Contrasting approaches to climate change communication

Recently the blog has has seen two dramatic contrasts to US climate change communication – one from academics and one from Exxon Mobil.

The first, from the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication, comes in the form of a new peer reviewed paper on how best practice insights from psychological science can be used to improve public engagement with climate change. The second, from the US Centre for Media and Democracy (publisher of PR Watch),  regarding the New York Attorney General’s current investigation into whether Exxon Mobil deceived its shareholders and the public about the impact of fossil fuel burning on climate change and the oil business’ viability.

The NY AG’s is famous (infamous in banking circles) for its hard-line approach to the GFC banking crisis and those responsible. Well not quite so hard-line that it sent anyone to jail but it did extract huge fines and settlements from banks. This earlier campaign was launched by Eliot Spitzer who became famous for other reasons which rather derailed his political career.

The New York Times reported ( 5 November 2015) of the Exxon-Mobil case that :“The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research,” and that “the inquiry would include a period of at least a decade during which Exxon Mobil funded outside groups that sought to undermine climate science, even as its in-house scientists were outlining the potential consequences — and uncertainties — to company executives.”

According to the CMD, in evidence they have submitted to the investigation, one of the outside bodies was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is notorious for its anti-climate change, anti-union, pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation activities and its success in persuading Republican legislators to help pursue its agenda. CMD Executive Director, Lisa Groves, said “Exxon Mobil has bankrolled ALEC for decades and has a seat on ALEC’s corporate board, as ALEC has plied legislators with disinformation and denial about climate change and pushes legislation and resolutions to block crucial federal and state efforts to address the climate crisis.”

The CMD has identified about a minimum of $US1.7 million in funding from Exxon Mobil to ALEC between 1998 and 2014 – making it one of ALEC’s biggest supporters – while “ALEC promoted the fiction that there is ‘scientific uncertainty’ about the causes of climate change in order to thwart policies aimed at addressing the reality that unchecked carbon emissions pose significant risks,” CMD General Counsel Brendan Fisher said.

In the submission to the NY AG CMD (hard to write about the US without acronyms sadly) highlighted $US428,500 Exxon Mobil provided to ALEC for work on “climate change”. In 2005 Exxon Mobil told shareholders that the grants were for an “Energy Sustainability Program” and for “General Support”. Yet the company’s tax filings described the same grants as “Energy Sustainability Project (Climate Change)” and “Climate Change Environmental Outreach”. The capacity of some in the PR industry to frame things in euphemistic terms is remarkable but the IRS apparently has different standards.

Incidentally CMD has been campaigning for some time about ALEC activities and has been successful in persuading a number of major companies, concerned about their corporate reputation in the face of exposure of some of ALEC tactics and activities, to draw back from ALEC involvement. CMD and PR Watch have got lots of information on climate change campaigns and other PR campaigns and subscription to the PR Watch is free. The newsletter has given the blog and its former company a few serves long in the past but such is life.  But a visit to is well worthwhile.

Meanwhile the good guys at the Centre for Climate Change Communication have published the paper in which they “distill years of psychological research to identify five lessons that policy-makers can use to engage the general public on the issue of climate change and promote public support for climate policies.” They are: the human brain privileges experience over analysis; people are social beings who respond to group norms; out of sight, out of mind attitudes require efforts to reduce psychological distance; framing the big picture around the fact that, while nobody likes losing but everyone likes gaining; and, tapping the potential of human motivation by playing the long game. These lessons are then used to derive policy guidelines and examples of policy recommendation and framing. The open access paper is available at a special Perspectives on Psychological Science Issue.

On the domestic climate change front the blog was lucky enough to hear Professor Ross Garnaut again on climate change when Ross spoke at the annual Victorian Fabians dinner. As usual he was funny, extraordinarily lucid and well-informed on every aspect of climate change economics and policy around the world. If anyone hasn’t read his recent book, Dog Days, the blog highly recommends it.