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‘No pressure’: how should environmental messages be communicated?

October 5, 2010

Last Friday’s launch and rapid withdrawal of a high profile climate change campaign video illustrates the pitfalls and tensions in environmental communication.  The 3 minute video, directed by Richard Curtis (director of Love Actually, Four Weddings and Funeral) aimed to bring climate change “back into the headlines whilst making people laugh”.  Unfortunately, the joke – blowing up schoolchildren, the footballer David Ginola and actress Gillian Anderson for not agreeing to act to reduce their emissions after being told ‘no pressure’ – spectacularly backfired.

Classroom scene from the controversial 10:10 video. Image: YouTube

The imagery chimes with contemporary themes of terrorism, war and militant fundamentalism, and if blog traffic is anything to go on the 10:10 campaign is being accused of being either very naïve (see here, here or here to begin with) or eco-fascist.

Gillian Anderson in the 10:10 video. Image: 10:10

The video (and subsequent reaction) illustrates contemporary debates on ways to communicate environmental issues and the underlying science.  Broadly, these revolve around notions of fear/crisis-based vs. vision-based messaging.

Fear or crisis-based messages commonly aim to shock viewers into action through presenting graphic or disaster-strewn representations of the need for rapid environmental action.  For example, Conservation International have used Harrison Ford’s chest hair to highlight deforestation; the UK government Act on CO2 campaign pictured a doomsday twist on a child’s bedtime story;  and anti-aviation pressure group Plane Stupid depicted polar bears falling out of the sky to highlight CO2 emissions from aircraft.  The 10: 10 video falls into this category, ironically posing the phrase ‘no pressure’ whilst explicitly (admittedly in a slapstick fashion) blowing up anyone who doesn’t comply by making pledges to lower their carbon emissions.

A vision-based approach tends to be more subtle, attempting to align a vision for environmental action with the audience’s values, beliefs and aspirations.  For example, WWF used the pride and adulation fans devote to Benfica football club to highlight the plight of an endangered eagle.  This process (often termed ‘framing’) treads a fine line between presenting an easily relatable (and often hopeful) message without watering-down the underlying science or lapsing into political ‘spin’.

We have debated the merits of the two approaches in media workshops at Oxford for the last 4-5 years, and one insight is that messages of impending crisis attract the attention of politicians and policy makers but turn off the general public.  Instead, most people are thought to respond most positively to environmental messages of hope (two academic papers from Oxford on this subject can be found here and here).

BioFresh decided on vision-based, hopeful messaging – see for example the Cabinet of Freshwater Curiosities – but is this the best approach to take?  Whilst we wouldn’t go so far as blowing people up, should we be more vocal and sensationalist on the risk to human well-being that recent evidence on decline in African freshwater biodiversity or the extinction threat faced by many species of sturgeon might indicate?  Are crisis-based messages more effective at communicating environmental issues? Or are you tired of sensationalist, ‘doom and gloom’ environmentalism and so more receptive to a constructive, hopeful, vision-based alternative?

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