Rio Opening Ceremony: The best and worst of climate change communication

James Murray
Rio Opening Ceremony: The best and worst of climate change communication

I wanted to love it, I really did. But the Rio Opening Ceremony never reached beyond the big box of environmentalist cliché

I wanted to love it, I really did. As Ed King of ClimateHome observed on Twitter as the Olympic Opening Ceremony played out, "surely that was the most high profile + widely watched #climatechange warning ever broadcast?" Having spent years arguing politicians, business leaders, and other high profile figures should use the biggest platforms available to them to talk more passionately and openly about climate change, here was the biggest stage of them all, viewed by an estimated three billion people being used to warn the world about climate impacts.

And it was great - in part. I wrote recently that every politician and business executive on the planet should have Ed Hawkins' terrifying, spiralling climate data gif as their screensaver, and here it was being broadcast to the world. It lost some of its power without the time to watch it again and again and absorb the full meaning of that outward, seemingly ever-expanding spiral, but still it was there.

Moreover, it was there in a context of warnings about the most visceral of climate impacts, rising sea levels. The maps of global cities succumbing to the tides that were broadcast around the stadium never fail to shock.

There has been a lot written in recent months about the failure of facts and data to successfully augment an argument in our increasingly post-fact Trumpian-Brexit world. But to give up on facts altogether in making a case for action is to play into the hands of the demagogues who reject them as a reality-based inconvenience. Facts may be increasingly ineffective at convincing people who have made up their minds to reassess, but for those who already believe a course of action is required - and polls consistently show majority concern about climate change and support for action - a reminder of the basics of climate science is always useful, especially when that reminder can reach billions of people.

So why did the Opening Ceremony's focus on climate change leave me feeling so, well, meh?

The reality is that if the climate warnings were effective, the supposed solution that followed never reached beyond the big box of environmentalist cliché. The imagery, beautiful as it was, stuck firmly to the climate stereotypes of parched land and vibrant forests. The poem, read by Dame Judi Dench, was hampered by both a terrible sound system and the preaching style that leaves so much environmentalist messaging confined to the green ghetto. The only action the organisers appeared to want to convey to their enormous televisual audience was that it is good to plant trees - a truism that is in no way commensurate to the scale of the climate crisis. And the only action they wanted to convey to the audience in the stadium was the gimmick of asking the Olympic competitors to help plant a small forest.

There has been plenty of insightful research undertaken in recent years about what makes for effective climate change communication and while the area is still hugely contested, some extremely useful tips have emerged that all businesses, and the Olympic organisers, should be aware of: challenge clichéd 'green' images, speak to people's values, try not to preach to your audience, offer clear courses of action, find new stories to tell about climate change.

As George Marshall of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, which has done a lot of work in this area, observed in a recent blog: "Our research at Climate Outreach confirms that people will embrace the threats and solutions for climate change as part of a larger more positive vision of health, quality of life and new opportunity."

Did the Olympic Opening Ceremony, offered the perfect opportunity to do so, offer that positive vision? I'd argue not. Instead it told a story about environmental destruction, which may just be averted with a few more trees and a global desire to do a vague something.

Given the Olympics are about (resisting the temptation for everything to get a bit unpleasantly nationalist and Nuremburg-y and) celebrating the near superhuman endeavours of young people, many of whom will still be around towards the end of this century, where was the sense of the bright, clean and sustainable future they and their peers could build? Given the ceremony featured a tribute to the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont 'first' powered flight, where was Solar Impulse and the wider clean technologies that can avert the climate crisis the organisers warned us about? Where was a stronger story about Brazil's recent imperfect, but still impressive progress in slowing deforestation?

The focus on climate change and environmentalism was hugely welcome, but it felt a little dated. As if the modernity had been drained out and the New Environmentalism that now dominates much of the response to climate change sidelined.

Businesses, advertisers and marketeers looking to develop their own climate change communication strategy can learn from the Rio Olympics and its opening ceremony. Stark climate warnings and traditional environmental imagery still have considerable power, and it is essential to use the biggest, highest platforms possible to talk about the existential challenge climate change presents. But it is crucial to remember this messaging has to be complemented by a positive vision for the future that extends far beyond the confines of old school environmentalism and its focus on the natural world, immeasurably important as that still is. It is a combination of tradition, modernity, and ambition that you could almost regard as Olympian in its spirit.

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