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Green practice: Answering science with sizzle

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Cite as: April 2011 85(4) LIJ, p.85

A super selling technique could hold the key to overcoming climate fatigue.

Evidence is building that people are becoming less interested in climate change. In contrast, the urgency of our precarious planetary situation has not diminished.

So what can we do to turn this around? Futerra Sustainability Communications believes that the solution is all about how we sell the climate change message.

Are we green-fatigued?

A recent government survey indicated that levels of concern about climate change in the UK were falling significantly.1 The survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics, found that:

  • in 2010, only 75 per cent of respondents were at least “fairly convinced” that the world’s climate was changing, falling from 87 per cent in 2006;
  • the proportion of respondents who were at least “fairly concerned” about climate fell from 81 per cent in 2006 to 70 per cent in 2010; and
  • in 2010, 72 per cent of respondents said they were willing to change their behaviour to help limit climate change, down from 77 per cent in 2006.

Similarly, media attendance and coverage of the UN summit on climate change is falling.2 In 2009, there were over 4000 journalists at the summit in Copenhagen. In 2010, there were only 1200 journalists at the summit in Cancun. This decline in numbers is indicative of a general reduction in media coverage of climate change globally.

For the first time in a number of years, it appears that we are less convinced by climate change theory, care less about the occurrence of climate change, and are less willing to change our behaviour to help stop it. In stark contrast, the science of climate change continues to become increasingly bleak, warning us of the inevitability of the destruction of the planet.

The terms “climate fatigue”, “climate weary” and “green-fatigue” have been used to describe this trend. The challenge is how to overcome it. It is a daunting task, but one that is not insurmountable. Fortunately, this issue has already been considered and addressed.

How can we overcome climate fatigue?

Futerra Sustainability Communications recently observed that “[d]espite a strange recent resurgence in denial, the science is unequivocal. So climate change is no longer a scientist’s problem – it’s a salesman’s problem.”3 (my emphasis)

The question then is: how do we sell the climate change message? Futerra believes the secret is in communicating what it describes as “the sizzle, not the sausage”.

Elmer Wheeler made what Time magazine called “a handsome living” in the forties, advising US business “Don’t sell the steak—sell the sizzle!” Wheeler claimed that the real triggers prompting someone to buy steak were the “desirable sounds and smells” that got stomachs rumbling, not the product itself. Futerra considers this the key to communicating any message, including climate change.

Futerra says that the sizzle for climate change is not the science telling us that the world is doomed. It describes this science as showing us a “hell” on earth: rising seas, scorched earth, failing food supplies, an endless series of photos and statistics of destruction. Illustrating this hell has not effectively persuaded us to stop it.

In its guide, Futerra instead focuses on how to create and communicate an alternative positive vision that has sizzle: how to make our climate heaven happen.

Selling the sizzle

The first step is to create the vision, building the picture of what can happen if we take action. Make it visual (create the picture), local (so that it is personal) and sizzle. We need to desire it; something that makes us worse off is not desirable.

The next step is to show people the choice. Demonstrate the hell. Show the science with all its ugliness. Show that the outcome will personally be bad for the people you are selling to. Now you have introduced the choice, the preferred option becomes obvious.

Thirdly, have a plan. There is no point in selling a vision if there is no plan to implement it. Climate change is complex, and you need to be realistic about what your plan is.

Finally, propose specific actions to take in accordance with the plan and the vision. If your “sale” is successful, people will take this action.

The chosen method for conveying messages is integral to directing behavioural change. We should always consider how we frame issues and the actions we ask people to take, to ensure success when asking people to change their behaviour and lifestyles.4

Selling the sizzle

1. Create a positive vision

2. Introduce the contrasting choices

3. Have a plan to help implement the vision

4. Promote specific actions to take

MELANIE SZYDZIK is a Barrister and member of the LIV Young Lawyers’ Section Community Issues Committee.

1. See http://bit.ly/hHYYM1.

2. See http://bit.ly/ecgyIm.

3. Sizzle the New Climate Message – available at http://bit.ly/dTEGgU.

4. Importantly, other behaviour change tools are also available to assist in overcoming barriers and resistance. See the Green Practice column in July 2008 LIJ.

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