Observer: Warm Regards

As I write this in October, there
are strong reasons to think that we have arrived at the tipping point
of global awareness about climate change and the need to act as a
matter of urgency. A recent BBC World Service international survey of
more than 22,000 people in 21 countries found that a substantial
majority of people—two-thirds of those polled—agreed that “major steps
need to be taken soon to address global warming,” while 79 percent of
respondents believed that “human activity, including industry and
transportation, is a significant cause of climate change.”

In the
U.S., 89 percent had heard a great deal, or at least something, about
climate change and global warming—a level of awareness that puts the
country at the top of the world chart. A sizable 71 percent regard
human activity as a significant cause, although this figure is not
especially high compared with countries such as Mexico (94 percent) or
Spain (93 percent). Nevertheless, only 6 percent of Americans believe
that it is not necessary to do anything at all about climate change; 59
percent favor major steps starting very soon, and 33 percent see the
need for modest steps in the years ahead.

While the number of
Americans who favor decisive action could be higher, they now form a
majority, and this is good news. Action on the scale required will need
fundamental changes in national policy, and no government, anywhere, is
going to take these initiatives unless it is convinced that its people
demand, and will support, such action. Individual steps to change our
own behavior do make a difference—as an activist once put it, “Simple
actions times lots of people equals big change”—but they also
demonstrate to politicians the public’s readiness for larger programs
of action without which a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will
never come about. And the figure we are talking about is massive.
According to climate change activist George Monbiot, writing in Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning,
a superbly incisive analysis, we need to achieve a 90 percent reduction
by 2030 if we are to prevent the temperature from rising by more than
two degrees Celsius—the point where major ecosystems begin to collapse.

can graphic designers help? There has been well-meaning talk for years
about going green and becoming sustainable, usually focusing on paper
and ink specifications. For many designers, this discussion was never
given priority, but now the issue of sustainability, conceived in the
broadest terms, has returned with new force. The AIGA Center for
Sustainable Design offers vital leadership by providing designers with
information relevant to sustainable practice. The AIGA has also put its
own house in order through such initiatives as using less hazardous
cleaning materials, conserving water, purchasing green electricity, and
installing a green roof in its Manhattan offices. One of the most
notable initiatives coming from design practice is the Design Can
website, launched in April as a self-funded venture by smashLAB
in Vancouver, B.C. DCC outlines five aims: to bring the design
community together; to establish definitive standards that all can
implement; to showcase environmentally aware projects; to promote
designers who embrace sustainable practices; and to raise awareness of
the importance of sustainable thinking.

Designers who support
these goals can pledge their commitment on the site. More than 1,000
people from 68 countries have so far added their names to the online
directory. In early October, these included 428 designers in the U.S.,
122 in Canada, 99 in the U.K., 32 in Australia, and 24 in India.
“Designers from Brazil are offering to translate the site into
Portuguese,” Peter Pimentel, one of DCC’s creators, told me.
“Developers in Argentina want to lend their video authoring skills,
U.S. studios are submitting projects to be featured in the online
gallery, and eco-conscious groups from everywhere are offering
partnership opportunities.” The rapid embrace of DCC by designers is
certainly encouraging, but good intentions need to become actions
before they mean anything—and this applies to designers as much as
everyone else. Two-thirds of people worldwide may say they believe that
something needs to be done urgently about climate change, but to what
extent does that translate into changes in personal behavior when it
comes to recycling, using less water, regulating power consumption,
walking more and driving less, or taking fewer flights?

behavioral change is one of the established goals of graphic design, so
designers have much to contribute here. Some non-designers are seeing
the possibilities. “Make a decision to live a carbon-neutral life,” Al
Gore urged his audience at the TED conference in 2006. “Those of you
who are good at branding, I’d love to get your advice and help on how
to say this in a way that connects with most people.” A British report
titled “Warm Words: How Are We Telling the Climate Story and Can We
Tell It Better?” (available online) reached the same conclusion:
“Ultimately, positive climate behaviors need to be approached in the
same way as marketers approach acts of buying and consuming. . . . It
amounts to treating climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be

Some web-based ventures, such as WorldChanging, We Are
What We Do
(both of which spawned books), and the recently launched
It’s a Green Thing, are already doing this for different audiences.
Design 21, the social design network sponsored by UNESCO, organized
Heated Issue, an international competition to design a campaign to
raise public awareness of how consumer choices affect global warming.
We need many more confident, clever initiatives like these—aimed at all
kinds of people—as well as official campaigns with local and government
funding, to keep the message at the forefront of the public mind.

campaigning works. Australia, a heavy emitter of carbon and greenhouse
gases, has since 2003 been experiencing a severe drought, the worst on
record, and water supplies are now alarmingly low. A Brisbane designer
told me that public attitudes toward water use and conservation have
been transformed with the help of TV advertising, billboards, and other
forms of public information. Nearly everyone understands the
seriousness of the situation, and people are taking responsibility for
their future well-being.

The key question faced by
climate-awareness communicators is what form of communication will be
most persuasive. WorldChanging opts for uncompromising radicalism.
“Alone, we are essentially powerless to change anything that matters,”
writes executive editor Alex Steffen. “We can’t shop our way to
sustainability. I believe we are bombarded with messages encouraging us
to take the ‘small steps’ precisely because those steps are a threat to
no one. They don’t depress the sales of fashionable crap we don’t
need.” And here, to be sure, lies a profound challenge for design,
which is still engaged, much of the time, in cheerfully helping to sell
us fashionable crap.

A speaker at the recent Applied Green
marketing conference in London suggested that the language of climate
campaigning needs to be more emotionally compelling. Words like
poisoning, addiction, obesity, profligacy, and cruelty are much harder
to resist than ambiguous-sounding formulations like carbon footprint
and greenhouse gas—what’s threatening about a footprint or a
greenhouse? Playing on people’s feelings of guilt and shame helped to
change public attitudes about smoking: Think about what you’re doing to your kids.
A similarly painful message might be applied to our profligate
addiction to consumption in the face of environmental disaster.
Monbiot’s impeccably rational Heat ends with an acknowledgment, as honest as it is risky—that this is a campaign “not for abundance but for austerity.”

the authors of “Warm Words” argue, this kind of accusatory rhetoric
seems likely to repel many people who could be persuaded to do the
right thing so long as it boosts their self-esteem as consumers. It is
still taboo to suggest that we need to consume less, notes another
environmental campaigner, and if you talk like that you will be
ignored. A follow-up report, “Warm Words II,” published in September,
argues that people are much more likely to persist with an action if
they are drawn to it for emotional reasons than if they regard it as a
civic duty. It could be that both styles of communication—tough and
soothing—have their uses for different audiences. What we know for sure
is that the public is now in the mood to listen. There is no bigger
problem facing us today, and no bigger communication problem, either.