Climate Change Denial

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October 28, 2010


George Marshall @ 8:23 pm

The desire to stir a debate around climate change is not an excuse for sensationalist images and language that demean immigrants.

The effects of climate change are so hard to imagine that we should welcome an exhibition of Postcards from the Future’ that promises “Images that bring ideas to life and frame the climate debate in a way that everyone can understand”. Unfortunately the debate it frames is dangerous and the main reason that it can be readily understood is that it fits all too easily with existing prejudices.


Cut-and-paste monkeys: an insulting analogy for the "equatorial immigrants" who would swamp British culture.


The pictures are artfully composed photomontages that juxtapose iconic London landmarks with eye-catching climate impacts – for example the Household Cavalry ride down a sand-strewn Whitehall on camels; an oil palm plantation grows in Hyde Park; and people skate on the Thames after the Gulf Stream packs in.

The creators, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones, assure us that they “researched different scientific projections”. Really? Not one of these images reflects any real climate scenario for London. They are pure science-fiction.

Certainly they are striking and win attention, but at a price. Public acceptance of climate change is still weak and 55% of people believe that climate change has been exaggerated for political ends. Fantasy images actively feed that public denial and with it the widespread assumption that climate change is conjectural and without firm basis in fact.

However the greatest concern with this show is not that it parts with reality, but that it speaks all too well to real prejudices against immigrants “swamping” British culture. This is a recurring theme. One postcard shows Asian peasants working in paddy fields in the shadow of Big Ben.


Two other postcards in the series show shantytowns around Nelson’s Column and Buckingham Palace.

These images cause deep disquiet for those who work with refugees and immigrants. Jonathan Ellis, policy director at the Refugee Council, calls them “lazy and unhelpful” at a time when “we need fresh and creative messages, and a fair and rational debate based on the facts”.

“Producing sensationalist pictures which fall back on cheap stereotypes of refugees do not help anyone’s cause,” says Vaughan Jones, the chief executive of Praxis, a London-based charity that provides practical support for refugees and asylum seekers. “The issue is too serious for this inaccurate treatment.”

Hannah Smith from the Climate Outreach Information Network runs a programme that brings together over 30 refugee, human rights and environment organisations. She argues that the images give an entirely erroneous impression and that “the actual patterns of migration are far more likely to be the movement of people inside existing national borders, or, in the case of the UK, from within the European Union. To suggest that there will be mass migration from the [global] south is misleading and feeds xenophobia.”

These criticism are exacerbated by the language used in the captions. The caption for the Buckingham Palace shantytown talks of the royal family being surrounded by “overwhelming numbers of immigrants”. Another caption, for a picture of monkeys on the balustrade of St Paul’s Cathedral describes them as “a new breed of tropical immigrants reminiscing about equatorial days”. This is a misapplication of language that Hannah Smith regards as deeply insulting.

Any representations of climate change enter a complex psychological, social and political landscape created by over twenty years of confusion, denial and anger.  An aspect of this is that the perpetrators of climate change are constantly seekijng to absolve themselves of their ethical responsibility for the historical problem or the failure to take collective action. I predict that we are heading for a bitter blame game and, judging by the usual human response, the most consistent mechanism for dealing with collective guilt is to blame the victim. The racist right are already sniffing round the issue  of climate migration and will try to take hold of this agenda.

When I look at the postcards from the perspective of refugee organisations (indeed with any kind of progressive politics at all) these concerns seem so sensible and self-evident that I wonder why no-one involved with commissioning, producing, or promoting these images thought to raise them.  The entire approach of the postcards is provocative: taking symbols of British cultural identify and contrasting them with caricatures of Third World poverty. The impression that they give is that we have been invaded by an alien horde, and that we are the victims, not them.

Imagine that this approach had been taken with the climate change context: Westminster Abbey covered with Arabic signs and flanked by minarets, camels racing in the Derby,  Beefeaters are replaced by Romani…etc etc. Would this be accepted for public display anywhere, not least the usually extremely sensitive Museum of London.

So this raises a fascinating question: why did the cover story of “climate change” permit the enthusiastic promotion of images and language that would be normally be considered unacceptable in a public exhibition?

One reason is that we have already come to “frame” climate change in this way. Impacts are invariably presented as the crude data of square kilometres flooded or numbers of people displaced. There is still a painful lack of elaboration or analysis of the real political and social impacts of these changes – who will be affected, how will they adapt and where will they go.

This in turn reflects the disturbingly limited range of voices that can be heard talking about climate change. While environmentalists have dominated the public discourse from the outset, it has only been in the past five years that development organisations and unions have become involved.

Human rights and refugee organisations are only now fully recognising the importance of climate change and they are struggling to find their niche and be heard on the issue. “We operate under such constant pressures, both internally and externally, that we have been in the bunker for far too long”, says Jonathan Ellis.

Even the core term “climate refugee”, used universally by environmental organisations and throughout the postcard captions, is inaccurate, argues Vaughan Jones. It took decades of hard campaigning to get refugees protected under international law and “the term must be preserved as a legal status for those fleeing persecution”.

None of this is to doubt the sincerity of the photo-artists or those organising the exhibition. Nor does it imply that climate change is so complex that it cannot be communicated to the general public.  All it shows is that climate change is a challenging area, framed by denial, guilt and discrimination, that requires the same intelligence and sensitivity as any exhibition on gender, race or class.

These  images deliberately chose to create a reaction use extreme and sometimes ludicrous contrast. But they could have shown many different scenarios that would have been far more realistic and engaging- images of adaptation and co-operation and real impacts that were well referenced by the science.  The history of immigration in Britain has always been one of immigrants adding new ideas, energy and diversity to Britain, so could not images of climate migrants have shown them dding to British culture and our capacity to adapt and change.

This is a longer version of the article that appears on The Guardian Blog

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October 15, 2010


George Marshall @ 6:49 pm

When campaign organisations put their climate change messages up in lights alongside commercial neon advertising the result is a bizarre dissonance that does nothing for their message but says a lot more about our collective confusion and denial.

Last week 10:10, the global campaign to reduce emissions by 10% this year, proudly announced that its name was up among the bright lights in Piccadilly Circus. The tweet promoting the sign said “in amongst it all, you really can see the glimmers of a movement building”.

Piccadilly Lights from Londonlime on Vimeo.

Glimmers indeed. Watch carefully or you may miss it- yes 10:10 really is there, alternating with a gambling website and engulfed by the vastly greater signs of TDK, Sanyo and Sony.

Piccadilly Circus is not just a fancy illuminated sign, it is, and has always been, a totem pole of corporate advertising. To place a climate change message there implies that there is no conflict of interest between action on climate change and the growth economics of globalised corporations. Even if you accept this – and personally I don’t – is it not bizarre nonetheless to publicise a climate change campaign that has urged people to turn their televisions off standby and unplug their mobile phone charger on a flashing sign alongside the world’s largest electronics corporations? It would be like the National Cycle Network putting its logo on the side of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.

Much as I respect what 10:10 has achieved, I have come to expect their communications to be, shall we say, eccentric. 2 weeks ago they enthusiastically launched a promo movie that showed dissenters being blown apart with high explosive. See my last post.. But I do expect more coherence from the World Wide Fund for Nature and its large and experienced communications team.  However the WWF is just as excited by the thought of being up in lights. In March this year it persuaded its partners Coca Cola to give over its prime Piccadilly Circus spot for an advert for its Earth Hour – a global call for people to turn out their lights in solidarity with the climate crisis.

Hold it there for a moment – an environmental organisation, teamed up with a global soft drinks manufacturer (reknowned for its dubious expansion tactics and links with obesity), takes out a huge illuminated sign to encourage people to save energy and turn off their lights.

WWF’s justification was that the sign would go out at 8.30 pm as part of the Earth Hour. If you turn a blind eye to the extremely mixed messaging you can also conveniently ignore the fact that it did not actually go off at all, but went a kind of bright grey colour like a laptop screen on the blink.Link…

It seems that environmentalists, like moths, are so dazzled by the bright lights that they lose all sense of where they are and what they are trying to say. And if Piccadilly Circus, a rather mediocre display, is so attractive to campaigners, Times Square drives us nuts.

In 2008 the Climate Group chose the middle of Times Square for the launch of its Together campaign- once again, a programme aimed at persuading people to adopt small changes in energy saving behaviour. The launch was a strange affair of celebrities, laptop information screens and potted plants- and above them all a huge LED sign with a pulsing orange circle logo. Link, go to June 2008 tab and click on ‘launch video’

Earth Day 2009 was launched when an illuminated ‘Earth Ball’ (sponsored by Philips Electrics) was dropped in Times Square. They came back for their 40th anniversary this year with “personal greetings from renowned leaders of the environmental movement” aired on screens around the square.

And even the admirable and usually right-on-message Bill McKibben, the founder of the grassroots movement, chose to launch the 2009 Climate Day of Action there under their huge illuminated arrow logo. Could anyone actually guess what the Blue Arrow or the Earth Ball or the Yellow Circle were advertising? Mobile phones? Soft drinks? Trainers? They all seem to mulch down to pretty much the same in the bold coloured big graphiced sans serif logo world.

It is not hard to see why environmental groups are so excited about having their name in lights. They clearly love the idea of being a player among the other global brands and having a foothold in an iconic and exciting location. Green groups are painfully aware of their stereotype as judgmental backward looking puritans, so they willingly embrace any image that portrays them as cool, exciting, forward looking and part of the modern consumer world. And, to be fair, when we are all trying so damned hard to get people engaged, can we really blame anyone who sees a chance to get some attention?

But my concern is not so much about the medium as the way that the adjacency of messages urging activist action and consumerist inaction contributes to our collective denial. Such jarring juxtapositions are now so common that we take them for granted. A dire scientific report on the impacts of flying will appear in a newspaper adjacent to a full page advert for cheap flights, or a website will have a banner for a competition to win a tropical holiday above a climate change report on the burning of the Amazon.

People would immediately observe, and probably protest, such associations around other topics where they already have a strong moral compass. Just imagine the complaints if fast food companies ran adverts in the middle of a documentary on childhood obesity. And on very sensitive topics people notice even minor and accidental associations. I recall a complaint against a Polaroid advert during a commercial break in the 1980’s mini-series Holocaust –it appeared, entirely by coincidence, just after SS officers have been flicking through photos of concentration camps.

Advertisers (and the advertising departments in the media) usually invest a lot of attention to make sure that adverts are put alongside copy and visuals that do not challenge their brand and put it in the most flattering context. In the case of climate change they clearly see no contradictions. If they think about it at all, and I doubt that they do, they probably reckon that the appeal of their product can overcome any adjacent warning about climate change. I suspect that they are right and that the climate message is subtly and subconsciously weakened in the mind of the viewer as a result (a postulate that I freely offer for a tasty social science research topic).

But surely, one would think, environmental campaigners would be alert to such conflicts and would actively avoid any contamination of their message. Most green groups have policies against taking funding from oil and aviation companies for exactly this reason. Some of the largest mainstream green groups work with corporations that contribute to climate change but usually do so under carefully controlled conditions where the partnership is well defined and the corporation is not allowed free reign to promote itself.

But all that falls apart in the glorious hypnotic world of flashing NEON.

Really, for me, the test is this:  when someone looks at this footage in 2100, amidst the  chaos of a dangerously overheated world, what will he or she make of it ? Will it seem like a valiant attempt to engage people? Or will it seem disturbing and  incoherent?

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October 4, 2010

10:10 No Pressure Splatter Ad- so how could it have been better?

George Marshall @ 2:49 pm

Last week 10:10, an international network of individuals, organisations and businesses pledging to reducing their emissions by 10% in the year 2010, released a promotion video that has turned out to be a public relations and communications disaster. It showed three different groups – schoolchildren, staff and a football team- discussing what they would do to reduce their emissions. In each case those people who said they were not interested were told “No pressure, you don’t have to get involved”, and were then blown up by high explosives, splattering blood all over the set. Ho ho!

I know the 10:10 team well and respect their commitment and dedication. Clearly their aim was to avoid the usual worthy moralism of green campaigns and produce something cool, funny and edgy. Unfortunately, with unerring skill, the video played directly to a range of current denial tropes about climate change being a fanatic belief system that aggressively silences dissent. The emerging compound ‘eco-fascist’ has appeared regularly in the feverish commentary on denier blogs. Especially maladroit was the metaphorical association with Islamic fundamentalism (one of the parodies currently circulating has the teacher dubbed into Arabic blowing up the school kids for refusing to believe in Allah).

There are lots that could be said here- not least that climate change has now become so polarised and accrued such a range of associations and meanings that all communications must be carefully thought through and, above all, thoroughly tested before release.

And in that spirit I pass to Annie Levy who invites readers to advance the discussion surrounding this film by asking: what would a really good ad have looked like?- over to you Annie

I spent the weekend, as many of us did, with a pit in our collective stomachs about the egregious mistake 10:10 allowed in releasing the mini-film No Pressure.  How it all went wrong, all the various ways the message was disturbing and damaging—oh, we’ve talked and written reams among ourselves.

But it’s a sunny Monday morning and I’m thinking the opportunity in this crisis is that we can open a discussion about communication and how to do it better.

  • We agree with the 10:10 team that the ante needs to be upped, and that perhaps our polite, consensus- seeking methods have been effective in educating but limited in inspiring rapid change.
    We feel urgency, but we know emergency-talk (“climate-porn”) turns many people off.
    We know that people who don’t identify as green don’t take on “green” issues.
    We know that putting climate change into the future or across oceans delays immediate, local response.
    We know that climate science has been politicized across the ideological divide, and it’s tiring battling deniers.
    Essentially, we know that different messages speak to different people.

So let’s say we were well-resourced in talent, as is 10:10, and could ask top-professionals to produce and distribute messages with high–production values (or not maybe?)—what stories would we tell, how might we do it better? How can we be effective climate communicators and agents of change?  We agree that we want to push the discourse further, shake off the science-deniers, get effective action from government, create rapid social transformation at all the necessary levels. How are we going to do it?

Having set an agenda, I will write the first comment:

“One thing I disliked about No Pressure was that it directed anger at individuals when in fact we are all collectively culpable, even when we take our carbon-reducing baby-steps such as 10:10.  And yet, small steps and sacrifices, often at the level of consumption, are presented as our only power.   I would like to see a film that pushes the issue of personal responsibility for climate forward by making heros of ordinary people who put themselves on the line facing politicians and corporations, whether through verbal challenge or non-violent direct action, so that we are all emboldened to demand change not just in our own lives but in wider social and economic realms.” — Annie Levy

So send in your ideas. I would like to  keep the discussion focused, so please keep on topic and provide positive messaging ideas.


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