Why climate change marketing, not climate change policy, will save the world

For decades, climate change strategies have focused on demonstrating the reality and threat of a warming planet. Many concerned with climate change have assumed that scientific proof of the existence and danger of climate change would be sufficient to spur us into climate-conscious behaviour. This assumption was wrong. Governments have historically focused on the economic or political factors behind climate change, neglecting the more psychological aspects of the issue. Incentives, beliefs, social norms and cognitive processes play important roles in understanding and influencing behaviour. Integrating these factors into public and economic policy is crucial in formulating an effective response to climate change.

Climate change presents an intrinsic free-rider problem. The entire world will benefit, in the long run, from regulations that blunt the disruptions produced by climate change. Additionally, everyone will benefit unconditionally, regardless of how much (or how little) a state or individual contributes to the outcome. Until quite recently, burning fossil fuels was cheaper than going green. This is no longer true, and in many places, including South Africa, renewable energy is now much cheaper than dirty electricity. But in many areas decarbonising does mean increased cost if climate and other externalities are not accounted for. Thus, in the short term at least while these externalities aren’t adequately priced internationally, economies that don’t apply costly climate change policies gain a competitive advantage over economies that do.

Different governments have different views on climate change, and it is important to distinguish between these different perspectives. Each approach generates a different picture about climate change, and a different response. Climate change is usually tackled as an infrastructure problem, mitigation problem or an adaptation problem. Why have these approaches been inadequate in dealing with climate change?

As an infrastructure problem, the key variable is a lack of renewable-energy infrastructure. Investment in renewable energy has driven technological advance that made renewables competitive with fossil fuels in many countries, and where markets function properly firms and individuals are incentivized to produce clean energy. Arguably the biggest barrier slowing the pace of an energy transition to cleaner production now is sunk costs and the risk of stranded assets in the fossil fuel value chain. The assets at risk are also often owned by the public sector, further complicating the issue.

The ancillary benefits to the rest of the world would not have to be the main motivating factor. Even better, reframing the climate change problem in this way allows governments to emphasize the number of jobs created by large infrastructural projects. “Look!” governments can say, “We’re creating jobs. Saving the world is just a by-product.” Unfortunately, building new renewable infrastructure requires huge up-front g investments that will only pay-off in the longer term. There is also the perception that governments need to fund these investments themselves, but as technologies have become better and better-known, renewable energy investments have become very attractive investments. Recent experience has shown that there is almost infinite funding available for renewable energy projects if they are conceptualised and packaged correctly.

As a mitigation problem, governments focus on emissions reduction, the cost of which is shifted to consumers and taxpayers. Carbon taxes would help to lower emissions. However, current taxpayers incur costs which benefit future generations (i.e. taxpayers are not the only beneficiaries of their payments). Taxes are psychologically unattractive, particularly in the U.S.A., and taxes existentially threaten established industries, who are likely to push back. The new industries that will take their place are nascent or still to develop, and therefore cannot yet serve as an effective counterweight.

Framing climate change as an adaptation problem attempts to tackle the issue by building infrastructure to deal with more severe storms, droughts and other disruptions. This approach also requires significant investment, which will stimulate the economy in the short-term. The free-rider problem is reduced with this approach, because those who act upon or support this strategy will be direct beneficiaries. On the global scale, however, inequality would be exacerbated by this approach, since less developed countries will suffer disproportionately from climate disruptions because they do not have the resources to effectively adapt to climate change. And as climate change accelerates, disruptions may outstrip even the ability of developed countries to effectively adapt.

So, we have three political scenarios so far, which help explain why governments have been unsuccessful in battling climate change. Other hurdles make mitigating the negative effects of climate change more difficult. Governments are elected in very short timeframes, and their incentives are – correspondingly – focused on the short-term. It is extremely difficult for politicians to prove to constituents that a long-term policy is beneficial. If a huge infrastructural project costs voters today, through a consumption tax for example, and the benefits will only be realised in 15 years’ time, voters are likely to elect politicians who will increase or protect their current income. The free-rider problem makes coordinating activity across individual networks and countries extremely challenging. How much should country A cut down on fossil fuels versus country B? Questions around economic fairness and justice are complicated, and unanimity is seldom – if ever – achieved. Is it realistic to hope that these structural systems will change optimise for tackling climate change? It seems highly unlikely that any meaningful structural change can be achieved at the system level in the next ten, twenty or even thirty years. And this is the timeframe over which change needs to happen if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Given this, what other mechanisms exist to cause meaningful change?

The choices of individuals in a free economy drive the adoption of technology and the demand for goods and services, influencing industrial activity. In a democracy, individuals influence government policy with their votes and their civic activity. Understanding and influencing the behaviour of individuals is, therefore, fundamental in mitigating the potentially ruinous repercussions of climate change. Fundamental changes in our political and economic systems are not a prerequisite for this behavioural change to take place, only individual choice is necessary, and that is good news. Revolutions are hard work, after all. Thinkers like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler have demonstrated our rational limits. Perceptions, beliefs, willpower and identity are all crucial in understanding and influencing behaviour. How can we use this insight to tackle climate change?

A good first step would be managing public perceptions of climate change. Public acknowledgement of the climate change problem has not grown proportionally with the scientific consensus. Virtually all reputable scientists agree with the urgency, danger and cause of our current climate situation, where ordinary citizens are not as agreed about the cause, seriousness or severity of our current status. Further, even though consensus among what we might call ordinary people is increasing, these people (myself included) fail to act in accordance with self-professed beliefs. In a perfect world, I would be recycling religiously, I would not eat beef (it is environmentally destructive), I would avoid running heaters, use solar panels and drive an electric car. Regrettably, though I am moving in that direction, I do not. Clearly, education is not enough. How we learn, and from whom, matters in our evaluation of information. Direct experience teaches us better than data. Convincing people requires trustworthy sources to present relevant, interesting, clear, coherent and actionable arguments. The mass media has done much in informing us about climate change. Unfortunately, it has also been groping at us for our attention in hysterical, sometimes dishonest, ways. Click-bait isn’t new, and it is easy to respond to the news with a “Yeah, right”. Public role models, athletes, film stars and influencers play a vital role in public perception. Their voices need to be added to the familiar channels in order to convince sceptics.

Surveys show that group political identity (left or right), at least in the UK and the USA, predict climate change beliefs. This behoves us to find ways of providing information through channels that will convince those who view climate change with scepticism and build a “community of fate” that incorporates those with opposing political views.

Communication issues stunt the progress we are making on climate change. Climate change is, in fact, a very human issue. Climate change will cause children to starve and it will cause more severe storms that rip through the homes of thousands. Climate change has, in some respects, been framed as a predominantly environmental issue. Framed in this way, the key issues present themselves as disappearing forests, homeless polar bears and oily penguins. These issues are important, but they aren’t always persuasive. How do we persuade individuals that climate change affects them and their loved ones directly?

In order to be persuasive, Climate Change needs a powerful brand. We need Climate Change Marketing, and we need it urgently. Fundamental behavioural and institutional weaknesses expose the extent of the crisis at hand. Communication is necessary, but insufficient as a solution. It is vital that we change our collective ideas about climate change and instil a social norm that encourages green behaviour. Persuasion and technocracy are not enough, on their own. A global social movement, unrelenting pressure of political actors and governments and a commitment to consensual personal sacrifice are just some of requirements for a successful response to climate change. This is daunting, and it may be more useful to aim for an attainable goal. How can we, you and I, support a response to Climate Change that might work? We can support politicians with long-term climate views, we can demonstrate through civic action, we can make personal green-living decisions and we can support a brand of climate change that is personal and social. Advocates of climate change and its critics both want the best for humanity, there is the common ground for persuasion. Tackling Climate Change more successfully will save our children from flooding. It will provide jobs for nephews and cousins and friends. It will establish our country as a global leader, and it will unite us in solidarity. These are the narratives that need to be synonymous with the climate debate.


We need to support (yes, with observable action and not just mental affirmation) government policy that positively incentivizes green behaviour and reframe the debate in more attractive ways. Climate change is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, and facing it requires us to respond as individuals and as global citizens. Voltaire noted that “Men argue. Nature acts.” Will we proactively address the climate change crisis, or will we argue, while nature acts?


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