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Changing the Narrative: Is Business Action on Climate Change Believable?

Changing the Narrative: Is Business Action on Climate Change Believable?

climate change narrative

‘Image courtesy of Michael on Flickr’

Blizzards in America. Heat waves ‘beyond the limit of human survival’ in the Middle East. Droughts across Australia, Africa, India. Floods bursting through city after city across the UK.

Such stories are part of the 20-year-long narrative surrounding global warming, backed up by scientific studies and the accelerating signs that our Earth’s temperature is probably going to kill us.

Attention-grabbing it may be, but reading headlines like these you’d be forgiven for thinking climate change is a Doomsday tale. After all, you come away knowing we’re basically just “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”. That humanity is on an inevitable, irreversible path towards destruction. The end.

It’s not a pleasant narrative. Not an inspiring narrative. Perhaps one with an element of smugness for the scientists who, in twenty years time and the planet is burning, can say, “We told you so.” But essentially a narrative of despair complete with finger-pointing over who is responsible: the fossil fuel industry, greedy corporates, thoughtless Westerners, over-ambitious BRICS. Even before the Paris Climate Summit last December, changing this narrative was a concern.

COP21 was a hugely positive turning point, committing 195 nations to decarbonisation and action on climate change. The best (and potentially last) chance to save the planet as we know it, the summit stood out because more than just the same figureheads attended. The private sector had a real, tangible presence too, seeming equally invested in creating a zero-carbon future.

Of course, putting words into action isn’t something for which the corporate sector is known. At least not when it comes to addressing climate change. As pointed out by Georg Kell, founder of the UN Global Compact and Vice-Chair of Arabesque Partners, the private sector has “often played a sophisticated game to demonstrate green credentials with marketing campaigns, whilst at the same time using its influence to stop or undermine climate policy action.”

This is why business is never the good guy in climate stories, news headlines, literature. Certainly not in our films or television shows. Highlighting failures, missed targets, lost jobs and huge expenses, the narrative around business and climate change has long been negative.

And on reflection, it doesn’t take much scrutiny to reveal the only thing holding the COP21 together is peer pressure.

At a Guardian Sustainable Business’ debate on the role of the business sector in addressing global warming, the promises made at COP21 were the nominal concern of the panel.

Pledges were made, brands swore themselves to the cause, sweeping promises ensured a positive spin to the Paris summit. But will any of them be kept? Will world leaders keep climate change on the agenda once cameras have stopped rolling and there are no more pretty speeches to be made?

Sitting in the audience, however, what was most evident was that the real problem wasn’t whether or not promises will be kept, nor even what’s worse – the companies that fail to keep their pledges or the ones not making them. The question most urgently on the agenda but noticeably unanswered was how we can tackle the narrative underpinning the two-decade long collective action failure.

Steve Howard, IKEA’s Chief Sustainability Officer, first raised narrative as a central issue for climate action. According to him, we ‘need to be strong on carbon pricing. We want enforced obligations. We want accountability. To drive actions. To drive solutions.”

After all, the question shouldn’t be is business action believable? We need to be answering on how to ensure action on climate change happens. We need to focus on solutions and those creating them.

What became apparent during the debate was that the lack of homogeny within the corporate sector represented a significant hurdle. The panel itself conveyed this.

Howard represented the most optimistic viewpoint. Emphasising the success of IKEA and the positivity surrounding COP21, he talked about Green Growth and how it can improve material well-being by creating a world of abundance. On the other hand, Kevin Anderson (Tyndall Centre for Climate Research) employed shock and awe rhetoric to present a ‘hard change’ narrative that concluded by accentuating how unlikely it was for the Marshall Islands to still exist in twenty years as temperatures would almost certainly rise by at least 4 degrees, not the 2 degrees promised in Paris.

Green MP Caroline Lucas raised the spectre of conspiracy, pointing out that the business lobbyists negotiating in parliament are far from supportive with many oil industry representatives having a hand in the legislation being drawn up to create the regulations deemed necessary if promises made at COP21 are to succeed. This, she pointed out, is problematic for the main reason that Big Oil is possibly the biggest enemy of climate action.

On the other hand, the two representatives of the financial sector – Nordea’s Sasja Breslik and Alliance Trust’s Katherine Garrett-Cox – seemed more concerned with the remaining faction of climate deniers who still lurk in boardrooms. This is understandable. According to a survey of 1,400 CEOs from around the world compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and published at Davos, only 50% of CEOS perceive climate change and environmental damage as a threat to business growth. Instead “over-regulation was listed as the biggest threat (by 79% of CEOs), followed by geopolitical uncertainty (74%) and other key threats including cyber attacks (61%).”

Garrett-Cox explained, “If you ask what’s at the top of your risk register in a boardroom it’s not going to be climate change. But it probably should be. We’ve made progress … but too many CFOs think it’s still a novel conversation.”

Somewhat supporting the conspiracy theory upheld by Lucas, Garrett-Cox and Breslik also alluded back to the concerns of Georg Kell and the idea that climate action in the business sector is systemic lip service. It looks good to look green, but actually going green is still perceived as undesirable. Why? Because ‘mitigating climate change undermines the ability of the world’s people to achieve and sustain prosperity’.

However, whilst there remain entities determined to maintain the status quo, and the panel couldn’t come to a consensus on accountability for ensuring targets nor responsibility for presenting solutions, the one thing agreed on was things need to change. There’s no more space for doom and gloom. There’s no more time for emotional dialogue. It’s imperative we move to something more practical.

So to pull everything together and ignore the general confusion of the panel’s dialogue, several factors were seen as crucial to recreating the narrative so it says neither ‘everything is roses’ or ‘everything is futile’.

Firstly, there needs to be a mental change within the economic system. We need to update the way people are taught. The IPCC released their first emissions report in 1990, but education has barely changed and certainly not the basics on the challenges of global warming or how to face them. Instead, we need to teach the links between sustainability and profitability that Garrett-Cox pointed out. The market opportunities highlighted by Howard, not to mention the invaluable benefits a zero-carbon economy could produce through innovative, cost-effective energy solutions and renewable technologies.

Secondly, sustainability has to become a lifestyle choice. Rather than just being that scary thing we read about, that thing that requires sacrifice, that thing that hangs like an albatross around our necks, it needs to be shown as an opportunity for everyone. At the debate, it was pointed out that there are no real leaders in sustainability yet. But this, in itself, is a powerful position. As Armstrong described, it’s an opportunity. The lack of leadership means ‘we are all catalysts for change.’ We can all be leaders for the future.

Thirdly, creating jobs, boosting economic growth, improving lives, this is just part of the business case for a decarbonised society extending into our every day lives and this needs to be demonstrated through politics and the media in particular. It will also have to include rebuilding the West’s culture of shame and praise. Whilst incentive systems exist for a reason, ‘name and shame’ horror stories deter individuals and companies from even trying. We’re a naturally risk-averse species, after all. It’s why the Doomsday narrative doesn’t work.

And lastly, we have to ignore the lure of silver bullets. Regulation is not a silver bullet. Geoscience is not a silver bullet. At the end of the day, the only thing that is going to work is collective action.

Across the world, these alterations to the way we live and work are already beginning to be seen. COP21 highlighted them. The UN Global Compact, the rise of B Corporations, The B Team, Generation S and others all show movement within the corporate sector. Initiatives like the Forward Institute and Singularity U are emerging with the single focus of educating and empowering a future generation of leaders. The increased coverage of these initiatives in the media is also key. There are more dedicated climate change awareness sections in the established media as well as many new outlets such as Triple Pundit, Blue and Green Tomorrow, The New Economy, Collectively, and GOOD. All of this indicates a wider interest from the public and business leadership.

The narrative is changing. But now it’s time to completely cast out the doom and gloom and convey a realistic but aspirational alternative. Hard work it might be, but COP21 is not too little, too late. It’s just in time.

It has to be.

Scare Tactics : ‘Fear’ as a Successful Communications Tool


The value of emotion in selling products, and papers, is more or less indubitable.

Christmas: every advert pulls on the heartstrings. Headlines about fairness and altruism pepper the pages of our newspapers.

February: roses are red, violets are blue and romance is in the air for every marketing campaign and headline that can possibly squeeze in an iota of an excuse for doing so.

Yet this is not just a gimmick of once-a-year holidays. It is a strategic part of brand narratives from McDonald’s to Nike, Virgin to Jack Wills.

And one of the most effective emotions is fear.

Take as an example the full-sized polar bear released in London this past January. It disrupted tube-commuters’ usual routine of ‘studiously minding own business and ensuring zero eye contact with anyone’ with a potential panic attack.

“Is it real?!” People begged the cameras recording their mixed reactions of fear and curiosity.

Twitter went crazy. Videos and photos spread across the Internet.

As a stunt it grabbed headlines – partly because a giant white bear on the Jubilee line makes a great photo – but it also embodied the new television show it was publicising, Fortitude, by using a bear that is something of a sinister motif for danger in the show to create a similar threatened feeling in the British public.  Moreover, considering Sky’s current adverts saying ‘not all television is created equal’, which suggests their programmes are somewhat more challenging, more intriguing, this stunt certainly seemed to capture hearts and minds with a comparable emotive thread.

An ‘Emotion Factor’ constitutes a central part of helping a consumer to bond with a brand, a business, a product, a person.

Hardly a new concept, Dale Carnegie identified emotions as key for business people who want to appeal to their customers back in 1936 and it has been the linchpin in communications of all kinds ever since. There are books dedicated to it, and academic studies.

Those who have never watched Mad Men might be forgiven for wondering then why I’m talking about fear. Almost everyone has been told sex sells as demonstrated by Davidoff cologne or Virgin Atlantic adverts. Many will have experienced how feeling empowered makes that totally unaffordable car sound like a good idea, or how humour makes one website seem simpler and friendlier than the other.

But to quote Don Draper: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … It’s freedom from fear.”

The same applies to building a narrative in public relations.

Telling a story for a business is an integral part of PR because it’s all about looking for the story that will bring a brand’s message to life. A story can build or bulldoze a reputation, manage or frustrate consumers. So whether it’s through a message, a logo, a CEO or even a product, telling a superficial tale is not going to win over a busy journalist or capture the attention of a digital audience. Only a quality, sophisticated story can do that. Preferably one that’s succinct and can fit into the required column inches.

This is where fear comes in. Good stories need an element of fear.  Something for a hero to overcome. That hero might be the consumer or the product or the business as a whole. But if all is happiness, simplicity, friendliness, and humour, what’s the point in being a hero, of wanting more than this? How can you feel powerful driving that car, or sexy travelling on that flight, or clever because you chose this brand, if there’s nothing to fear?

Nike does this well, painting the consumer as both hero and villain. Their base, lazy-self doesn’t want to wake up, to run, to push up that hill. Can their strong, inner hero win out? Yes, they can. Likewise, the anti-bank narrative taken up by new financial technology (fintech) companies often paint themselves as ‘Jack’ characters going up against fearsome ‘Giants’. A traditional story becomes a strategy rooted in the potential to conquer fear.

By identifying what seems scary, the opportunity to expose ways to overcome the monster emerges. This encourages people to believe in the story, to come to their own conclusions and hopefully align their opinions with that of the brand. Since they value this self-made deduction more than those shoved down their throats, the business’ story then becomes their story. Loyalty is created. A reputation with consumers established.

Crucially different from the fear inspired by some political propaganda or scaremongering, it’s important to note that this kind of fear is also distinct from manipulation. Using fear is not a way of coercing consumers into falling for a web of lies.  It is, however, a means of a business connecting on a human level with the people it needs to connect with and a way of cohering a brand with both left-brain ideas and right-brain emotions.

So whether it’s by tapping into the fear of missing out, the reality of heart disease, the creepiness of unseen germs, or just the Very Dangerous World – businesses need to really start thinking about what people fear and what story they want to tell in the age of anxiety.