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How to sway public opinion on global warming

26 June 2008


A brief prepared for WWF in Geneva:

The problem: Public belief in global warming has levelled off in Europe, and gone backwards in the US - despite the scientific consensus.

The reason: People aren't much persuaded by information (unfortunately). They're persuaded by other things.

The solution: Persuade them with those other things:

1. Stop talking about our grandchildren: bring it into the present

Humans evolved in the Stone Age, and were designed to have a seasonal time horizon. Getting through next winter is about as far ahead as we're wired to think - we don't have much "feel" for distant futures. That's why the warnings about the world of our grandchildren fall on deaf ears. What my grandchild will look like, or be doing, in 2060 is the haziest of abstractions.
Bring the campaign into the present: the cyclones that are getting worse, the glaciers melting, the coasts disappearing, now. The future invokes our altruism, but the short-term invokes our self-interest - a more potent motivator.

2. Overcome the hopelessness

Global warming is a vast international challenge, so there's the "it's impossible" factor to quell. Publicise examples from epidemiology and development, to show what can be done on vast scales. For instance:

After UN and corporate interventions, the global birthrate fell from 5.0 per woman in 1950 to 2.8 in 2000.

In 1988, polio was in 125 countries - now it's six.

Extreme poverty has been reduced from one-half to one-fifth of humanity in the last two generations.

Smallpox was eliminated by 1980.

Set in this impressive context, "We can defeat global warming" sounds much more possible.

3. Accentuate the positive

The psychologist Professor Martin Seligman dug up the campaign speeches of every US Presidential candidate back to Lincoln. He showed them "blind" to teams of researchers (the researchers didn't know who'd spoken which words), and asked the researchers to grade them on a scale from "optimistic and constructive" to "pessimistic and critical".

In every case but one the optimist won the Presidency. Candidates who, instead of offering a positive program, tended to criticise their opponent and paint disaster, almost invariably lost - no matter what their other qualities, and no matter how accurate their criticisms.
Similarly, young people started smoking less not because they thought smoking would kill them - but because educators persuaded them that they, not a tobacco corporation, should be in charge of their health.
Thus you need to prove that halting climate change is possible - rather than engaging in doom-saying. This could be achieved by "modelling": images of floods receding, cyclones dying down, and crops thriving - all linked to an enforceable new treaty to contain global warming.

4. As global warming gains acceptance, a wider spectrum of funders materialises

The scientific reality of global warming is accepted by most policy-makers not directly in government. So whilst you may not have the US Republican Party (and its electoral base) on your side, you do have all the national scientific institutions, and more importantly the multilateral development banks and mega-foundations. These groups, which once sponsored epidemiological and social programs like those mentioned above, are now looking at environmental ones. If an expensive global ad campaign is mooted, that makes WWF a potential partner for the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, to name but two.

The World Bank already considers itself the world’s "largest multilateral source of environment-related financing". However it has taken quite some flak from environment groups and its own internal monitoring body for murky accounting - so may be looking to redeem itself. The Rockefeller Foundation has its own Climate Change Initiative - which recently handed $70 million to just one project.

5. Don't squander the financial crisis

The current world crisis (which may well get worse, and may go on for some years) could work for the campaign.
Both crises – finance and global warming – are products of a system which sacrifices survival for profit. Thus the credit crisis feeds the same public realisation that global warming does: we need to re-think everything - especially growth, and the way we live.

This re-think is also shaking loose old divisions: WWF should build long-term relationships with economics and national security journalists as well as environmental ones.


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