Green Groups Try to Sex Up Climate Change
By Axel Bojanowski
The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeps going up and up, but public interest in climate change is sinking. Environmentalists are trying to come up with new ways to make the issue sexy. But shock tactics can backfire all too easily.
Climate change used to make headlines. But these days the issue appears to have largely fallen off the radar.
World leaders recently negotiated a new climate agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, but public interest in the issue was limited. It was a marked contrast to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, which had been declared of historic importance in the runup to the meeting, only to then fail spectacularly. The theft of e-mails from the University of East Anglia had badly damaged the image of climate research shortly before the summit.
Environmentalists and scientists are concerned about the massive drop in public interest in the topic over the last year. Now they are looking for new strategies to turn the tide. They're searching for so-called "mind bombs" -- highly emotional images that reduce a complex problem down to one core message.
Fountains of Blood
Some environmental organizations are placing their bets on the shock factor. One commercial in a campaign by the British-based environmental organization 10:10 showed a teacher blowing up two students who were skeptical about cutting their carbon emissions, with fountains of blood spraying the others in the class. Other 10:10 videos have the same fate befalling recalcitrant office workers and footballers. But the campaign proved a dud -- it sparked massive protests and was quickly withdrawn.
More successful was a Greenpeace advertising spot that targeted the multinational food company Nestlé. Greenpeace wanted the video, in which a bar of chocolate turns out to be a gorilla's bleeding finger, to be understood as a symbol of endangered rainforests, where harvesting palm oil for chocolate production encroaches on great apes' habitats. After the video caused a considerable stir, Nestlé promised to stop using products that damaged rainforests.
Video spots such as Greenpeace's have drawn attention in the short term, but they aren't enough to stop the media trend away from climate issues, confirms Sebastian Metzger from the Berlin-based organization co2online, which regularly measures public awareness on the topic using its "climate barometer."
Climate researchers confirm a noticeable decline in interest. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, recalls that his telephone used to ring off the hook whenever extreme weather conditions set in. Now hardly anyone calls, he says.
Global warming as an issue is a "loser" in media terms, an editor at the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel recently explained on a German TV show. In a similar vein, the heavyweight German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked ironically in relation to the Cancún summit: "Wait, was there something about the climate there?"
While journalists debate whether the issue of climate change is even suitable for the media, the New York Times quoted one science filmmaker as calling climate research "bo-ho-ho-ring" and "quite possibly THE most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public." The communication problem in this field can be solved, but it requires the right person or group to find the right approach for reaching the public.