Naked Bodies and a New Messiah Green Groups Try to Sex Up Climate Change

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeps going up and up, but public interest in climate change is sinking. Environmentalists are trying to come up with new ways to make the issue sexy. But shock tactics can backfire all too easily.



Climate change used to make headlines. But these days the issue appears to have largely fallen off the radar.

World leaders recently negotiated a new climate agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, but public interest in the issue was limited. It was a marked contrast to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, which had been declared of historic importance in the runup to the meeting, only to then fail spectacularly. The theft of e-mails from the University of East Anglia had badly damaged the image of climate research shortly before the summit.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned about the massive drop in public interest in the topic over the last year. Now they are looking for new strategies to turn the tide. They're searching for so-called "mind bombs" -- highly emotional images that reduce a complex problem down to one core message.

Fountains of Blood

Some environmental organizations are placing their bets on the shock factor. One commercial in a campaign by the British-based environmental organization 10:10 showed a teacher blowing up two students who were skeptical about cutting their carbon emissions, with fountains of blood spraying the others in the class. Other 10:10 videos have the same fate befalling recalcitrant office workers and footballers. But the campaign proved a dud -- it sparked massive protests and was quickly withdrawn.

More successful was a Greenpeace advertising spot that targeted the multinational food company Nestlé. Greenpeace wanted the video, in which a bar of chocolate turns out to be a gorilla's bleeding finger, to be understood as a symbol of endangered rainforests, where harvesting palm oil for chocolate production encroaches on great apes' habitats. After the video caused a considerable stir, Nestlé promised to stop using products that damaged rainforests.

Video spots such as Greenpeace's have drawn attention in the short term, but they aren't enough to stop the media trend away from climate issues, confirms Sebastian Metzger from the Berlin-based organization co2online, which regularly measures public awareness on the topic using its "climate barometer."


Climate researchers confirm a noticeable decline in interest. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, recalls that his telephone used to ring off the hook whenever extreme weather conditions set in. Now hardly anyone calls, he says.

Global warming as an issue is a "loser" in media terms, an editor at the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel recently explained on a German TV show. In a similar vein, the heavyweight German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked ironically in relation to the Cancún summit: "Wait, was there something about the climate there?"

While journalists debate whether the issue of climate change is even suitable for the media, the New York Times quoted one science filmmaker as calling climate research "bo-ho-ho-ring" and "quite possibly THE most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public." The communication problem in this field can be solved, but it requires the right person or group to find the right approach for reaching the public.

Greenpeace doesn't seem to be that group. Although the organization is bringing in donations at record levels, only 1 percent of Germans associate Greenpeace with climate protection, an expert at the environmental organization complains. The topic is a difficult one to get across, the expert continues, adding that Greenpeace has a new campaign that is supposed to finally reach "Average Joe consumers."

Botched Strategy

A survey of 13,000 people in 18 countries, presented by German international public broadcaster Deutsche Welle at the Global Media Forum in Bonn in June, suggests that ordinary citizens are less interested in climate change than was previously thought. The survey showed, for example, that only one in three Dutch people are concerned about climate change -- even though the Netherlands is considered especially at risk from rising sea levels.

British science magazine Nature identified two reasons for this loss of credibility. One was mistakes, made public around a year ago, in the UN's 2007 climate report. The other was the so-called "Climategate" scandal involving the e-mails stolen from the climate researchers at the University of East Anglia. This leaked correspondence revealed trench warfare that caused scientists to withhold some data and defend their own results at all costs.

Communications researcher Martin Ludwig Hofmann at the Ostwestfalen-Lippe University of Applied Sciences believes that the scandal caused serious damage. "The communication strategy up until now relied primarily on scientists' credibility," Hofmann says. The London Times deemed the PR damage to be worse than that suffered by BP after its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


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