Climate Change is not a PR Problem

Credit John Gerrard

The discourse around global warming is dysfunctional. Even when leaving aside the nonsense of climate change deniers, there are many tropes in the discussion that are unhelpful to promoting meaningful change. One rhetorical stumble is an appeal to tone policing and framing, where it is argued that the key to stopping global warming is about messaging and image. “If only activists framed the issue just-so, then everyone would get on-board, and green house gas emissions would be reduced!” While this way of thinking is obviously intellectually bankrupt when plainly posed, this mentality has a way of subtly working its way into the comments of well-meaning writers and intellectuals.

Douglas Rushkoff recently published a piece titled “Selling the Green New Deal with Positivity”, which suggest that an important element in avoiding climate change is convincing business that the “most likely future scenario is one where the whole world tries to get in on the bet that we can avert climate change”. Rushkoff points out that companies “are committed to betting on the most likely future instead of investing in the future they’d like to see”. The vast majority of corporate executives recognize (at least privately) that global warming is real. Perhaps by shifting the narrative to climate change being solvable then industry will contribute to solutions rather than simply off-set risks? If only it were that simple…

To begin with, let’s discuss the absurdity of this proposal at its face. If you take seriously the predictions from climate scientists, such as those articulated in the IPCC “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC” report it should be clear that averting serious climate disaster is unlikely. Not only are CO2 emissions rising, but the greenhouse gases that are being emitted today will have an impact on the climate well into the future. Global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by approximately half to avoid the 1.5 ºC threshold. In light of these facts, it is difficult to argue that the “most likely future scenario is one where the whole world tries to get in on the bet that we can avert climate change”. It would be interesting to see what communications strategy could actually manage to convince the business world of such a reality is manifestly untrue. Even granting that the premise of the argument is flawed, there are more fundamental problems at play, which relate to misunderstanding the role of business in the climate crisis.

When discussing the issue of global warming, it is essential to remember the complexity of the problem. Rushkoff spends several paragraphs outlining the risks of climate change, but seems to lose sight of its root cause. The global economy is built on cheap fossil fuel and wasteful consumption habits. Businesses are not bystanders in the process of climate change. For Esso, Ford, Tyson or Walmart true climate awareness is not a minor adjustment, but represents an existential threat to their entire enterprise. Preparation for climate failure requires investment in suitable insurance policies, or purchase additional land outside potential flood zones. These costs are inconvenient, but do not require a fundamental restructure of the fundamental business model. Rushkoff’s discussion glosses over the gap between these realities.

Maybe this take is pessimistic. Perhaps the corporate executives across the world are ready to abandon capitalist practices that have been embraced for generations, and are just one PowerPoint presentation away from sustainability. Even then, adequate climate action is unlikely. Global warming represents a collective action problem, akin to the “tragedy of the commons”. The typical formulation of this dilemma theorizes a pasture that is used for grazing by a collective of local farmers. These farmers agree to only use the field in an equitable manner, as over-use will deplete the pasture, meaning none of the farmers get a share in this resource. What happens? The farmers will over-use the commons, leading to a collapse. Given that each farmer is personally incentivized to over-use the available resources, eventually one will break with the arrangement, triggering a retaliation by other farmers.

Climate change is a scaled-up tragedy of the commons. Each firm is incentivized to engage in emissions-heavy business practices as long as possible before they are forced to stop. It is true that some companies may be motivated by environmental responsibility, and choose to reduce emissions out of some commitment to social well-being. While this is theoretically good, it creates an opportunity for a less environmentally-conscious firm to out-compete the greener companies. We might even imagine the high-emissions firm pushing out a low-emissions firms, meaning that overall emissions will change little. As long as market forces are aligned to incentivize irresponsible emission behavior corporate executives will be reluctant to take on the mantle of environmental responsibility given the risk of these scenarios.

Perhaps the question is then about market incentives? Maybe consumers should become more demanding of environmentally responsible products? In fact, consumers are already very interested in greener goods. Several studies and polls have found that consumers increasingly care about environmental impact of the products they purchase. Unfortunately, this is not enough to drive changes in the market. Many companies engage in “greenwashing”, which is the practice of claiming a product is more environmentally friendly than it is. There have been several high profile greenwashing scandals in recent years, including incidents involving Volkswagon, Amazon, and Walmart. It is difficult to estimate how many companies engage in greenwashing, but given the lax enforcement of environmental regulations it seems likely that many engage in greenwashing. Shifting the narrative of climate change may do more to incentivize deceptive marketing rather than generate real change in business practices.

Simply put, the corporate world is not the ally of environmentalism, and no public relationship campaign will fix this. Imagine trying to convince McDonald’s to cut back on selling fatty food. Not offering a healthy alternative, or contributing to a healthy eating charity, but making a massive cut in the sales of fatty foods. Unhealthy food is their business model. McDonald’s, as it is currently constructed, cannot exist without deep-fryers or Big Macs. Blaming heathy-eating advocates for improperly framing their lobbying is absurd. Similarly, big business is fundamentally designed to create global warming. Writers such as Rushkoff need to acknowledge that the roots of this crisis go to the heart of consumerism and corporatism, so solutions like “positivity” are not going to cut it.

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