Tag Archives: Environmentalism

The Climatecasters

The novelist, humourist and journalist Mark Twain had a well-known obsession with weather: “the climate is what we expect, but the weather is what we get,” is probably one of his most famous lines. Twain is of course best known for his classic contributions to American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But equally significant was his novel The American Claimant, published in 1892 (incidentally, also the first novel ever dictated with the assistance of a phonograph). In it he had this to say about weather:

Of course, the weather is necessary to a narrative of human experience. That is conceded. But it ought to be put where it will not be in the way…weather is a literary specialty, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it.

Twain’s musings on weather and its connection to communication were relevant today as I spent the afternoon camped out at Klimaforum, the alternative climate conference that has featured panel discussions by academics, journalists, and activists on a wide range of topics and themes: the role of nature in music; climate and food security; the global water crisis; indigenous rights and the energy development; and eco-literacy (among others).

The day’s session that most appealed to me was “Climate Broadcasters,” which featured presentations from three of Europe’s leading meteorologists about the challenges and opportunities facing weather broadcasters who are also committed campaigners for a binding global agreement on climate change. Climatecasters are key players in the public debate about global climate change because they have a solid grasp of the science, are able to communicate clearly to a non-expert audience, and enjoy high levels of public trust and credibility. A recent study by George Mason University’s Climate Change Communication Center and the Yale Project on Climate Change reported that meteorologists are trusted by 66% of Americans as a source of information about global warming, far above the level of trust enjoyed by the mainstream media organizations for which they work (47%).

The panelists are all involved with the Climate Broadcasters Network – Europe, a professional association of weathercasters sponsored by the EU with members in more than 23 countries. The first speaker, and arguably the most accomplished member of the association, is Jill Peeters, meteorologist with  Flemish broadcaster VTM, the author of 3 books about climate change and recipient of the 2008 European Meteorological Society award in weather forecasting. Ms. Peeters was also deeply involved in the production and promotion of the YouTube  sensation The Big Ask, a 2-minute film depicting the implications of a 2-centigrade increase in global temperature that has been shown in 18 countries and 10 languages.

Here are my main take-away points from the panel:

1. Ms. Peeters discussed the difficulties of being a “climate broadcaster” in a commercial media organization. She impressed me by acknowledging the paradox of promoting climate change awareness for a privately owned news organization that makes its money on ad revenue promoting conspicuous consumption (cell phones, travel holidays, fancy automobiles, etc.). I believed her when she described the moral difficulties this poses for her as a professional who is also a committed advocate.

2. As part of the “bargain” she struck with her employer, Ms. Peeters produced a series of short “news you can use” climate videos to follow her weather reports. The focus of these clips is the little things individuals can do to help reduce their overall CO2 emissions: from lowering the thermostat in their homes to riding a bicycle to work. Such examples of service journalism provide media audiences with information, advice and help about the problems of everyday life. Service-oriented reporting may be admirable for its action imperatives, however this genre of news is limited to the extent that it identifies the individual consumer as both the cause and the solution to climate change – a critical interrogation of the wider political and economic environment within which climate change occurs is almost entirely absent.

3. One of the major challenges meteorologists face in reporting on climate change is the professional norm of objectivity. In what the sociologist Gaye Tuchman called the objectivity ritual, journalists are expected to offer competing perspectives on issues as a proxy for fairness and balance. To illustrate, although 95% of the world’s leading climate scientists believe in the evidence behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the objectivity ritual insists that the 5% minority obtain an equal share of the publicity. According to the panelists, they experience the pressure of this ritual all the time — the problem, they say, is this creates a misleading perspective about the scientific debate and harms rather than enhances public understanding about science.

4. There is clearly a stronger commitment by European meteorologists to professionalizing and coordinating their climatecasting than exists in the major CO2 emitting countries: the U.S., Australia and Canada, among others. When this observation was posed to the panel, they acknowledged the much higher levels of skepticism about AGW outside of Europe, focusing on the U.S., in particular. They also commented on the challenges this has posed in terms of internationalizing their movement. One of the speakers referenced a recent “study” which found that more than 60% of U.S. weather broadcasters held contrarian perspectives about AGW (he could not produce the title of the study or where it was published, but I’m looking into it). Given the sharply declining numbers of Americans who report that they trust the science behind global warming, this could help explain the broader context of the George Mason/Yale Project findings.

Tomorrow is our final day in Copenhagen and we plan to spend it mixing work with pleasure. The morning will feature some final wrap-up interviews. Then we are off to the “Fossil of the Year” award ceremony hosted by Avaaz, a little Christmukkah/Hannumas shopping, and then a visit to The Tivoli Gardens where I intend to suspend all common-sense and good judgment by taking to the rides. I will probably lose my lunch and may have to be dragged back to the flat afterward, but when will I get the chance to swing on something like this again?!

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Greening Corporate Reputation

Canada’s agenda-setting newspaper The Globe & Mail yesterday memorialized Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) as one of the world’s 50 greatest reads, praising its role in stimulating greater public understanding about science and helping to shape the modern environmental movement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the book lately, with 2 graduate students working on issues relating to environmental communication and one having just completed such a study. I read the book for the first and only time in a social and environmental studies course in high school. 

So it was more than a little serendipitous that within minutes of reading the review, a Google Alert came thundering through the ether to publicize two new reports: the first is the 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Index, released by the Center for Corporate Citizenship and Reputation Institute at Boston College. Using data collected for Reputation Institute’s 2008 Global Pulse Study, the report evaluates the top 50 U.S. corporations in terms of their commitments to sustainable economic growth and finds that corporate governance, ethics and transparency are increasing in their importance to overall corporate reputation. An important caveat is that the data were gathered long before the market meltdown; as some analysts have argued, the downturn in the economy will be a true test of corporate commitments to sustainable business practice. 

The second report called MapChange was released by the Vancouver-based green marketing and brand management firm Change (the full report can be downloaded here). MapChange is a “perceptual mapping tool” that assesses how committed the top brands in Canada are to the environment, and how committed consumers think they are. In short, it allows brand managers to assess a range of possible reputational threats, whether these derive from specific stakeholder concerns, such as when activists demand that global corporations change their supply chain practices to limit carbon emissions, or expectation gaps, such as when companies fail to communicate progressive environmental practices to stakeholders, thus falling short of consumer expectations.

As the consultants at Change make clear, in the world of branding reality is a social construction: “what is real is only what is perceived to be real.” Communication is thus central not only to effective marketing but also activist criticism of brand performance.

Indeed, the report indicates that better action doesn’t necessarily equal better perception. General Motors has been regularly criticized for its sustainability efforts, but despite performing better in Actual Sustainability practices than its competitor Toyota, the latter has attained by far the highest Perceived Sustainability score (must be all those Prius product placements on hit cable shows like Six Feet Under and Weeds). The report also shows that some brands have benefitted from a “halo effect” — consumers of Apple products perceive the company’s sustainability practices to be much better (5th overall) than their actual performance (14th overall) — while others, such as Nike, have not been able to overcome the bad public images they accrued from past behaviour, despite progressive efforts to improve business practice (Nike ranked 17th on Perceived Sustainability, despite being 5th on Actual Sustainability).

It’s unclear what the future holds for sustainable business practices. The Wall Street Journal reports that on the heels of the market meltdown in the U.S., oil prices have plummeted because of fears about a global recession, a move unlikely to stimulate reductions in consumer demand for fossil fuels and thus the pressure needed to keep corporations focused on the triple bottom line.  In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes that we should invest all bailout profits in green infrastructure to stimulate sustainable technology. Yet, if we believe the Financial Times, the economic crisis has made consumers worldwide less likely to spend their money on green products.

All of these mixed signals mean many things, not the least of which is that if you are in the business of green marketing, there is going to be a lot of confused corporations looking for strategic counsel and a lot of environmental activists with their radars intently focused.

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