Crisis – what crisis?

[This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 25th of August 2022 as]

On the 9th of May 2019, the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. The declaration was hastily voted on with just 6 TDs present in the Dáil with Green Party TD Eamon Ryan observing “we have declared a climate emergency in our own Irish way.”

If the pandemic can teach us anything, surely it can point to an appropriate political response to an unprecedented crisis. In March 2020, just three days after the first Covid lockdown was announced, the government published a public information booklet to be sent to every household. There was endless media coverage (possibly too much), and almost daily briefings by NPHET and the three government party leaders for nearly two years. The 2m social distancing posters and stickers are still everywhere to be seen. The money followed the declaration of a public health emergency. Total expenditures for just the first year of the pandemic amounted to €24.6 billion, of which €15 million was spent on communications by the HSE.

For all the talk of a climate crisis and a looming energy crisis, there is little sign that governments are applying lessons learned during the pandemic. Researchers at the University of Oxford studied the pandemic to see what lessons might be relevant for climate mitigation. They found that while delay is costly, early and determined action is politically difficult. Second, broad public support is critical for early action and underestimating damages impacts support. They noted that effective communication strategies for inoculating citizens against misinformation are needed to navigate value judgments at the science-policy interface.

After a summer of unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires and droughts across Europe, now is the time to apply these lessons in earnest, and fast. Communicating the crisis effectively, however, needs to involve more than Covid-style public health advice. It requires a paradigm shift in public discourse aimed at raising levels of awareness and understanding, as well as mobilising people to act together for deep structural change. Dr. Genevieve Guenther founder of the NGO End Climate Silence says that communicators should help the public feel a complex of three specific emotions: fear of climate breakdown, outrage that powerful actors are blocking the passage of effective climate policy, and desire for a transformed global economy. Narratives need to be local and should highlight the human suffering that climate change is causing or is likely to cause in the near future. Guenther also calls on scientists to step outside their comfort zones and embrace a risk-communication framework that includes the full representation of climate horrors along with ‘fat-tailed’ risks of different climate scenarios.

Bearing all of this in mind, what could the government do? Firstly, it needs to inform the public directly. Climate conversations and citizens assemblies are all very well, but they don’t reach everyone. We need resources, posters, ads, social media campaigns, visual tools and appropriate messaging for different social groups. The public profile of bodies such as the Climate Change Advisory Council should be significantly enhanced. The media plays a crucial role so resourcing public service broadcasting properly is key, along with placing curbs on advertising of carbon intensive products and services (we did this to the tobacco industry decades ago).

But all of this still begs the question of what the message actually is. If we’re telling the public there’s a crisis, what are we asking people to do? Obviously ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the top priority, throughout the economy.

The National Framework on Energy Security launched earlier this year is a case in point. It provides a detailed analysis of Ireland’s vulnerability to oil and gas supply disruptions and related price shocks and power shortages. Given that infrastructure can’t be built quickly, demand reduction, energy efficiency and income support measures are the only interventions that we can make in the short term. However, the Framework is remarkably short on concrete decisions and the government seems to have taken a “wait and see” attitude. It contains no commitment to implement the recommendations of the IEA in relation to reducing our reliance on oil and gas, such as lowering speed limits, introducing a windfall tax on the profits of utilities, and ramping up home insulation campaigns in advance of winter. Meanwhile, the government’s public information campaign “Reduce Your Use” ducks the challenge of communicating the climate emergency altogether and offers suggestions for reducing travel and heating costs instead on a pretty dull government website.

Crisis, what crisis?

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