Sunday, November 15, 2009

Climategate's 'Rules of the Game'

Note: this post has been pre-dated to conserve front page blog space. It was posted on November 28, 2009.

Why were the principles
The game is communicating
climate change; the rules will
help us win it.
These principles were created as
part of the UK Climate Change
Communications Strategy, an
evidence-based strategy aiming
to change public attitudes
towards climate change in the
UK. This is a ‘short version’
of a far longer document of
evidence that can be found at
There is plenty of evidence
relating to attitudes towards and
behaviour on climate change,
general environmental behaviour
change and the whole issue
of sustainable development
communication. As we reviewed
the research for these principles,
one ‘überprinciple’ emerged:
“Changing attitudes
towards climate change is
not like selling a particular
brand of soap – it’s like
convincing someone to
use soap in the first place.”

At first glance, some of the
principles may seem counterintuitive
to those who have
been working on sustainable
development or climate change
communications for many years.
Some confront dearly cherished
beliefs about what works; a few
even seem to attack the values
or principles of sustainable
development itself.
However, these principles are a
first step to using sophisticated
behaviour change modelling and
comprehensive evidence from
around the world to change
attitudes towards climate change.
We need to think radically, and
the Rules of the Game are a sign
that future campaigns will not be
‘business as usual’. This is a truly
exciting moment.

For the full evidence for these rules, and the climate change
communications strategy itself, please visit:
For the new UK sustainable development strategy please visit:

blowing away myths
Many of the oft-repeated communications methods and messages
of sustainable development have been dismissed by mainstream
communicators, behaviour change experts and psychologists.
Before we go into what works, our principles make a ‘clean sweep’
of what doesn’t:
1. Challenging habits of climate change communication
Don’t rely on concern about children’s future or human
survival instincts
Recent surveys show that people without children may care more
about climate change than those with children. “Fight or flight” human
survival instincts have a time limit measured in minutes – they are of
little use for a change in climate measured in years.
Don’t create fear without agency
Fear can create apathy if individuals have no ‘agency’ to act upon
the threat. Use fear with great caution.
Don’t attack or criticise home or family
It is unproductive to attack that which people hold dear.
2. Forget the climate change detractors
Those who deny climate change science are irritating, but
unimportant. The argument is not about if we should deal with climate
change, but how we should deal with climate change.
3. There is no ‘rational man’
The evidence discredits the ‘rational man’ theory – we rarely weigh
objectively the value of different decisions and then take the clear
self-interested choice.
4. Information can’t work alone
Providing information is not wrong; relying on information alone to
change attitudes is wrong. Remember also that messages about
saving money are important, but not that important.

a new way of

Once we’ve eliminated the myths, there is room for some new
ideas. These principles relate to some of the key ideas emerging
from behaviour change modelling for sustainable development:
5. Climate change must be ‘front of mind’ before
persuasion works
Currently, telling the public to take notice of climate change is
as successful as selling tampons to men. People don’t realise
(or remember) that climate change relates to them.
6. Use both peripheral and central processing
Attracting direct attention to an issue can change attitudes, but
peripheral messages can be just as effective: a tabloid snapshot
of Gwyneth Paltrow at a bus stop can help change attitudes to
public transport.
7. Link climate change mitigation to positive
Traditional marketing associates products with the aspirations of
their target audience. Linking climate change mitigation to home
improvement, self-improvement, green spaces or national pride are
all worth investigating.
8. Use transmitters and social learning
People learn through social interaction, and some people are
better teachers and trendsetters than others. Targeting these
people will ensure that messages seem more trustworthy and are
transmitted more effectively.
9. Beware the impacts of cognitive dissonance
Confronting someone with the difference between their attitude and
their actions on climate change will make them more likely to change
their attitude than their actions.

linking policy and

These principles clearly deserve a separate section. All the evidence
is clear – sometimes aggressively so – that ‘communications in the
absence of policy’ will precipitate the failure of any climate change
communications campaign right from the start:
10. Everyone must use a clear and consistent
explanation of climate change
The public knows that climate change is important, but is less clear
on exactly what it is and how it works.
11. Government policy and communications on climate
change must be consistent
Don’t ‘build in’ inconsistency and failure from the start.


In contrast to the myths, this section suggests some principles that
do work. These principles are likely to lead directly to a set of general
messages, although each poses a significant implementation challenge:
12. Create ‘agency’ for combating climate change
Agency is created when people know what to do, decide for
themselves to do it, have access to the infrastructure in which to act,
and understand that their contribution is important.
13. Make climate change a ‘home’ not ‘away’ issue
Climate change is a global issue, but we will feel its impact at home –
and we can act on it at home.
14. Raise the status of climate change mitigation
Research shows that energy efficiency behaviours can make you
seem poor and unattractive. We must work to overcome these
emotional assumptions.
15. Target specific groups
A classic marketing rule, and one not always followed by climate
change communications from government and other sources.


These principles lend some guidance on the evidence of stylistic
themes that have a high chance of success:
16. Create a trusted, credible, recognised voice on
climate change
We need trusted organisations and individuals that the media can
call upon to explain the implications of climate change to the
UK public.
17. Use emotions and visuals
Another classic marketing rule: changing behaviour by
disseminating information doesn’t always work, but emotions
and visuals usually do.


These principles are drawn primarily from the experience of others,
both in their successes and in the problems they faced:
18. The context affects everything
The prioritisation of these principles must be subject to ongoing
assessments of the UK climate change situation.
19. The communications must be sustained over time
All the most successful public awareness campaigns have been
sustained consistently over many years.
20. Partnered delivery of messages will be more
Experience shows that partnered delivery is often a key component
for projects that are large, complex and have many stakeholders.

“First they ignore you; then they laugh
at you; then they fight you; then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi
sustainability communications

If you are inspired or sceptical,
have questions or want to know
more, then please contact:
“First they ignore you; then they laugh
at you; then they fight you; then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi
sustainability communications
020 7733 6363