Climate Change – The Creative Brief

Climate by Numbers

New Article for Mediacat Magazine

It is said that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”. Actually that isn’t entirely true. As storytellers know the journey of a thousand miles begins with a need to be a thousand miles away. A murder. A loved one a continent away. Or a job transfer. But anyway a human necessity to get there.

The long awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference ‘COP15’ is approaching. The goal is to agree a framework to replace the Kyoto treaty so that nations can work together on averting man made global warming. This is a political matter. But after the targets are agreed (at Copenhagen or later) what then? I’ll argue actually that this then becomes a marketing issue – creating public and business movement to match the ambitious objectives. But as in any good brief let’s focus on the Why? before the How?

The COP15 coverage has focused upon the nation state politics. Can a deal be reached with India and China? Will America make real commitments? Is it fair for the developing nations to be asked to cut emissions? Should the richer nations who are responsible for the bulk of emissions bear the load? That is an inevitable consequence of staging a multi-nation event aimed at brokering a deal. But it’s also potentially the wrong frame. Climate change is not an issue (like trade) about the balance or deal struck. Climate change is like a dark wave rolling towards us – we need to link arms or all be swept away.

When people in my country imagine climate change (I know this because I’ve conducted focus groups on the subject) they see it was bringing hotter summers and milder winters, and at worst potentially some increased flooding. And they see these changes happening over 40-50 years. They know that the effects may be much more extreme for “poor farmers and polar bears”. But they are not exactly losing sleep over the issue.

What I think this picture misses is the extraordinary degree of volatility and interdependence in our globalised economic world order. It’s like looking at a human body and saying ‘what difference could just a few degrees higher make?’

In 2008 the price of oil, some poor harvests, demand for biofuels, a flight of investors into safe commodities… produced a global food crisis which according to the UN doubled the number of people going hungry, while halving their supply of food aid. Why? There was still enough food for everyone. But the price of food increased. In poor countries food can account for about 30% of household spending. Hence an alarming increase in the numbers who could no longer afford 3 meals a day.

Those are the kinds of emergent effects I think you need to imagine to ‘get’ the impact of climate change. Human societies are like the climate itself. I picture both systems having a ‘whip’ like effect. When the atmosphere gets a little more energy and humidity on average the knock on effects on storms, floods, droughts and so on are not gradual and linear, they are dramatic and destructive. And we know it’s the same with economies don’t we? The knock on effect of some dodgy American home loans being a near meltdown in the global economy, also in 2008.

Politicians understand this. This is why when the UK parliament was surveyed in 2006, all but one of the 315 MPs who answered said that climate change was THE single most important issue facing our generation. A position that has only been reinforced by the Stern Report which warned that a failure to invest 1-2% of GDP now could lead to a loss of up to 20% of global GDP later. We have lived through a profound global slump this year. But the GDP still rose (according to the IMF) by 0.5%. Imagine it fell 20%. So that in some countries it would fall 40, 60, 80%. The socioeconomic impacts would be unimaginable. A whole world out of work, public services at a standstill, a mass extinction in many business sectors (ironically except possibly oil?) Imagine the fall of Soviet communism then times it by ten.

When you see that this is how even relatively mild (2 degrees, IPCC) predictions of climate change would play out – pretty much like a 2 degree rise in our body temperature compared to normal functioning – you realise how hugely important it is that we find some solutions fast. The good news is that many such solutions already exist. But taken as a whole it’s a radical shift. It’s about more than changing energy sources. It’s about a total redesign of society. Especially when you consider the next most pressing issue after climate change is probably the end of the era of cheap oil. Then there is food, water, biodiversity… the list goes on. We are running out of world and running out of time.

This transition in business, government and throughout society cannot happen until there is (in Al Gore’s words) a climate for change. And this is the heart of the creative brief for climate change. Politicians may see the medium term risks. But the public absolutely do not. In a Pew poll in the USA in 2009 the US public ranked climate change 20th out of 20 priorities for their government to tackle. Why? Because it doesn’t really seem like such a big thing to worry about.

I am not advocating mass panic-inducing alarmism. It’s actually potentially an exciting phase in human history. One of people rising to a proper challenge and feeling part of an epic achievement. One where some of the other imbalances such as the global wealth gap may get addressed. We do have the solutions if we can change our worldview enough to seize them. And we also have human ingenuity, and enough necessity to fuel huge invention.

So the crux of the creative brief is this. How can we help people in very large numbers grasp the necessity of human change in response to climate change? How can we help people prioritise it?

People who ‘get’ that this is a priority don’t have to become eco saints. We will still have lives, loves, and all too human inconsistencies. But it is a straightforward thing to want a better life for our children, to have worked on things that matter in the longer term, to have each in our own little ways been a part of the history of our times. It is as one commentator said a ‘simple matter of self esteem’.

Ultimately this is a marketing challenge. And I hope you’ll feel inspired (if a little daunted) to know that post Cop15, or whenever the targets are set, the next challenge largely may be down to us!

Posted by John Grant

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