The United Nations’ science body released a major report on climate change this week. But do you think it changed one single Australian’s mind?

You know the kind of report it is and what’s in it without reading it. Climate change is real and largely caused by people, it’s more serious than we thought, cue melting ice caps/rising sea levels/droughts/etc. Predictably, in Australia, Fairfax and the ABC gave the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report extensive coverage while it was largely ignored by News Corporation papers. So people who already think climate change is real had their views reinforced, and people who don’t didn’t hear about it.

There have been many such reports this century — from the IPCC (in 2001, 2007, 20014), universities, economists, NGOs, governments (green papers, white papers). Perhaps too many; Australians don’t seem to be listening.

Less than 50% of Australians think human-induced climate change is happening, according to extensive survey work by CSIRO. That number has dropped slightly in the last four years despite mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. This was the result when the CSIRO interviewed 5200 people last year:

The CSIRO found Australians were more concerned about household rubbish than climate change. And to every activist or expert who talks about “climate mitigation,” here’s a news flash: 81% of Australians have no idea what that means.

So there’s a disconnect between the experts and the public. People are not listening. We decided to try an experiment: ask professional communicators who are not necessarily environmentally minded how they would sell climate change to a sceptical public …

Tom Russell, senior copywriter with Clemenger BBDO who has worked on campaigns for Fox Sports:

Russell, who doesn’t think climate change is harming the planet to the extent people claim, says the IPPCC report is unlikely to make a difference. “I think people look at the paper and they’re not reading the climate change story because they feel like they’ve heard it before … you’ve either picked your side or you’re not interested any more.”

Climate change is over-exposed, and that’s part of the reason people are tuning out, Russell says. He cautions against getting bogged down in a “fact for fact” debate because it bores people. And he cautions against apocalyptic rhetoric; “shock tactic after shock tactic after shock tactic doesn’t work”. Russell doesn’t think this kind of message helps (it’s from the ABC on the IPCC report):

Rather, Russell would run climate campaigns that think outside the square and are less earnest, like this well-known campaign against speeding:

How else would this ad man sell climate change? First, reframe the debate. “You need to hit reset.” Find a poster person for the issue, a “middle man”, someone the public can trust, not necessarily left-leaning. Labor has not been consistent, and Russell doesn’t think Tim Flannery is quite right.

Stop running campaigns that tell sceptics “you are wrong or an idiot” because that makes people defensive. Stop lambasting deniers and treating global warming like a religion. Start making the case in plain English and in a more measured way. “You’ve get to get more local, more personal, more targeted and get people talking about it again,” Russell said. Focus on how climate change affects “me and my children”.

Surveys show men and older people are less likely to think climate change is real. Russell says it’s difficult to directly change their minds, so advocates should arm younger people with the tools to convince their families, friends and colleagues, a tactic he describes as “softly softly”. Similarly, advocates on climate should cut their own emissions, as this lends credibility. When people rail against climate sceptics then fly to New York for a week’s holiday or drive to work every day, they may fail to convince others.

Russell is somewhat sceptical on climate change but says he has no problem with a government cutting CO2 emissions because that won’t hurt anyone. But he says go about it in a sensible way that doesn’t demonise those with doubts.

Tony O’Leary, former communications adviser to John Howard and Tony Abbott:

O’Leary says climate change became caught up in paying higher taxes, via Labor’s carbon price, and that turned people off the whole issue. “I think that people find it hard to make the connection between tackling the issue and paying higher taxes,” he told Crikey. “There’s a disconnect … nobody likes paying higher tax.”

The veteran Liberal press officer, now retired, says those trying to communicate on climate change had been “a bit unclear” in the past but are improving. “They have got to deliver the message in a balanced way, to convince people. I think they’re on that path now. But they haven’t always been on that path.”

O’Leary says Labor has conflated concern about climate change with support for its carbon tax, alienating people who wanted to tackle the issue but were not convinced on the tax. He points out that Adelaide had at least 12 days over 40 degrees this summer, “but you go and convince them that the carbon tax is the solution”.

Toby Ralph, former PR agent for the Liberals, tobacco companies and the nuclear waste industry:

“Did someone outsource climate change PR to the press team at Malaysian Airways? It’s been chronically mismanaged,” Ralph told Crikey. “It’s become a ridiculous argument that you believe or reject like religion, with gleeful fear-mongering and panic on one side and exasperated eye-rolling on the other.”

Ralph criticises climate advocates for dire warnings about extinction, bushfires and rainstorms. “But psychology 101 should make it obvious that cognitive dissonance will kick in, so alarmists effectively talk stridently to themselves and fail to persuade others. Persuasion isn’t about facts, scare campaigns and hectoring, it’s about conversations and carrying people with you.”

So what should advocates do? They should seek out the middle ground, Ralph says. “They need to look through the eyes of the unpersuaded, get humble, get moderate and get relevant if they want to get results. They need to open, genuine conversation and debate rather than argument. They need to appear slightly uncertain rather than saying the science is settled.” Ralph says Rupert Murdoch captured this when he said he didn’t know what the truth was but was inclined to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.

*Next week: experts who are more environmentally minded. If you’re a master in communications or political strategy with a view on how to sell climate change, get in touch.

Peter Fray

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