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The Stephen Moir, director of corporate affairs at the Green Investment Bank, considers how President Obama has changed the tone of his messages around climate change, and what we could learn from that

Hi everybody, I’m here at the Children’s National Medical Center visiting with some kids being treated for asthma and other breathing problems. Often these illnesses are aggravated by air pollution. Pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change...

And so began President Obama’s address to the American public to sell his plans to cut the US’s carbon emissions, revitalising the country’s voice on the subject of climate change.

So far, so what?

Well, for anyone who has followed the efforts of various governments to agree, execute and hold their nerve on climate change policy this was a pretty bold opening gambit. Here was the President blasting through the language of climate change denial, scepticism, dismissal or adaptation. The issue was ‘here’. It was ‘now’. And he was linking it directly to childrens’ health.

This is interesting on two levels. First, there’s always a lot to learn from watching the White House in full campaigning mode, especially on a ‘legacy issue’. But, perhaps more importantly, it offers a reminder of the need to constantly check the relevance and impact of your message when you are in a campaign for the long haul. And it offers a challenge to where we are now, in the UK, on this issue.

All of this must, of course, be kept in perspective. The US is playing catch up on the issue and its actions, even under this plan, are some way off where Europe already is. But let’s put that to one side for the purpose of this article which looks, narrowly, at the communication issues.

Finding a message that’s relevant

Climate change is not an easy topic; it’s one of those thorny inter-generational issues that the public don’t do well. As comedian John Oliver said in his excellent new US show Last Week Tonight, ‘We’ve all proven that we can’t be trusted with the future tense. We’ve been repeatedly asked Don’t you want to leave a better future for your grandchildren? and we’ve responded … meh … fuck ’em’.

So just what did Obama say and do to make the argument relevant? In his two terms he has been a mercurial communicator. As powerful as Clinton but, without his plain-spoken approach, he can often slip into professorial mode. Not this time. The messages were crystal clear and came in four overlapping parts.

1) Personal and immediate

Whether it’s a video message from the kids’ ward or an elaborate infographic showing how extreme your local weather is, this was about you and about now. The language was straightforward and avoided the type of science that so quickly bogs down an argument. There was no argument or equivocation over the facts. Critics of the announcement were forced into debating process (how action should be taken) and impact (miners’ jobs) rather than the principle (whether we should be doing anything); the opposite has been true in many other countries.

The examples that were called upon were real: Hurricane Sandy, western wild fires, avoiding 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first years of action. The data was recent and projected costs and benefits were all in the near-term.

2) Pragmatic and achievable

This is often the Achilles’ Heel of the environmental movement. The challenge seems so big (‘what difference can we make?’ or ‘why should we bother when they aren’t’?); the solutions so absolute and uncompromising or the situation too far gone to bother doing anything at all. Too often the issue is elevated to the abstract.

This was tackled by framing the challenge with a simple lead announcement: ‘cutting pollution from power plants by 30 per cent’ and offering a roll call of progress to date. Contrast the equivalent of this in Europe where much more demanding but less intuitive targets are in place: ‘A 20 per cent reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels’. These are measures that are vital, but meaningless to almost all of the public.

The message was also punctuated by proof points that progress is being made: increasing wind and solar power; cutting energy consumption in homes and buildings; and improving transport fuel efficiency and emission standards. It all helps to ground the issue, give people a stake and build confidence in solutions.

3) Based on economic self-interest

‘Saving you money at the pump’, ‘preventing higher costs for food, insurance and rebuilding’, ‘creating new jobs that can’t be outsourced’, ‘improving America’s energy security’, ‘backing the innovation and ingenuity of American entrepreneurs’, ‘building a clean energy economy that’s an engine of growth’. The macro and micro economics of the issue weren’t just tackled head-on, they were put at the heart of the case for action.

4) Keeping it local, empowering communities

Perhaps the most important but least showy part of the message was how it was to be done. This wasn’t (just) Big Government. This was very much presented as a partnership between government, industry and citizens. And the most important part of government was to be the individual states, who are to be charged with finding solutions that worked for them. On top of that, the answer wasn’t more taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, the solution was to be found from within the market. This wasn’t just presented as smart politics, but as a way of encouraging innovation and finding solutions best suited to local needs.

These were all messages designed to target the many, not the few; to connect right across the political spectrum. Supporters were lined up to back the message. A letter was signed by more than 100 well known brands and pledges were made by more than 1,000 mayors. This was a campaign well-grounded in a broad coalition of interests, working hard to strike a tone of ‘the Federal government catching-up with the rest of the country’, purposely avoiding the language of a ‘save the planet’ crusade.

What can we learn?

It’s almost inconceivable that a leading UK politician could have fronted a communications campaign so directly. To characterise the difference, back at the turn of the year the Prime Minister caused a mini-storm by ‘suspecting’ a link between climate change and the very real storm that had placed parts of Somerset under water. Just suggesting a connection between the two was sufficiently controversial to merit prominent national media coverage. This month, one of our most senior political commentators, Andrew Neil, tweeted Here’s an existential question to which I don’t know the answer. Is the whole global warming schtick over? Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, here was President Obama doing a piece-to-camera in a children’s hospital ward.

In many ways, the UK has led the world in its commitment to tackling climate change and, by any measure, it has gone well beyond what the US is only now discussing. So what’s happened to create such a different political climate?

This isn’t a situation that should be attributed to politicians. The leaders of all the main parties including the current Prime Minister have provided important leadership on the issue. But, the fact that we aren’t good with the future tense creates a real vulnerability for them. They require a huge amount of political capital, backed by a broad and deep coalition of individuals and institutions that are representative of our society. The simple truth is that in many countries, including the UK, the coalition that put the issue on the agenda has struggled to hold its shape and discipline over recent years. The message has, under attack, lost its resonance and relevance.

The US, for so long the slacker on climate change policy, has given us a lesson in communications on how to find our way back.

None of it is rocket science. Obama is offering clear goals that people can understand and align behind; plain spoken language that speaks to the concerns of the many, right across the political spectrum; a message that has relevance for today; a compelling economic case based on new jobs, growth, innovation and new markets; and a pragmatism that points a way forward in steps that seem achievable and which dispenses with the absolutism that can never carry a broad consensus.

For America, the challenge now is what happens next. An early opinion poll suggests the initial push worked. Two thirds of the US support the new measures and the number supporting cuts in emissions is rising, even if that brings higher bills. The task now is to pull off that rare trick of maintaining the unity and breadth of the initial coalition and the relevance of its message.