We are a danish design company and not at all experts on the matter, but we realize we are in urgent need of action. Any act – however small it might be – is better than doing nothing. We have to have reached net zero CO2 emissions in 2050, with having halved them by 2030. To catalyze enough momentum to create meaningful action, we need to equip ourselves with a broad set of tools, from those that trigger immediate action to those that change our culture and even expand our morals. It seemed to us that we should start with the fundamental things – looking into how we can cut our own emissions and then explore how we can use our skills, tools and craft to create positive change. Hopefully this article will inspire you to find out what your role could be.
What all SMEs should be doing right now
Set emissions targets
Measure emissions and monitor progress
Support climate-smart politics
Develop a climate action plan
Share your climate journey
Some are just now realising what’s happening. Like really getting it. For some this has meant being engulfed by that urgent sense that, well, holy shit we have to do something. ‘It’ is of course the global climate crisis, a mess of epic proportions. Facing this catastrophe we decided to leave the sidelines and join the fight, not because we’re activists or exceptionally conscious. But because we felt we had a responsibility to do so.
Most people now know that the planet is getting hotter and that if we don’t act soon, the results will be quite dire, to say the least. But being in the business of design and communication we wondered why decades of information campaigns, news, IPCC reports and environmental activism hasn’t managed to stir up a reaction that matches the threat? One of the first things we encountered exploring this question was that the entire logic surrounding ways to get out of the climate crisis seems flawed. The repeated claims to reduce emissions in all kinds of projects didn’t match with the 2050 zero emissions deadline. Another obstacle could be that blame oftentimes fall on the economic system as a whole, as this grinds many discussions to a halt. Our experience is that it’s just really hard to talk about the climate crisis without getting ‘apocalypse fatigue,’ that drugery feeling that the situation is so bad that it’s not even worth bothering. We would like this to be replaced by a constructive sense of urgency. The question is how.
To set the stage for how to discuss what people in our industry can contribute with, we’re going to talk about how the climate crisis has been made to look like, and how this has to change.
The visuals associated with climate related messages often reproduce clichés, think of the photographs of polar bears and heavy plumes of smoke billowing out of smokestacks in places far away. Few people have a meaningful relationship to polar bears nor do most feel in control over coal fired energy production. The problem isn’t that images such as these don’t evoke the intended associations, the receivers do start thinking about the climate. The problem is that they don’t catalyze any meaningful action, they don’t help build new norms or cultures, but instead reproduce the ones we already have.
When communicating about the climate crisis it is essential to create mobilisation as the climate crisis is mostly ‘invisible’ for the layperson, and oftentimes doesn’t operate on time scales relevant to everyday life. But it’s really hard to get the message across. In an article titled Your brain on climate change, The Guardian writer Greg Harman discusses how lack of information isn’t the problem when it comes to getting the climate message across. Instead he suggests that we simply aren’t wired to react to threats that move in the pace of the climate crisis.
Where we're at
Lately we have been receiving some pretty gloomy status updates from the scientists, the prognosis is that we have even less time to stop the planet from getting warmer than was previously believed to be the case. The latest message is concisely summarised by the widely recycled quote “deeper and faster cuts are now required” from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report. This annually released publication is dedicated to identify where we are likely to end up if we continue doing what we are doing compared to where we should be going if we want to avoid total climate breakdown: the gap. Right now global emissions are rising by 1,5% every year, when they should be decreasing by 7,6%, leaving the gap ever widening. But more than being a self-proclaimed ‘’bleak’’ report, it does outline what needs to be done
We're the bad guys
When looking at the origins of the damned gases, a great asymmetry becomes apparent. Countries not among the G20 only emit a fifth of all CO2e emissions, so the cuts need to be made at the top. Unfortunately, few of the members in the small club of rich countries emitting four fifths of all carbon into the atmosphere are on track of reaching their pledged goals, goals which themselves are insufficient.
Designers and communicators are key
Your job is to affect people, use that to push for private and political change
Don't present ideas that are bad for the climate
Use your skills to influence your clients and partners operations
Only fly when absolutely necessary.
Realising the problem of bad climate visuals, a team of social scientists and communication specialists based in the UK created Climate Outreach, an organisation aiming to construct a new visual language for the climate crisis. To do this, they built what they have described as the “world’s only science-based climate-change photography resource,” a library of climate crisis related photographs meant to change the way we talk about it. One of Climate Outreach’s partners is The Guardian recently pledged to start reporting on the climate crisis with the gravity it deserves. This includes both a new visual language, but also a new, science based vocabulary. They suggest for example that we start using “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” instead of “climate change” and “global warming,” arguing that this is both scientifically precise and more clearly communicates the seriousness of the problem. Recently they also decided to no longer accept advertising from oil and gas companies. In Denmark two major newspapers, Politiken and Information, have dedicated pages with newsletters on the climate crisis, alongside for example Culture and Sports. At Urgent.Agency we are currently in the process of developing and refining our own visual communication about the climate crisis. This entails formulating guidelines and creating a new visual language to be used in communicating climate action.
Last year, the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion published an open letter calling on the creative industries to apply their skills towards getting us out of this mess. Directly addressing industry leaders and speaking to the sense that it’s hard to know where to start, it reads “you can do anything you want and you can shift mass behaviour in a heartbeat. One of the reasons we’ve got here is because you’ve been selling things to people that they don’t need.” This might still seem a bit abstract, but some things you could do are just common sense. Casey Rand of Droga5 made this point recently when she pleaded to the ad industry to clean up its act by writing “You don't need to build a life-size plastic sculpture of a sneaker. There's no need to send a rocket full of flaming cheese puffs to space. These ideas are literally killing people. Just don’t present them, OK?”. The point seems almost banal, but there is a fundamental principle to be found there: be mindful of the material results your ideas are going to have in the world. But furthermore, it points to the powerful role we have in helping our clients define how they act in the world. We will be using this power to create positive change by pushing the practices of our clients, partners and collaborators in the right direction.
An initiative that certainly should trigger those with a competitive spirit is the Creative Climate Disclosure, a document on which a signature translates to a pledge of disclosing the percentage of turnover from high carbon clients. Some have already done so. At Immediate Media, a growing number of staff are signing the open letter addressed to the organisation's CEO, Tom Bureau handed to him along with a copy of the Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. They ask of Bureau as leader of the organisation to “commit to stop taking advertising from oil and gas companies”. One of their key arguments for doing so speaks directly to a business rationale underpinned by quoting Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor who writes that “If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist.” Concluding this already quote-heavy paragraph we borrow the words of CEO of We First, Simon Mainwaring who writes that “Averting a humanitarian and planetary crisis is reason enough to act with urgency, but there is also a business case for doing so”.
We want to challenge our and everybody else’s sense of apocalypse fatigue, and we believe that the best way of doing do is just starting off small but with our aim sat at the stars. It’s not easy and it’s a process that won’t end in the foreseeable future, but we have to do it. At Urgent.Agency we have made a commitment to keep learning, adapting and start changing the way we conduct our business, we are going to apply what we’ve learned in the work we do and push our clients and partners to be bolder, to dare join us in building a new, forward looking culture. We are going to curiously expand our vocabulary and change our imagination. Join us.
It is not all doom and gloom
Our home country Denmark has, together with 65 other countries, in line with the recommendations of scientists, pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The small country aims to have successfully reduced its emissions by 70% when we enter 2030, making it the second most ambitious country in the world. One component of the county’s plan to reach these goals is the recently announced jaw dropping DKK 300 billion wind farm that will be able to supply the Danish population with clean energy, two times over. Stories like this can of course be really promising, but everyone has to be on board, not only governments.