Dirty bathwater and a healthy baby

Coverage of the recent report by IPPR on public attitudes to climate change gets short shrift from Tim Holmes on Climate Safety. The issue is that while the IPPR report is based on research entirely among a specific sub-group of the population – selected for having a certain outlook – the IPPR’s press around the report represented the findings as applying to the general population.

This spin was repeated in media coverage of the report. In an Ecologist article (reproduced in the Guardian) headlined “Public bored by climate change, says IPPR”, the opening sentence, “the general public are resentful, cynical and resigned when it comes to the issue of climate change, according to an IPPR report” is an outright misrepresentation of the research.

As Tim Holmes points out, a substantial chunk of the blame for this lies with IPPR’s press operation. While the report authors largely avoid drawing any conclusions about the general population (with the exception of an inaccurate subheading to the report), the IPPR press release  [no longer available but replicated here] is wildly misleading. Claims like “climate change-related communications, products and policies are leaving most people unengaged and switched off” bear no relation to the report itself.

So, shame on the lazy reporters for not bothering to read or understand the report, and greater shame on IPPR’s PR lot for misleading their journalist targets.

It’s all a particular pity because the report itself is actually rather good. The premises of the study are that a lot of people have hitherto shown very little interest in adopting low-carbon behaviours, that certain types of people in society are trend-setters, and that there are trend setters who haven’t adopted low-carbon behaviours. So influencing these trend-setters to adopt low-carbon behaviours could be an effective way of increasing low-carbon behaviours among other groups who’ve up to now been unresponsive.

The research specifically targets one of 12 segments of the general population, the Now People, who the authors believe are key influencers for other parts of the population. While the research finds that this group have been limited in their uptake of low-carbon behaviours, it does at least find that they tend to recognise and roughly understand climate change. The report then gets most interesting when it looks at how this group might be encouraged to increase their low-carbon activities.

According to the authors, this influential group of the population are unlikely to change their environmental behaviours without a new approach. The strategy the report suggests is interesting. In the short-term, don’t expect Now People to cut carbon because of appeals to their better nature. They’re turned off by environmental messages that encourage people to change for moral reasons(1). Instead, pro-environmentalists should focus on how reducing high-carbon behaviours can save Now People’s money.

This creates a secondary problem that Now People are likely to spend money they save in the home on additional high-carbon activities like foreign holidays. So pro-environmentalists must militate against this by also adopting a medium-term strategy of rebranding low-carbon behaviours as more desirable, and high-carbon behaviours as the subject of satire.

Throughout this runs a message that this group will be turned away from low-carbon behaviours by appeals to their consciences. Like those who begrudge Bono for calling for higher international aid, while moving his money to avoid Irish taxes, the Now People latch onto perceived hypocrisies from low-carbon advocates, and resent and resist being implored to change their own behaviour.

This is where I disagree slightly with Tim Holmes’s interpretation of the report. He describes it as “likely to be depressing, if not deeply demoralising, for anyone concerned about or active on the issue of climate change”. For me the report is utterly plausible and important. To be sure, there’s an audience that pro-environmentalists can encourage to adopt more low-carbon behaviours through appeals to selflessness. But greens have to be aware that passionate advocacy of that sort is counter-productive with other groups. Plenty of people will be turned off by feeling lectured, and this audience has to be catered for as part of a diverse pro-environmentalist message(2).

(1) As a quick aside here, this reflects one of the fun things about qualitative research.  When you’re running a set of focus groups, it’s almost always possible to find someone who says exactly the opposite of someone else in the audience you’re studying. Thus the report includes quotes from Now People that suggest, contrary to expectations, that they would actually like to reduce their carbon emissions:

I will do what I can to… do my part in fighting climate change. I, like most people, [am] limited financially [as to] what I can do. I would love the idea of having solar panels, for example, but the cost is entirely prohibitive.

Maybe this is a poor recruit to the groups – people invited along who weren’t really typical Now People – but it does remind us that we shouldn’t expect complete uniformity in even these relatively small segments.

(2) Adam Corner at Climate Safety has followed up to Tim Holmes’s article with an argument specifically on this point – taking a quite different line from mine.

  1. […] most irritating part of this is that – just as we saw with the IPPR report – the media coverage of these polls appears to be framed entirely by whoever […]