Sometimes, skilled persuasion is required


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There’s a problem hiding in climate-change polling numbers, and it’s a tough one to solve.

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There’s a problem hiding in climate-change polling numbers, and it’s a tough one to solve.

Recent surveys show about two-thirds of both Manitobans and Canadians believe human-caused climate change is real. That might seem like ample support for governments to confidently tackle our climate-warming challenges. After all, support from merely 40 per cent of voters sometimes generates a majority government. Sadly, the devilish problem lurks in the details.

Massive changes are needed to end climate warming and to prepare for its already-inevitable effects. Manitoban examples include ending natural gas heating, eliminating gas-powered vehicles, and transforming our agriculture industry. These and many other changes will be difficult and require many years to complete.

HO, Twitter, Alberta Wildfire / The Canadian Press FILES

The Chuckegg Creek wildfire burns in Alberta’s High Level Forest Area in May 2019. As extreme weather events occur, it may be time to bring in the professionals of persuasion to convince the public of climate change dangers.

All our elected governments must push forward. We cannot afford one government implementing progressive policies and a subsequent one reversing its changes. That’s the problem. At both the provincial and federal levels, major political parties are putting us at risk.

Provincially, a recent Probe Research survey showed that 57 per cent of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative supporters either don’t believe the climate is changing or are skeptical humans are causing it. That statistic probably explains why the most recent provincial budget essentially ignored climate change.

Federally, 54 per cent of the Conservative delegates at a 2021 party policy convention rejected a motion acknowledging that climate change is real. Both of these parties have weak support for addressing climate change, and both parties regularly win elections. That’s not a recipe for sustaining the aggressive programs needed to make the necessary changes.

Having two thirds of Manitobans and Canadians convinced about climate change isn’t enough. The one-third who are not convinced have significant influence in political parties that can win elections.

What can we do? The answer seems clear. We need to convince more voters that human-caused climate warming is real and that important changes must be made. The recent article by Dennis Hiebert (The rise of the anti-intellectual, May 6) highlighted a significant impediment. Many people distrust evidence, reasoned arguments, and traditional sources of facts, and trying to persuade them can further harden their contrary beliefs.

How can such people be persuaded? With the rise of facts-are-irrelevant, Republican politics in the U.S., opinions abound on how it can be done.

I have one as well. Perhaps not original, but worthy of consideration. We should engage professionals whose specialty is persuading people: Consumer-marketing specialists. Yup. Advertising agencies.

We need experts who understand how to shape societal beliefs. People didn’t understand the importance of deodorant until advertisers convinced us that body odour was abhorrent. Diamonds weren’t coveted widely for romance until advertising pros invented the phrase “A diamond is forever.” We need a widespread, long-term advertising campaign to convince people of the urgent need to combat climate warming. I even have suggestions about the campaign.

Don’t rely on subtle concepts and complex arguments. Those belong elsewhere.

For example, the idea of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming is too easily dismissed by uninformed doubters: Why worry about a mere 1.5 degrees? As well, don’t lean too heavily on the information that warming is already occurring. Seeing that on a billboard in Manitoba on a cold February day won’t foster credibility.

Base the campaign on extremely simple messages and images. Then expose people to them many times daily on billboards and posters, on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on gas pumps and heating bills, and throughout social media. Do it for years.

This technique has a long history in advertising (and, yes, propaganda) campaigns. An early example was the First World War recruitment poster with the U.S.’s “Uncle Sam” image and “I WANT YOU” slogan. Marlboro cigarettes were sold successfully to women with “Mild as May” ads and to men with Marlboro Man images. Disneyland declared itself “The happiest place on Earth.”

This technique draws on a known psychological principle called the illusory truth effect: If statements deemed false are repeated many times, they begin to seem true. That’s the approach. Continually repeat the simple truth to win over climate-warming naysayers.

Marketing is an idea whose time has come for the climate-change battle. We need the solid support of a larger majority of voters and of all major political parties. We need a professionally designed, aggressive, sustained advertising campaign. Of course, I have a couple of slogans to offer: “Fossil fuel emissions destroy air conditions. Go Green.” and “Major changes we must make to give our kids their fair shake.”

I suspect the professionals will do better.

Calvin Brown writes from the R.M. of St. Andrews.

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