Ahead of the COP21 meeting later this year, the environmentalist talks to Anna-Lisa Mills about a novel way to communicate climate risk
Many sustainability professionals will be familiar with the challenge of how to communicate the risks associated with climate change as well as the responses that range from scepticism and fear to apathy. We have a good understanding of why some of these responses occur and we know that, as well as the mixed messages received from the media, there are many psychological factors in play. According to an article in the Guardian in November 2014, human brains are wired to respond to short-term problems, not long-term risk. It is no wonder that communication can be a challenge.
The financial cost of, say, erratic weather patterns caused by climate change is regularly felt by the insurance industry, and particularly after a meteorological disaster. These effects have also been observed by Innovation Group (IG), a global provider of business process services and software solutions to the insurance industry. Its sustainability manager, Anna-Lisa Mills, says: "We have seen demand for our services increase after extreme weather events. That said, IG is committed to measuring, reporting and reducing its own carbon footprint and also works to support companies in its supply chain to do the same."
The company's commitment to tackle climate change raised an important question for Mills and her team: how do you effectively educate a global workforce of more than 3,000 about climate change? To help achieve this, IG has embedded a five-minute animation in its mandatory introduction to sustainability e-learning course for all staff. Called The journey, it compares the risk warnings on a timeline for the doomed liner, the Titanic, with warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Feedback from learners indicates that the animation holds people's attention as many are fascinated by the story of the Titanic.
Going on a journey
The journey was developed by Mills and is free from the Carbon Fix Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation. Mills explains that she is intrigued by the psychological barriers that prevent some people acknowledging and responding to the dangers of climate change and decided to apply the Titanic analogy, which she has used successfully many times in the classroom and found to be a reliable catalyst for discussion.
"People often tell me to think about the language used when explaining the risks of climate change and to avoid doomsday scenarios or promoting panic or fear," she says. "However, if I had been aboard the Titanic and tasked with alerting the crew or passengers to the iceberg ahead I don't think there would have been any advantage in sugar-coating the message.
"With overwhelming scientific consensus that the world is warming and that humans are responsible, there is little more we can do with graphs and numbers without encouraging further the pitfall of analysis paralysis. The world is on course to a temperature increase of 4°C or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, so we need to effectively convey what this means for current and future generations."
Examples from the animation illustrate some of the comparisons drawn between the sinking of the Titanic and the failure to tackle climate change effectively.
One example is system inertia. "Slowing down carbon emissions or changing course to a low-carbon path would be like changing the direction of a large ocean liner," says Mills. "It would take a long time to change the global energy sector. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for around 100 years, so emissions added today will remain in the atmosphere for generations."
She also highlights the mistaken belief that technology alone will save the world from the worst of climate change, likening it to how people thought that the unique design of the Titanic made the ship unsinkable when its maiden voyage began in 1912. "The assumption by passengers that there would be enough lifeboats to save everyone can also be likened to assuming we can adapt for climate change by, for instance, building enough flood defences and sea levees. There simply aren't enough to save everyone."
Another analogy between climate change and the Titanic is the unforeseen impacts. "The unseen portion of the iceberg beneath the water represents the part of climate science that we are less certain about," says Mills. Climate scientists are 90-100% certain that the world is warming and that emissions of greenhouse-gases from human activities are causing this, she explains. "But it is more difficult to be certain about how severe the impacts will be or what the exact time frame will be." Mills says this is comparable to the point when the lookouts on the Titanic see the iceberg. "At that point they could not be sure how serious the impact would be or the consequences. But they could be sure that they saw danger ahead."
She adds that the TV drama documentary, Curiosity: what sank Titanic?, which was based on factual accounts from survivors, highlighted yet more interesting comparisons. "Even after the Titanic had hit the iceberg the crew were uncertain about the severity of the repercussions," says Mills. The ship's designer, Thomas Andrews, is quoted as saying that if they could have prevented the water reaching boiler room five there would still have been a chance the ship would have stayed afloat; if not, its fate would be set, even though it would be an hour or more before the ship would sink. "This could be likened to passing environmental tipping points. When positive feedback mechanisms take hold, similar to the Titanic filling with ever more water, there is a point past which there would be little more that could be done."
Making the message relevant
The animation is hosted on YouTube and includes links to the sources and references. The text accompanying The journey provides advice on what a person can do at work or at home to reduce his or her carbon emissions. Giving such guidance is essential to relay the risks effectively, says Mills: "Effective communication of the risks must also be supported with advice about practical action." This is where climate change communications can fall down. Mills says: "If the magnitude of the problem far outweighs the scale of the proposed solutions, people are often left disheartened, or even in despair. It is no good telling someone that their children are likely to witness a world that could be 4°C warmer, paint a very vivid picture of the potential consequences of this, and then suggest that they change their light bulbs at home to more energy-efficient options."
Feedback from IG staff and external parties underline the effectiveness of the animation. As one employee in North America said: "I like the direct comparison to the Titanic disaster. Famous enough to be easily recognisable, plus who hasn't looked back and thought 'what were they thinking?' or 'If I was there, I would've done something'." Another member of staff, based in the UK, said: "I liked the analogy of the Titanic's journey - it emphasised the reality of climate change and that delay and ignorance is potentially dangerous."
The Carbon Fix Foundation has shared the animation with several external parties, including the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, which both provided encouraging feedback on Twitter.
Mills points out that the international climate conference in Paris from 30 November to 11 December, COP21, presents a last chance to agree a framework to limit global warming to below 2°C. She believes business and commerce have critical roles to play in supporting the efforts of political leaders to reach an agreement and says it is the professional duty of IEMA members and sustainability practitioners to ensure the climate change message is heard. "We spend our careers asking others to act, but we also need to act," she says. "Our action is to communicate effectively and raise awareness within our sphere of influence. This year, with the talks on a new climate deal culminating at Paris, is a crunch one for climate change and we have a duty to ensure that we don't find ourselves in 'boiler room five' where our fate is set."
The journey can be viewed here. Viewers can add comments and share the resource.