Lost in translation

The way we present the fight against climate change can be as important as the fight itself. It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it, counsels Ed Gillespie

There’s a famous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson in the first panel of which, captioned ‘What we say to dogs’, an irate owner is seen castigating an unfortunate canine called Ginger with a taste for trash: ‘Okay Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand Ginger? Stay out of the garbage’. In the second panel, ‘What they hear’, Ginger looks equally implacable, only this time his owner’s speech bubble reads: ‘Blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah GINGER blah blah’. This is a wonderful lost-in-translation moment, where the poor dog is attentive to nothing but his own name, regardless of the context. I suspect something similar goes on in the minds of the public when activists, academics, analysts and political anoraks are banging on about our environmental challenges.

A few years ago I used to give presentations entitled ‘Why communicating climate change is like selling Tampax to men’. Deliberately provocative, it was designed to spark interest at a time when working on climate change was still like wetting yourself while wearing a dark suit (nobody much noticed, though it gave you a warm feeling inside), but the point was a serious one. In the dark days of 2003, most of what the environment movement was saying was falling on deaf ears. People weren’t tuned in the way they are now, hence the need for my admittedly crude analogy. Advertising for sanitary products is aimed at half the population, yet the other 50 per cent manage to ignore it, as it’s not what psychologists refer to as ‘front of mind’ – it’s filtered by the subconscious out as being ‘not relevant’. Climate change seemed to have a similar effect, without what smart-aleck communicators
call ‘real cut-through’.

This was hardly surprising when there was a consistent apocalyptic tone to most climate communications, of Armageddon meets Doomsday with a dash of catastrophe. The recipe was negative, with fear as a bulk ingredient rather than a powerful seasoning to be used judiciously to avoid tainting the whole dish. While the public began to buy into the seriousness and urgency of the climate change message, there was and still is a sizeable contingent in the ‘too big, too ugly, too scary, too late’ camp.

Guilt is largely counterproductive in attempts to encourage behaviour change.

The public is also increasingly sceptical of solutions failing to match the scale of the problem. We reiterate that climate change is ‘the biggest collective challenge we have ever faced’… while implying – and politicians are particularly guilty of this – that it’s solvable by changing light bulbs, half-fi lling the kettle and offsetting fl ights… an explanation that the public rightly perceives as pissing cynically and ineffectually on to a very big house fire.

What we intend to do about climate change and how we talk about it both matter. The solutions must be interwoven with the rhetoric – getting it right is potentially worldchanging stuff. The first problem is that the terminology of sustainability overall is at best confusing and esoteric, and at worst alienating and offputting. Wordsmiths and copywriters deliberate for days on the differences between ‘denotative’ meanings of words (the dictionary definition) and their ‘connotative’ associations (the feelings, images and emotions the words conjure up). We greens need to do the same.

Research Futerra conducted last year for our report ‘Words that sell’ exposed the huge gulfs that often exist between environmental and government ‘tech-speak’, and what the public actually interpreted the words to mean. Two that instilled particularly surprising responses were ‘microgeneration’ and ‘non-essential fl ying’. We in the green world place great stock on microgen, but our focus group didn’t understand it, actively disliked it and thought it sounded ‘a bit small’, like the tiny energy sources found in mobile phones – which might explain why it doesn’t resonate as a key component of a decentralised, renewable energy system (and what’s that when it’s at home anyway?).

The Government’s references to ‘reducing non-essential flying’ created a bigger stir, respondents believing it referred to their ‘non-essential’ summer holiday fl ights – the opposite of the intention. Interestingly, the anti-airport expansion campaigners’ use of the word ‘spurting’ to defi ne non-essential flying divided the groups along class lines, with working-class respondents finding it ‘witty and apt’ and middle-class participants barely able to bring themselves to say it.

The second problem is that we need to communicate positive solutions that fit the scale of the challenge, that seize our attention and inspire and galvanise us into either taking or supporting more radical action. At present the two main political parties offer neither.

The Government has fudged the chance to capture the public imagination on climate change, leaving a messy hotchpotch of counterproductive and contradictory policies in its wake. Nuclear energy, for example, has done a convincing ‘hokey-cokey’ in and out of political favour. Similarly, the recent (arguably sound) initiative to lag lofts rather than hand out windfall tax cash – tackling a root cause of fuel poverty, not the symptom – was lost in a veritable cat’s cradle of tangled messaging as the world economy went into meltdown.

The Tories fare little better, their specious talk of ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ undermined by a lack of substance – a bit like biting into a liqueur chocolate only to discover it’s been unscrupulously drained. The Conservatives may be benefiting from the Government’s malaise, but it doesn’t mean they’re any good at the policies and language needed to solve the problem. We risk yet more public cynicism.

There’s a glimmer of hope as the Lib Dems call for an ‘Apollo Project’ on renewable energy and the Greens create clamour for a ‘Green New Deal’. Both parties are threatening to rein in economic gambling, organise our efforts and ingenuity behind a green technological revolution, generating hundreds of thousands of green-collar jobs in the process. This is the type of thinking we need more of: grand plans, bold visions and a challenge to the public that we can collectively solve this challenge with the right ambition, determination and commitment. But they have also got to get the language right or, like the Far Side dog, the public will fail to get the message and continue to metaphorically play in the bins.

Ed Gillespie is creative director and co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications www.futerra.co.uk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2008

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