How the Environment Movement is Losing in the War of Public Opinion

Look as hard as you like, but you will not find any country implementing, or even proposing effective action against climate change. While scientists continue publishing newer and firmer evidence of climate change, no government seems willing to invest the resources required to start combating it. Politicians who are courageous enough to promise climate initiatives either rapidly change their minds, or are quickly voted out. No wonder that the public is not only losing faith in the possibility of action, but are starting to question the very existence of climate change.

If climate change is really as serious as scientists and activists would like us to believe, then surely something would have been done by now, right?  Wrong.

The environment movement is simply losing the war of the public opinion on climate change.

We have previously been warning that the Copenhagen summit will fail, and that no meaningful action will be taken in Britain before the general election. At the time, colleagues told us we were being too pessimistic… However, many people in the environment movement are now becoming aware that it is not reaching its goals. They are starting to face this harsh reality, as this article in the Washington Post attests.

This article is the first in a series which will explore how and why the global war on climate change is being lost.  To prove that we are not ‘crying wolf’, consider the following threefold evidence: the opinion polls, the consistent lack of political action, and the prevailing media narrative.

As detailed in our previous article about energy policy, if you ask the general public whether it is important to combat climate change, the response will be an overwhelming yes. However, if you alter your question slightly and ask whether they would be willing to pay for the changes that need to be made (in the form of, for instance, petrol tax, recycling, travelling less or eating less red meat), you will get a very different answer.  If you still doubt, ask yourself, would your neighbour be willing to take the necessary steps? What about the next ten people you see on your way to work?

Over the past two years, there has been a significant downward trend in the percentage of those who believe in climate change. (as recorded in the UK and in the US).

Furthermore, there has been a conspicuous absence of any meaningful political action on climate change. The few who have proposed it were either voted out of office (like in Australia’s most recent elections), hold no real power (Al Gore), or very quickly changed their mind when faced with the reality of their electorate (John McCain, who used to be a climate change champion in the US… before he turned Presidential candidate). Due to the unpopularity of climate change measures among voters and the strength of the industrial lobby, it is a dangerous career move for a politician to propose green policies. And this is the reason why we won’t be seeing many of those green policies in the near future.

The least evident and yet most ubiquitous symptom of environmental movement’s powerlessness is the prevailing media narrative. We have already written about the importance of story-telling and creating your narrative when lobbying.

No mainstream media outlet in the Western world would dream of disputing accepted, fundamental principles such as racial or gender equality or religious freedom. The media has taken them as their editorial stance, and you won’t see The New York Times or even Fox News running a piece that highlights arguments pro and against racial discrimination in order to appear balanced.

The current media narrative on climate change incorporates the ‘there are two sides to every argument’.   If it is a scientific fact, accepted by the majority of the population, it needs to become one of the fundamental, undisputable realities of our society.  Until that point, climate change campaigners have not reached base camp one.

Every time a politician declares a solution to combat global warming (say levying a tax on petrol), a number of interest groups will immediately raise a howling opposition.  Climate change solutions are presented as one side of the equation, with the other side usually shouting “economy”, “jobs”, “taxes” and “spending” – all clear winners in times of economic crisis.

If this media narrative can’t be changed, nothing will be done about climate change.  We have to accept solutions as policy ‘must haves’ and not ‘nice to haves’.

In a future post, we will look at why the environment movement’s ideology is unable to address these realities.

December 2010