kimberley crofts

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an information and communication designer living in London

How to engage the public in efforts to combat climate change

Notes from a report Polar bears and energy-efficient lightbulbs: strategies to bring climate change home by Rachel Slocum.

Polar bears and light globes have been used as metaphors that are appropriate to a local group. Giddens would say (if I could find the reference) that using polar bears as a global referent is misleading as it is not immediately apparent in the person’s local domain. Yes, if you live in Canada, less so if you live in Australia. The question is, what metaphors are most appropriate to bring the message home to a particular audience? And is the use of these metaphors more beneficial than bamboozling people with climate science?

Engaging the public on climate change is especially difficult because global climate change is perceived as spatially and temporally distant.

There is a problem with engaging people on a local issue with a global or future outlook as people find it difficult to understand their place in the problem.

Slocum calls polar bears and energy saving light globes objects or “material-semiotic actors” (Haraway, 1988b). Basically what she means is that they are metaphors that allow for short-hand communication of climate change to certain groups, in this case, a less scientifically inclined group. Policy makers across the world use climate science figures in the same way. She says that these objects sit on the boundaries between different groups and can act as “temporary bridges that allow communication across different groups” (Star and Griesemer, 1989). They are also open to different levels of interpretation (CF light globes save me money, I am helping the enviroment), yet they serve the one purpose (informing about climate change). Basically, they bring the global (hard to understand) down to a local level (easy to understand). What is important, Slocum says, is that “how different communities take up and interpret the object and the attached idea – that climate change needs action – and how it then becomes part of consciousness (Jasanoff, 2001).”

Thinking of Earth Hour for a moment, how has it made the global local? It has taken a scientific and future-abstract (“temporally distant”) notion (global) and turned it local by using an everyday metaphor of turning off the lights. As Slocum says, what matters is what people do with this knowledge, will they turn it into future and sustained action?

Feedback mechanisms in central heating systems offer a similar global to local approach to dealing with this problem. Eco-labelling less so. How does the everday person use a label to link their actions with a local person? I think that the workers who have their name written on the labels of the sleeping bags they manufacture probably have as much impact.

Giddens argues that because people are overwhelmed with more immediate threats it might be more prescient to “converge” the issue with another that is more understandable in the here-and-now. Giddens says that energy security is this issue and believes that people, acting upon energy security, will be also contributing to the mitigation of climate change. Slocum echoes this view, saying that it is important to act more locally on the global problem.

But then don’t people confuse the issue still? Would they not still argue that “how can me turning off a light make a difference to global warming?”. Yes, in the case of Earth Hour, but no in the case of the city trying to get its residents to switch to energy saving light globes. In the case of the light globes, they could get immediate feedback that their actions was having a local impact (smaller electricity bills).

Detractors would argue that this individual behaviour change has little impact on the global level, but I see it more as a way of getting the foot in the door. With the overall levels of awareness raised, the opportunities for further and greater behaviour change are enhanced. What is needed is the catalyst to be found that can get people and governments to adopt the radically different lifestyles that will be required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. It is about moving people from “pre-contemplation” to “contemplation” (Prochaska and diClemente).

Interestingly, Slocum looks at this cost-saving framing of climate change as being a “hegemonic neoliberal discourse that appoints cost saving as the gatekeeper to possibility”. She says that by framing the issue within the boundaries of cost-saving, the only way that people will see the problem as being mitigated is when financial savings are made. This, she says, “overshadows other values and reasons for climate protection”. This is an interesting thought. Some “deep greens” (Giddens) see this issue transferral as evil and damaging to the cause. What are the other values that people might see as worthwhile saving? When most people these days are only worried about their wallets, then how can we even begin to convince them that there are other things worth fighting for?

What is dangerous is that people believe that this is enough and that further action is not necessary.

Eath Hour could offer a way to transfer the dominance of cost-savings onto other values that are of greater benefit in mitigating climate change. For example, there have been reports from people who have taken part in Earth Hour experiencing greater sense of community and togetherness as a result of taking part in the event. For example link.

This Guardian writer, however, feels that the metaphor of switching off the lights is a negative one that “plays into the hands of our critics”. He believes that:

The overwhelming need at the moment is to inspire ordinary people with a vision of a better world, to make them feel that action on climate change is utterly desirable and positive.

We have so many positive metaphors on our side – emerging from the danger and filth of buried fossil fuels into the sunlight of solar power; the core values of locality and community; the health that comes from good diet and exercise; and, as a larger narrative, humanity’s long journey towards a cleaner, smarter and more efficient future.

Making the global visible in the local:

These objects may, in the process, conceal climate change, but they reveal other problems (asthma rates, sprawl) directly related to climate change. This is the potential in the temporary aspect of boundary objects and their capacity to be reshaped locally.

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