leveled at other schemes). Here are three key sources of confusion:

  1. It won’t make a difference because Australia is only a small part of global emissions
  2. It won’t make a difference because industry will move overseas and pollute from there
  3. It won’t make a difference because we are going to compensate the polluters – so there is no reason for them to act.

There are very good answers to all three points. But this is entering a level of detail beyond the point at which the public would normally engage in public policy. Debunking incorrect information is necessary. But arguing the toss on the details of particular arguments is pointless – people end up confused and disengaged. Instead, advocates of climate change action would do well to focus on some key communication approaches:

  • Appeal to the emotional: Use language and imagery that appeals to people’s emotional rather than intellectual side. This is something marketers have honed for decades.
  • Use third-party advocates: There is no academy of science in the world that disputes the science. Other voices lend credibility to your arguments.
  • Point to peers: Highlight what others, faced with the same problem, have done. The vast majority of countries have some form of measure in place to combat climate change.

Talk about the alternative: Instead of allowing the debate to focus on the intricacies of different schemes, focus on the costs of inaction.

Make it local: Talk about the impact of climate change on insurance bills and front lawns.

A recent poll by Fergus Hanson for the Lowy Institute showed that 38 per cent of Australians felt they had become ‘more concerned’ about climate change since the debate in Australia began. If this concern is to be harnessed into support for action, we need to do a much better job of telling the story, and a much better job of debunking the myths. “Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean,” Bob Dylan once remarked, “sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean”.

Andrew Ure is the Managing Director of OgilvyEarth, a sustainability communications company (part of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide). http://au.linkedin.com/in/andrewure

By Andrew Ure.

The Future of Food: Have we Put all our Eggs in One Basket?

April 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog

Walking through my local supermarket last week, the dizzying aisles piled high with multi-coloured Easter bunnies and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs made it hard to imagine that I had just spent three days speaking with leading experts about potential food shortages and the inadequacies of our global food system.

The Second National Sustainable Food Summit in Sydney Australia brought to light the many unspoken pressures on our current food system that threaten to leave Australia, along with most other countries around the world, unable to feed their growing populations.

As I stared wide-eyed down the supermarket aisle, the conference speakers’ messages seemed terribly disconnected from the abundance overflowing in front of me.  Endless varieties of chocolate eggs had been tailored to delight even the most finicky of tastebuds.  Nowadays, consumers can have their chocolate treats in multiple shades: dark, milk, white or some combination of all three.  They can have them candy-coated, caramel –centred, miniaturised, orange-flavoured, hot, frozen, sugar-free, individually-wrapped or even family-packed.  This is not limited to just Easter goodies.  The average developed nation supermarket is brimming with an abundant variety of inexpensive food year-round.  So, it’s no wonder that most of us are not preoccupied with projected food shortages, dwindling seafood supplies or shrinking croplands on the agenda of the National Sustainable Food Summit.

The reality is, of course, that what see from our perch at our trolley’s handlebars is not the full picture.  Taking a long-term macro view reveals a world where exponential population growth will drive up demand for food production and a rising global middle class will increase the number of people able to afford animal protein (which we know takes more water and energy resources to produce than vegetables).  Additional pressure will also come from rapid urbanisation and the growing number of megacities (those with populations exceeding ten million) which will not only encroach upon fertile agricultural lands and add to the complexities of getting enough fresh food into cities fast enough to satiate our tummies, but also exacerbate the dramatic disconnect between our farmers and our plates.

When we see the big picture, we discover additional pressures on our food system that are telling us our current system needs a re-think.  Diminishing diversity in our basic crop species is putting our resilience at risk.  Predictability of crop production is being threatened, as increasingly irregular weather patterns throw off century-old agricultural practices (regardless of which side of the climate change debate you find yourself).  International trade is encouraging us to relinquish control of our food sources, as we increase our dependence on overseas ingredients and processing.  And the experts we rely on to produce our food are abandoning their vocations, as financial pressures from rising energy costs, industrialised food production and shrinking profit margins chase farmers from their fields to city jobs.  With something as vital as food, how is that we have found ourselves putting all of our eggs in one basket (no pun intended)?

Yet, in the face of this bleak reality, the conference was optimistic and solutions-focussed.  True, we cannot rely on old systems if we are to produce more food with fewer resources in the face of changing environmental conditions.  However, by working together across community, industry and politics, we can create viable solutions.  This was the resounding message that threaded throughout the three days of conference talks and workshops.

Experts pointed to specific technologies, policies, communities and case studies that might hold the answer.  Discussions pointed to concepts such as decentralised food production, urban farming, renewable energy, alternative food sources, cross-industry collaboration, consumer-driven system changes, meaningful partnership between NGOs and food suppliers, supply chain traceability, affordability and equity in food access, national food policies, nutritional requirements and cultural considerations of the role of food in society.

Already we can see evidence of big brands, government and community groups starting to work on solutions.  In Australia, one state government campaign is trying to teach people how to avoid letting perfectly good food go to waste with the Love Food Hate Waste initiative. Major Australian supermarkets Woolworths and Coles have each made sustainable seafood commitments and major seafood suppliers like John West are taking important steps to ensuring the sustainability of their supply.  Unilever is also taking serious steps to improve the sustainability of the food it sources, with its Lipton brand sourcing Rainforest Alliance certified tea and its commitment to move its Ben & Jerry’s brand to fair trade certified ingredients, for example.  Coca-Cola too is working with local communities and environmental groups to improve the sustainability of its ingredients, through Project Catalyst, which aims to make sugar cane in Australia agriculture more sustainable.  Full disclosure here: several of my insights here come from the work that OgilvyEarth has done with Woolworths, Lipton, John West and Project Catalyst).

In each of these cases, the need for proactive collaboration between industries and sectors is critical to making progress.  With my sustainability communication hat on, I see the important role communication will play in enabling the kind of future thinking and real action we will need to change the course of our food system.  Already through my work with clients, I have seen how facilitated conversations and strategic communication can enable the kind of idea sharing, inspired collaboration, trust building and dialogue needed to improve on the status quo.   No, I don’t know exactly what our food secure future will look like.  But I do believe that it will require a combination of technical and policy solutions as well as a new system of values, cultural norms and perceptions to change how we think about the food we eat.

By Teljya Oka-Pregel.

Buyers Beware: One Size Does Not Fit All

November 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that we are living in a time of truncated oversimplification. Understandably, the tendency to want to reduce everything down to a sound bite is in reaction to the almost manic state of our 24/7 news cycles and multi-channelled communications feeds. True that there is a time and place for boiling down a complicated idea to its essential concepts. Yet, I fear that we have entered an era where important ideas risk getting overlooked entirely if they are not reduced to bullet points (having said that, I now wonder if I should also prepare a bullet point version of this blog post). I have seen this  inclination to summarise messages within environmental and sustainability communications, and am worried that people are missing the type of ‘big-picture’, ‘long-term’ perspective so vital to devising sustainability solutions. The fact is that, you simply cannot save the planet in “Ten easy steps” (I pause here for a moment to thank Annie Leonard, the creator of the fantastic viral video The Story of Stuff for reminding me of this last weekend when she delivered a talk in Sydney).

In my line of work, I am often faced with questions about how to best communicate sustainability messages. Generally, people are expecting a quick, elevator-pitch response. However, I usually reply with a question instead: “Who are you trying to communicate with, what are you hoping to communicate, and what do you want them to do with the information”? Too often, I have found people tend to jump to the tactical solution stage of an implementation process before having properly sat down to ask enough questions to form a proper strategy. Presented in this way, the majority of us easily agree that this is not an ideal way of communicating effectively, but you’d be surprised how many people skip the important preliminary steps.

Although communicating sustainability is sometimes most effective when messages are simplified down to snippets of information, I would argue that the majority of scenarios require a longer-term, more complex communications effort. This is because a most people talking about sustainability are not just trying to get us to change the length of our morning showers, they are trying to do things like facilitate deep culture and behaviour change, improve eco-literacy or devise win-win solutions between opposing groups. The reality is that it takes time to shift cultural norms and achieve long-term behaviour change, and if a communications strategy does not plan for phased-in or follow-up messaging, it is unlikely to achieve its desired objectives.

So, effective sustainability communications often requires a little more work at the outset and in the follow-up phases of a communications initiative. Sustainability practitioners must remember that we need to take the time to understand our audiences and clarify our own objectives. To change people’s hearts, minds and actions, we need to ask enough questions to properly understand what motivates them, what worries them, what their understanding of the issues is, how they like to communicate, who  they are influenced by, and so on. Without this information, we can only hope that some of our one-way monologue cookie-cutter messaging actually sticks and has any positive effect. Who knows? Perhaps after all this, we will still conclude that our audience only needs a list of “Ten top Tips” to save the planet. But, without asking all these questions, how can we know which ten tips to give? I have yet to see a situation where communications does not require some degree of tailoring and customisation. After all, communications is about connecting with people, and we humans are a complex and varied bunch that most certainly is not “one size fits all”.

By Teljya Oka-Pregel.

OgilvyEarth recognised as market leader

September 14, 2010 by  
Filed under News

OgilvyEarth has been recognised in a recently released report on Sustainable Communications Agencies in the US. Verdantix, a sustainable business analyst firm, identified OgilvyEarth as one of two agencies that provide clients with market-leading approaches and breakthrough sustainability communications strategies.

OgilvyEarth was launched in Australia and now operates across the Ogilvy Worldwide network. Congratulations to our colleagues in the US!