A new study illustrates the impact that the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary had on attitudes to environmental issues, nudging around half of people in the UK to reduce plastics waste, and changing the minds of just under a third. But the findings point to a larger problem of climate communication, and why it struggles to make an impact, and why this was the exception.

The study is a slightly weird mash-up of a major issue with a product: climate change and the television. According to Samsung, which ran the research, 49% of an undefined number of viewers have started reducing their plastics use as a result of Blue Planet, a TV series narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Samsung’s conclusion suggests this was a triumph of QLED TVs; the more compelling reading is that this was a triumph of climate communication.

It’s not the first study to highlight this effect. Since the broadcast of the final episode of the series – the fourth most popular of all time – which focused on the threat to the earth’s oceans from plastic pollution, there has been an uptick in people volunteering to clean beaches. According to BBC Science Focus Magazine, in 2018, The Great British Beach Clean reported a 16% decrease in the number of plastics collected per 100 metres of shoreline. Blue Planet II aired in October of 2017.

So what does this tell us? First, it shows how a colossal, global problem needs to be broken down issue-by-issue in order for people to understand it. Second, and most importantly, it identified a simple problem: plastic. Implicit in this was a solution: use less of it.

One similar example of effective communication was the issue around the hole in the ozone layer in the 1970s and 80s. The idea was able to capture people’s attention with a simple premise: there’s a hole in the atmosphere’s protective layer – without it, there’s a heightened risk of skin cancer from the sun’s radiation. The problem was easy to imagine, and a solution was close at hand: cutting out the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosols meant people felt like they could contribute.  

Why climate communications go wrong: Ineffective climate communication is not a new phenomenon. In Losing Earth: A Recent History, which appeared as a book-length essay in the New York Times Magazine, the writer Nathaniel Rich illustrated the drama of the scientists and civil servants who discovered the causal relationship of fossil fuel burning and climate change, how they tried to tell the public about it and how that effort failed. This is a problem that has been building over decades, and as a non-linear problem it is accelerating.

Though fascinating to read and illuminating, it’s emblematic of climate change’s comms problem: it’s a sweeping, multi-decade issue that requires people to engage with big problems and come up with solutions. People need help if they are going to enact them. There are also significant political interests in the way – though this is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Such hugeness renders action extremely difficult. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, explored some of the main barriers to motivation that stop people doing anything about climate change.

We can't see it:
Unlike the CFCs, which could be visualised as the fumes from hairspray, for instance, greenhouse gasses are invisible. If CO2 were black, the problem would have been solved a long time ago.

Distance: Markman explains how people’s psychological distance from the effects of climate change (be that in terms of time, space, or society) allows them to think abstractly when the problem is happening to others in faraway lands. Blue Planet’s genius was to bring the problem to the oceans and beaches that surround the United Kingdom.

The long and the short of it: The idea of temporal discounting – that we overvalue short-term benefits compared to long-term benefits – is well known to the advertising industry. It is also the reason that companies continue to burn fossil fuels, despite their actual cost-effectiveness in the long run. Blue Planet made the problem about the here and now.

Sourced from Samsung, YouGov, BBC Science Focus, NYT, Harvard Business Review