UN Climate Change Conference: The Copenhagen challenge

As hopes dwindle for a binding climate treaty to emerge from next week's conference, Arun Sudhaman and Cathy Wallace look at the comms challenges.

UN Climate Change Conference: The Copenhagen challenge

As world leaders gear up for the landmark UN Climate Change Conference on 7-18 December, the battle for hearts and minds has never seemed harder to win.

Research from The Times/Populus last month found just one in four people saw climate change as the world's most serious problem. And only two in five accepted as an established scientific fact that global warming was largely man-made.

An unsympathetic public is just one problem. US President Barack Obama has said a binding climate treaty would probably not be signed at Copenhagen, thanks in large part to the intransigence of his country's Congress in delivering its own legislation. Obama's comments could prove premature, as a 'politically binding' agreement may yet emerge from the summit. But environmental communicators must be aware that, just days before the most important global event on climate change, there is considerable concern over the success of many of the campaigns and initiatives that have been launched in recent years.

Populus founder and strategic director Andrew Cooper says: 'Politicians and environmental campaigners have perhaps relied too much on vehement assertion rather than reasoned persuasion. There is an overwhelming consensus in mainstream politics about climate change, but the poll shows most people in Britain do not share it.'

The upshot, he adds, is a 'wide gap between the political agenda and the common view - at a time when most voters already regard most politicians as fundamentally out of touch with ordinary people'.

Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra Sustainability, agrees there are real worries about the way the climate change message is being communicated. 'Trying to scare the bejesus out of people is not necessarily the best way,' she says. 'There is a need to inspire people to act, but inspiration rarely comes from negative campaigning.'

The focus on 'selling hell', as Townsend puts it, has often formed the core of campaigns - whether from government, NGOs or corporates. She believes this must change to a more accurate picture of what a low-carbon economy would look like: 'We just don't lead with that; we lead with drowning puppies and the poor old polar bear.'

The likelihood that political leaders will leave Copenhagen without a legally binding deal will come as a major disappointment for the NGOs and corporates that have focused so much attention on the event.

The best that is expected to emerge from Copenhagen is an accord that, in the words of Obama, 'covers all the issues in the negotiations and has an immediate operational effect'. NGOs, unsurprisingly, have responded to these events with outrage.

Rajendra K Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has described it as 'an abandonment of moral responsibility'.

In comms terms, though, there is still plenty to play for at Copenhagen. While NGOs will continue to heap pressure on governments and corporates, political leaders must aim for a positioning that balances global goals with domestic concerns.

Meanwhile, various agencies have set their sights on the Danish capital as they try to turn the appetite for 'green PR' into a sustainable revenue stream. In the case studies on the right and overleaf, PRWeek runs the rule over the comms challenges facing four of the major players at Copenhagen.


Copenhagen has become a critical test of the UK's aggressive positioning on climate change. Led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, the Government has signed up to make carbon emission cuts of 80 per cent by 2050.

The target has been criticised at home as overly ambitious, but it has helped position the UK as an international leader on climate change. More importantly for Brown, it is part of an attempt to rebuild his reputation around a strong international showing at Copenhagen. Lansons head of public affairs Ben Abbotts says: 'He did that effectively on finance matters and he is looking to do so on environmental issues.'

Yet there is an element of risk to Brown's Copenhagen goals. The prospect of a watered-down outcome could call his international credentials into question. Meanwhile, the Government must contend with public apathy and scepticism over its 2050 goals.

'The biggest challenge for the Government, given what has not been happening, is to somehow present it as though something has been achieved,' says Abbotts. 'The public is not wholly persuaded of the facts of climate change and does not want to bear the brunt of higher costs.'

Despite these challenges, Brown and Miliband are due some credit for effectively positioning the UK ahead of the curve on the issue. 'The 2050 commitment has a lot of respect,' says Futerra's Solitaire Townsend.

But will external respect be enough to offset all the political capital that is being spent on Copenhagen? 'I can imagine the Government will feel sensitive about that,' she says. 'I'm not sure whether an international agreement on climate change will really generate excessive political capital.'

A successful outcome for Team Brown is likely to involve returning from Denmark with something concrete. Abbotts says: 'At the end of it, it will be hailed as a summit in which progress was made. Brown will claim to have led the way and led the debate - but the reality is that developing countries will have moved only very marginally.'


Greenpeace's preparations for Copenhagen have been 'massive', focusing on lobbying and campaign activity, according to Futerra's Solitaire Townsend.

Ben Stewart, head of media at Greenpeace, says press negativity surrounding the likelihood of a deal being struck at Copenhagen is part of a calculated comms strategy.

'We would say there is expectation management going on,' he says. 'World leaders and people involved in the negotiations are saying at the moment talks are close to failure. There is some truth in that, but it is also about PR technique. If an extremely unambitious, ineffective deal comes out that is not legally binding, they can present it as a success compared with what they were expecting beforehand.

'If anything constructive comes out of Copenhagen, the pendulum will swing and it will become a last-minute success story, even though it is not going to be a good deal.'

For Greenpeace, one of the key challenges is communicating this 'expectation management'. 'It is very unlikely, come 19 December when leaders go out on the steps with their deal, that they will say "we have failed - sorry, humanity". Almost whatever happens, they are going to come out and say they have a deal. There is a very good chance it will be greenwash and extremely heavy on spin. The job of Greenpeace will be explaining to the public why this is not a good deal.'

For the NGO, a good deal would be 'fair, ambitious and binding'. Stewart says he and colleagues from around the world will be attending the conference and 'trying to influence the different governments to adopt a good deal'. He sees the main barrier as the US. 'The Chamber of Commerce, a body of immense influence, is pushing hard on the Obama administration to adopt regressive policies.'

Stewart attributes this US reluctance to the number of special interests in the country, but says it is crucial to get the US on board. 'It is very difficult to get China and India to sign up to a deal where the US does not. No-one wants to make a move if the economic leaders are not,' he says.

Townsend observes: 'Success for Greenpeace will be a globally binding agreement to deliver real change on the ground - a significant shift towards renewables.' She agrees this is unlikely, but says: 'Greenpeace will come away disappointed and wanting more, as it should. But I think it would prefer a strong agreement from the (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Mexico summit next year rather than a weak one from Copenhagen.'


Ogilvy Earth launched its Hopenhagen campaign earlier this year, after securing a mandate from the International Advertising Association to draw people's attention to Copenhagen.

The campaign itself has already achieved considerable cut-through, with its explicit call to arms and linkage of climate change with an economic recovery.

The programme has been adopted by the city of Copenhagen as its official campaign. Meanwhile, 400,000 people have already signed the campaign petition. 'The idea is for NGO, government and business leadership to feel the pressure for change from voters and members of the public in the build-up to Copenhagen,' says Ogilvy PR EMEA MD Ash Coleman-Smith.

The initiative also counts as an important first step for Ogilvy Earth, which launched earlier this year.

'The opportunity is to rewrite the role of marcoms into a place that is game-changing as opposed to discretionary, business-driven spend,' says Coleman-Smith. 'Suddenly comms is in a place where it has a central role to affect the result.'

The practice will hope to link together various Ogilvy units, including PR, advertising and digital. Above all, there is a 'genuine business opportunity,' says Coleman-Smith.


E.ON takes mixed credentials to Copenhagen. Its controversial plans for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent were recently delayed, with the company blaming the recession but adding the plant could still be built if economic conditions permitted.

The company also has a stake in London Array, a proposed offshore wind farm.

E.ON has published a position paper calling for 'the international community to strengthen and intensify the process to fight climate change'.

Futerra's Solitaire Townsend says: 'Making this policy paper public is a really good leadership position.'

However, she warns: 'Almost any company that opens its mouth is always at risk of greenwashing. E.ON gets terrible criticism for this.'

Townsend predicts a lot of business roundtables and lunches for E.ON at Copehagen. 'The aim will be to show what an innovative leader it is,' she says.

'Businesses will come out of Copenhagen looking bad if they look uninformed and uninvolved.'

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