People ridiculed XR’s demands but climate comms experts can learn from COVID-19

Professional communication is more consequential than it has ever been. From Brexit to vaccine roll-out, it’s not hyperbole to say that our future depends on well-executed PR campaigns.

Re-frame the climate comms argument using the lessons of COVID-19, advises Mark Lowe
Re-frame the climate comms argument using the lessons of COVID-19, advises Mark Lowe

Some of the most important campaigns as we move beyond COVID-19 will attempt to tackle the climate crisis and here, the pandemic has changed the game.

It’s commonplace to observe that these are unprecedented times, but let’s take stock.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that in April, 80 per cent of the global workforce was in some form of lockdown.

There was a co-ordinated decision to, in effect, shut down the entire aviation industry.

Stay-at-home orders were implemented across two-thirds of the globe in April and then repeated on almost the same scale in November, with support so strong that the public changed its behaviour before being ordered to.

Previously, anyone suggesting that it would be possible to secure public consent for measures like this outside of wartime would have been laughed at.

In fact, they were: Extinction Rebellion was ridiculed when it called for a legally enforced reduction in carbon-generating economic activity – yet that is precisely what we have seen.

This opens up a window of opportunity for climate campaigners: if governments and corporations can respond to a short-term crisis in this way, why can’t they act to combat a longer-term, but potentially more devastating, threat?

The success or failure of this effort depends mostly on its framing.

This is a tricky task, because there are some serious structural problems that did not apply to the pandemic.

First, anti-COVID-19 measures were triggered by the sight of people literally fighting for breath, captured on smartphones.

The effects of climate change are more diffuse, making it harder to dramatise the impact.

We must find human-centred ways to tell the story, but also be able to move quickly to solutions.

This leads us to a second challenge.

While there are certainly technological answers, the science required to meet zero-carbon targets does not yet exist.

For instance, electric cars are not a credible alternative to [all] petrol ones because at scale they would crash the national grid.

Renewable energy can’t fill supply gaps without battery technology that is a generation away, which means the message has to be that car usage must fall.

The environmental movement must contend with the internal contradictions of its project and, if nuclear power and fracking are not the answer, find another one.

This will require huge amounts of money and broad public support, which brings us to a third challenge: you can’t campaign for decarbonisation through the prism of a culture war.

The Green New Deal is championed by the progressive left and, although it may eventually be able to claim a moral victory, this can be framed as a ‘conservative’ project because it quite literally is one.

Just as anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have been relegated to the fringes of the COVID debate, we need to do the same with climate scepticism by emphasising that this is a collective project, not a marker of political identity.

Let’s all continue to follow the science.

Mark Lowe is co-founder of Third City

Thumbnail credit: Getty

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