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Climate Change Advocates Need Positive Branding

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 16, 2014 9:54:19 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

The idea of branding climate change seems like another exercise in navel-gazing until you China pollutionconsider the effectiveness of the opposition. They’ve got branding down, relentlessly repeating the mantra, “science is inconclusive and solutions are exorbitant and unproven.” On the other hand, environmentalists repeat vague Cassandra-like warnings of “climate change” and “global warming,” supporting dire predictions with confusing statistics, hard-pressed to come up with simple, relevant messages.

Even relatively green media like the New York Times end up reinforcing the fossil fuel messages, especially in their business sections. In an unfortunately common example, Friday’s Huffington Post called out the New York Times for “overhyping the benefits of fracking…(claiming that it was) changing the economic calculus for old industries and downtrodden cities alike.” Fracking equals jobs and a better economy, the article claimed. But Huffington Post reporter Mark Gongloff quoted Dean Baker, co-director of the Center For Economic And Policy Research, who found that in fact fracking communities had a worse record for factory jobs than the U.S. as a whole. Still, when it’s reported in the New York Times

Climate deniers are brilliant at setting up simple, memorable and scary financial calculations that brand climate change activists as prioritizing the environment against the economy. They pit environmental health against jobs. They equate renewable energy with sky-high utility bills. They warn electric cars have no range and will leave you stranded and solar panels will burn your house down. And my favorite, heard quite a bit in the halls of Congress: why should the U.S. pay to clean up the atmosphere when China now emits more greenhouse gas than we do?

Again, even environmentally-friendly media reinforce this trope. The latest is last week’s Rolling Stone article titled “China, the Climate and the Fate of the Planet.” The article is rife with fodder for climate solution obstructionists, starting with author Jeff Goodell’s front page called-out quote:  “If the world’s biggest polluter doesn’t radically reduce the amount of coal it burns within the next decade, nothing anyone does to stabilize the climate will matter.”

True, China’s contribution to atmospheric CO2 is now over 10 billion metric tons a year, and 25 years of climate negotiations have failed utterly. But Goodell’s article did not have to lead with the negative. He could have highlighted that China is now the largest consumer of solar power and that this year, 60 percent of its new energy production was from renewable energy sources, even higher than the U.S. at 53.8 percent. That it’s making every effort to close coal plants. Or that even in the face of beatings or worse, its citizens are still rioting in the streets against fossil fuel production.

Iconic graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the “I Love New York” logo, developed a climate change branding campaign with buttons and billboards that feature a black circle fading to a small green strip at its bottom edge over the slogan “IT’S NOT WARMING. IT’S DYING.” Position this message against one of the current denier billboards that proclaims “’Green’ Climate Policies: Probably unnecessary. Certainly ineffectual. Ruinously expensive.” Which one sounds more rationale? More persuasive? Easier to adopt? Commenting for Fast Company, Adele Peters questions Glazer’s negative approach but remains hopeful that he’s tackled the challenge. Her closing thought is absolutely correct: “We need more brilliant designers and marketers tackling the messaging about climate change in different ways--especially in the U.S., which leads the world in climate denial.”

Photo courtesy of DaiLuo via Flickr CC.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 9,100+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 9,100+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 339 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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Shell’s Self-serving Scenarios

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 11, 2013 9:00:33 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

According to Shell’s New Lens Scenarios, we’re headed for a carbon free future, where OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsolar will be the dominant energy source by 2100. The report got pretty universally upbeat press, praised in business and even environmental websites and by Amory Lovins, Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who seemed to endorse the report: “Shell is the most far-sighted and strategic of the majors, largely because the Scenarios informed the thinking of Shell leadership and many others in the energy ecosystem.”

And Shell gets the highest  social responsiblity rating from CSRHub of any big oil company.

But assuming that the maximum additional carbon the earth can absorb is 565 gigatons of CO2 and that study after study predicts that “carbon emissions will grow by roughly three percent a year… (exceeding the) 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years,” we’ll be facing Armageddon long before we’ve shifted from carbon-producing fuel to Shell’s scenario.

Shell’s future scenario is hardly encouraging.

Up to now, I have been a huge admirer of Shell’s scenario planning. I first heard about its brilliant insight that the Soviet Union would collapse, information it kept secret while snapping up cheap Soviet oil leases. They also predicted the 1970s oil crisis and the end of Apartheid. They have a lot of credibility.

So how can Shell’s prestigious forecasting group predict a carbon free world when its strategy is to “reinforce our position as a leader in the oil and gas industry?” When it sold its solar business in 2006 to SolarWorld once they realized that solar business profits would never match the oil and gas business? Is scenario planning really that separated from corporate communications?

Then there’s the language problem. We all recognize the difference between short term exigencies and long term “unknown unknowns” as the study’s lead Jeremy Bentham, VP Business Environment and Head of Shell Scenarios, calls it, quoting Donald Rumsfeld.  It's the phrase he used when explaining the link between Baghdad and terrorist cells.

Is Shell suggesting that like Rumsfeld, its people are smart enough to get away with a lie of monstrous proportions?

As a recovering capitalist, I tend to be overly cynical, especially when it comes to corporations using socially responsible research as promotion. But here, there is a case to be made.

Shell’s scenarios promote natural gas to ease the transition from fossil fuels. Why? 48% of Shell’s current production is natural gas and the company is spending big to increase its dominance, especially in liquefied natural gas (LNG). In addition to owning the world’s largest gas-to-liquids production plant , the $18 billion Pearl GTL in Qatar, Shell is investing in other liquefied natural gas projects:

  • Last week, Shell announced it would build two plants, one in Louisiana and one in Ontario, to liquify natural gas for use in transport vehicles.
  • Using an undisclosed piece of its $1 billion+ R&D budget, Shell is developing  technology to mine huge deposits of oil shale in Colorado and Wyoming –  as Dan Denning of The Daily Reckoning reported, where “estimated U.S. oil shale reserves total an astonishing 1.5 trillion barrels of oil – or more than five times the stated reserves of Saudi Arabia.”

What Denning, a financial journalist, doesn’t say is what will happen when Shell and others release carbon emissions from another 1.5 trillion barrels of fossil fuel, even if it’s in the form of liquefied natural gas. Because once Shell figures out a way to mine that shale without violating EPA regulations, those reserves won’t sit untapped for much longer.

Shell’s scenarios do come with a caveat: results would be altered by “major geopolitical shifts.”  Ironically, the week after Shell published its scenarios, Yale University released its 2012 report of American attitudes towards climate change: the Alarmed cohort has grown from 10 percent of the American adult population in 2010 to 16 percent in 2012. At the same time, the percentage of those who dismiss climate change have decreased, from 16 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2012.

Does a critical mass of outraged citizens qualify as a “major geopolitical shift”? Think of the Vietnam War. Or Apartheid, a truly global protest. We may not be there yet, but as climate change impacts get worse, so will the outrage.

Photo is courtesy of Atli Harðarson


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on nearly 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 7,000 companies from 135 industries in 82 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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Environmental Information Agency CO2 Emissions Data Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 12, 2012 11:34:41 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last month, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) reported that for the first three months of 2012, CO2 emissions fell to about 1992 levels, primarily because coal companies switched to natural gas.

Another boost for natural gas? Certainly EIA’s press release spins it that way. It seems that if we just switch coal to natural gas, we’ll reduce the environmental problem without changing behavior at all.

The article claimed the extraordinary Q1 coal emissions drop of 18% over last year’s Q1 was due primarily to natural gas prices dropping to about half the price of coal. Utilities could justify switching from coal to natural gas much faster than anyone had thought possible.

[csrhubwidget company="Atlas-Energy-Inc" size="650x100"]

Click “Oil and Gas Extraction” in the CSRHub Sustainability Ratings widget above to see all the companies and their ratings in this industry.

But the numbers just didn’t feel right. And when I looked into what’s behind the EIA data, I got a muddled story.

First, was Q1 an average quarter? No, there were dramatic anomalies. Temperatures for the first quarter were not just higher than expected, they were 6% higher than the average of the past hundred years. The economy was weaker than the year before, with GDP growth rates about half that of first quarter 2011. And though not included in the EIA numbers, renewable energy sources grew 14% in 2011, offsetting another piece of fossil fuel demand.

Coal generation has declined dramatically, with production down from 50% of all energy sources in 2007 to 34% this March. And gas generation has taken up the slack, climbing to be almost one-third of electricity generation due to large shale deposits now coming on line.

But the change in generation is not born out in emissions figures. The EIA press release claims, “The decline in coal-related emissions is due mainly to utilities using less coal for electricity generation as they burned more low-priced natural gas.” But a lot of that natural gas went into filling storage facilities to near capacity, not to power plants.

Even if as the EPA claims natural gas emits only half of what comes out of coal plants, you’d still expect some bounce in natural gas emissions. But natural gas emissions actually fell by 3% in the first quarter.

We know that demand dropped for the reasons cited above. Coal plants stopped production because of regulatory threats combined with competition from natural gas’ unnaturally low prices. Many other coal plants switched to natural gas.

All that slowed in Q2, when natural gas prices from generators rose 70%. Energy companies believe this price rise is here to stay. As reported by CNN’s Money, natural gas production has all but stopped:

Last April about half of the nation's 1,800 or so drilling rigs were looking for oil while half were looking for gas, according to IA. By this May over twice as many were looking for oil, and EIA has reported recent natural gas production numbers slightly below levels seen at the end of last year.

Which just goes to show, you can’t make projections from a single quarter.

And natural gas might not be the environmentally clean fuel we think. Even if we set aside the issue of fracking, there’s still the issue of methane. Natural gas is almost entirely methane. Because of the enormous pressure that’s involved at every stage of getting natural gas to a power plant, leaks are greater than for other forms of fuel. But the EIA did not report methane at all, so we did not get a realistic comparison of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by source.

And methane produces even more pernicious GHG than CO2. According to a study released last year from Cornell University’s Robert Horwath, “Compared to coal, the (greenhouse gas) footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon.”

Of course, Horwath’s predictions have been challenged. Bill Chameides, Dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, lays out the arguments. But regardless of the seepage rate, methane will be released into the environment.

And the damage methane will do might not be reversible. To quote Chameides, “If fragile ecosystems like coral reefs are decimated by a decade or two of extra methane-induced warming, can we be sure that they will recover once the methane is flushed from the atmosphere? Probably not.”

Whichever way you look at the EIA data, it’s not the whole story. The 18% drop in coal emissions looks like a home run until you dig deeper. We may be closing coal plants, but the reduction in CO2 may be due more to what the EIA called secondary factors like weather and renewables than a switch to natural gas. In any case, methane emissions should be measured and reported side by side with CO2.

But am I splitting hairs here? Carbon emissions are dropping, and not just across power plants. Transportation and other petroleum uses dropped as well. All in all, Q1 2012 emissions fell an astonishing 8%. That’s more than can be accounted for by warmer weather. And that’s a trend in CO2 worth reporting.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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