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Climate ads far from divine

Richard Black | 15:08 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Some interesting perspectives on communication, information and climate change emerge this week from Africa and the UK.

A survey for the BBC World Service Trust (the corporation's international charitable arm) shows that although many Africans are noticing progressive changes to their weather, they're tending to ascribe those changes to agents above and outside the atmosphere.

A fisherman from Ghana told researchers:

"It is the will of God for these things to happen. When it comes to rainfall, it looks as though God has changed his calendar."

RefugeeWhile Dr Samson Kwaje, agriculture and forestry minister in the government of Southern Sudan, said:

"The farmers are only praying: 'Why is God punishing them?' Some of them don't know that we have punished ourselves."

Meanwhile, the UK government has come something of a cropper, with adverts it sponsored to raise public awareness of human-induced climate change being banned because of a tendency to treat projections as fact.

Based on nursery rhymes and featuring stanzas such as:

"Rub a dub, three men in a tub, a necessary course of action due to flash flooding caused by climate change."

...they could presumably have also faced action on aesthetic grounds, but that's a different story.

Managers of African news organisations told the World Service Trust that they struggle to communicate the causes and possible impacts of climate change to their audiences.

This is a problem that governments, activists and media organisations in the West have failed to find answers to, despite wrestling with them for well over a decade; hence, presumably, the UK government's decision to resort to adverts of somewhat questionable veracity.

The ads are the latest example in a series of attempts to convey possibly catastrophic impacts of climate change that have at least partially backfired.

One thinks back to Greenpeace's video link in 2001 from Kilimanjaro, arguing that the mountain's famous snows (that have inspired much better writing than advertising agencies can apparently muster these days, by the way) would be gone by 2015 - a prediction derided in some quarters at the time, and subsequently shown to be wrong.

One thinks of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a movie whose science was mainly well grounded in the prevailing consensus but that allowed itself to stray too far on issues such as a shut-down of the Gulf Stream and the cause of Lake Chad's drying.

Of course these points were picked up and picked apart - as have the recent UK government adverts.

What's clear from conversations I've had recently is that the loose alliance of people keen to "get the message across" is still scratching its collective head about how to do it, 20 years after the United Nations decided climate change needed to be taken seriously.

On one level, this is surprising. The loose alliance includes an unprecedented concentration of top environmental campaigners with successful track records on other issues, government ministers accustomed to selling themselves and their policies, and advertising executives accustomed to selling us shoes and shampoo.

You'd think they'd have found the formula by now.

Protest at CopenhagenThe "awareness-raising" has not been a complete failure - the Copenhagen summit, for example, saw the biggest mass mobilisation on climate change in history, with as many as 100,000 people taking to the streets of the Danish and other capitals; and despite rising scepticism in some countries, global polls show substantial slices of the population in many countries in favour of mitigating emissions.

The essential problem is that it's complex.

Take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's lately-maligned Fourth Assessment report with its 3,000-odd pages of densely-packed text, and try distilling all of its nuances and caveats and ranges of uncertainty into a campaigner's soundbite or a minister's speech; it can't be done.

So the nuances and caveats are lost; and when people feel the issue is so grave that the awareness-raising must be immediate, the findings they distil out will inevitably come from the scary end of the uncertainty range.

KilimanjaroBut then they get found out, and the "message" is coated with tarnish - perhaps irrevocably.

The complexity is an issue for the news media as well - a group criticised by Lord Stern this week for its lack of breadth and perspective in recent coverage of the supposedly cold winter (cold only in certain parts, in fact) and IPCC errors.

Yet when you come back to the African realities revealed by the World Service Trust, it is clear that the media there has a job to do.

The Trust survey shows that the vast majority of Africans are noticing progressive changes in rains and temperatures - changes that have the potential to inflict vast suffering on many millions, if projections of falling food production are correct - so it is clearly an important issue for the continent.

And while the science might not be completely settled when it comes to apportioning causality between greenhouse gasses, aerosols and solar cycling, it is so far unequivocal on the complete absence of evidence for divine wrath.

In the continent that has been worst affected by HIV/Aids, it is striking how many editors saw a parallel. Joyce Mhaville, managing director of ITV in Tanzania, told researchers:

"You know, this is like the HIV story. When it started nobody wanted to believe it, 'it's got nothing to do with me, and it's not going to touch me,' but before we knew it, it hit us left, right, and centre... And the same thing is going to happen with climate change."

Yet the shenanigans over the UK government adverts show that in one important respect the whorl of ideas around climate change is very different from HIV/Aids - namely, in its complexity.

Don't have unprotected sex and don't inject yourself with drugs using a dirty needle, and you'll banish almost all chances of HIV infection; there, I've done it in 23 words.

Climate change is far too complex to distil into a "message" of that size.

And maybe it's time to stop trying - to abandon the notion that it can be broken down into bite-sized chunks and turned scary through slogans or nursery rhymes. Especially if the exercise usually goes wrong.

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