What See Through News learned from our two weeks attending COP26 in Scotland November 1-14 2021
See Through News was in Scotland throughout COP26 in Glasgow Nov 1-14. We spend most of our time parked in our rented mobile home in a Salvation Army car park around 200m away from the nearest police checkpoint.
If we weren’t talking with the world’s most active climate activists, we were talking to local residents of Anderston, the gradually-gentrifying working-class area that was our temporary home
We’ll get there in the end, but we need to start this COP26 story at the beginning…
The Drawdown Story
At See Through News, Carbon Drawdown is our burden in more ways than one.
- It’s the key to mitigating the worst effects of fossil fuel extraction on human civilization.
- Hardly anyone’s heard of it.
In many ways, the See Through News mission is to do Project Drawdown’s PR and Comms work for their Table of Solutions.
To re-cap. In 2016 hundreds of engineers, researchers and scientists meticulously categorised, calculated, then ranked, everything with the greatest potential to reduce carbon. They’ve tended it ever since, updating, refining, recalculating, footnoting and citing.
Ultra-pragmatic, Project Drawdown’s boffins only consider current, proven technology. Their sole focus is the number of carbon molecules that would
- be prevented from entering Earth’s atmosphere
- removed from it.
Project Drawdown scientists come from a wide variety of disciplines, united only by their expertise and commitment to what they decided to call ‘carbon drawdown’, borrowing an economic term..
In short, they’re world experts, telling the most important story we’ll ever need to hear.
Expert scientists, and rubbish storytellers.
The Drawdown Dilemma
It’s easy to imagine why Project Drawdown’s experts find their results so hard to communicate. What more proof does a scientist need than unblinking, cold hard facts?
But facts are clearly not the problem. If they were, we would have averted this mess decades ago.
Humans are complex, emotional, nuanced, context-driven storytellers. So, in order to understand the importance and urgency of the Table of Solutions facts, See Through News is using complex, emotional, nuanced, context-driven storytelling.
The problem is that Global Heating and the Greenhouse Effect is not a simple story. It’s not even a good name for a band.
Its global scale, generations-spanning time frame, and often unintuitive consequences all conflict with our evolved ‘common sense’. Its conflicts and tradeoffs don’t fall into familiar pigeonholes.
Our main shared reference points are disaster movies, but they hinder as much as help.
Hollywood is good at explaining the problem, but too impatient to get into the weeds when it comes to the solutions. In the movies, there’s usually a single solution – a nuclear warhead, a microbe, some computer code, or some other whizzbottery-flavoured McGuffin. Everything usually ends up fine in the end, so long as we pay attention to Jeff Goldblum.
No wonder we have problems processing it all, and prefer conspiracy theories, or looking away.
Carbon Drawdown is not a simple story to start with – more War & Peace than Little Red Riding Hood. But that’s just the start of our challenge.
The Drawdown Challenge
Most of us are familiar with, say, the genre of science fiction, but that doesn’t mean we’ve all read, or even heard of, any particular science fiction book.
By now, most of us have at least heard of Global Heating and the Greenhouse Effect. Almost no one has heard of Carbon Drawdown.
Even those familiar with the broad outlines of the story are starting from different pages.
A few are halfway through the book, and just need to know the denouement. For this minority, it’s fine to start the storytelling with the woodsman straddling the slain wolf as Red Riding Hood embraces her grandmother in bed. This is what XR, Greenpeace or Friends of The Earth do.
For the vast majority of people who are no more than vaguely aware of the title, we need to start on Page 1, with Little Red Riding Hood trotting through woods and the wolf’s eyes gleaming through the undergrowth.
Not only do we need to start the story at different points for different people, we also need to tell it well.
Storyteller’s Nirvana is WHN – getting your audience to beg you to tell them What Happens Next.
Being asked to tell, is way better than simply telling. You know you have their attention, and their question helps shape your answer. All storytellers know this: primary school teachers, journalists, politicians, salesmen, scholars, scammers…
The more engaging our story, the more people will want to know What Happens Next. It’s not true that ‘no one likes being lectured’, but it is true that few of us like being lectured without having first asked the question.
There’s good lecturing and bad lecturing. The less we finger-point and try to score points, the more likely our audience is to join the dots on their own.
There was a lot of lecturing going on at COP26. Any teacher knows the most effective lessons are those you work out for yourself.
See Through News Storytelling
Now you have the principles that underlie the See Through News storytelling methodology, here are some specific examples.
The first four words of our Goal – Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown – describe the story we’re trying to tell, in all its geeky Project Drawdown detail.
The final six words – by Helping the Inactive Become Active – are the way we tell it.
Our Goal is to facilitate the journey from climate Inactivism or Ineffective Activism, to Effective Activism.
To facilitate, not propel, impel, urge, force, or push. We don’t shove people through doors, or even open doors for them. We seek to get people to look for a door, and want to push it open themselves.
Imagine you’re in a pub with a friend. During a lull in your conversation, you both become aware someone at the bar is telling a story.
It’s a really great story. A mutual glance, and you both turn your chairs to face the bar, and start listening. Others so th same, until the entire pub is completely absorbed in this fantastic tale.
The story reaches its climax, and the storyteller stops.
‘What Happens Next?’, you chorus with the rest of the pub.
‘I don’t know’, replies the storyteller, ‘but at the pub up the road there’s someone who does’.
You and your friend now join the rest of the pub as it empties, pushing open the pub door as you all stream up the street, vying to be the first to open the doors of the pub up to road, to hear What Happens Next.
Carbon Drawdown storytelling is never this dramatic, but more incremental; attention diverted from a table here, a couple more friends being beckoned over to listen to this, a promise made to try the other pub, sometimes followed through.
We all absorb information differently, so even when telling the same story we need to find different ways to tell it. Here are some we’ve come up with so far:
- Socratic dialogue in the style of Flann O’Brien in our website FAQs
- In this video we use an inflatable globe, a bathtub, and some off-balancing jazz.
- A real-world fun activity
- Online video game.
- We’re putting on concerts in secret locations
- Free teaching resources
- Cutting-edge open-source AI projects
- Public media literacy projects for TV
- The same for print.
The phrase ‘carbon drawdown’ isn’t always front and centre, but it forms the foundation of everything we do. That’s why it makes up 20% of our 10-word Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
See Through News has set itself a complex, nuanced, multi-faceted task. What we do can’t be expressed in a sound bite, is hard to measure, and takes many different forms. This complexity may well be the reason no one else, so far as we are aware, has tried it.
We don’t make this claim lightly. That’s what we wanted to test in Glasgow at COP26.
Our COP 26 Lessons
Over two weeks doing our thing in Glasgow during COP26, we did our indirect thing.
We didn’t hand out flyers for See Through News, or lobby news organisations to interview us. We just conducted the 60” Challenge, the Superhero Drawing Competition and the Concert in the Key of C with anyone we met – local Glaswegians or the world’s most active climate activists.
All of our projects were attractive and engaging. Queues would form.
We started with two volunteers, and ended up with dozens.
We met hundreds of the world’s most active climate activists, who were everywhere in Glasgow during COP26.
Many of them were curious about See Through News, and started asking who we were, what we did, What Happens Next.
None of them had heard of a similar project.
Some could think of single actions or campaigns that had taken a similar approach, none had heard of a project as systematic, comprehensive and ambitious as See Through News.
They all, however, understood its appeal and power, reflected on how they could adapt their own messaging in similar ways, and offered their support.
So that’s what we took away from COP26.
Effective Climate Activism without even a shoestring
Climate activists generally spend a lot of time on funding: applying for it, waiting for decisions, justifying spend, applying for more.
What, we wondered, is possible without money?
See Through News planned its COP26 soft launch with a handful of volunteers and no budget beyond a couple of thousand quid the founder stumped up to cover all transport, accommodation, publicity and swag costs for two weeks.
The headlines were alarming, filled with horror stories about fully-booked hotels jacking up their prices, gouging attendees to pay exorbitant sums for crappy rooms in distant towns.
Not so alarming if you’ve experienced similar news cycles play themselves out at many global events, on tight news budgets. We knew there’d be creative, low-cost solutions if you knew where to look.
In a previous incarnation as CNN Beijing Bureau Producer in the late 90s, STN Founder Robert Stern was local producer for the first China visit by a sitting US President, Bill Clinton. Budget wasn’t a big issue for presidential visits, but committing journalism in China teaches you money is not always the answer.
See Through News sidestepped all the Glasgow logistical problems by hiring a mobile home, at a knock-down off-season rate.
Supporters were still alarmed when we announced our intention to park our 6-berth See Through News ‘Mother Ship’ in the middle of Glasgow during the city’s biggest-ever security operation. It was nice that they were worried, but it also showed how little understanding most people have of what a TV producer actually does.
Some off-the-record intelligence from a Strathclyde police source, followed by an early-morning reccie on a borrowed bike, and within two hours of COP26 opening, See Through News had negotiated a cracking parking spot for the entire two weeks.
It was at a major COP26 satellite venue, a Salvation Army centre hired by a Scottish sustainable farming group, just out of sight of the nearest police cordon. Half the passers by were residents of this working-class residential area, the other half were the world’s most active climate activists, attending talks and meetings. Perfect.
For the next two weeks, this parking spot served as our production base, accommodation and advertising hoarding. Cost: £0.00 including VAT, plus a bit of mutual back-scratching.
We tell you this not (just) to swank about See Through News’s trickster street smarts, but to illustrate a critical feature that distinguishes STN from most other climate activist groups: zero budget.
The downside of money
Money is power, but if you have a plan and a goal people believe in, no-money can also be pretty powerful. This is our cautionary tale for Effective Altruism, as it’s showered with Silicon Valley money.
Funding makes some things easy, but always comes at a price. Absence of money doesn’t necessarily mean things are impossible, only that they might require different solutions.
Money lubricates, but is also sludge. It can accelerate, but it also acts as a brake. Acquiring money takes time, and diverts energy. It always comes with a price tag. Attached strings require compromising your original goals, and spending yet more time – and money – documenting how it was spent.
So it was that, at the cost of less than a two-week family holiday, See Through News beta-tested its two projects at COP26 from the Mother Ship.
Behind the Mother Ship, was a wire fence separating us from the playground of a neighbouring primary school. That’s were we set up our Superhero & Supervillain Drawing Competition.
Every day, on the way to school, and on the way home, we’d make popcorn for the children, and their parents, refugees from around the world, as they queued up to draw our superheroes and supervillains.
We didn’t really need the popcorn, but the parents in particular appreciated it. You see, as their children, tongues sticking out, frowning with concentration, drew their pictures, we’d chat to their mums and dads. Before long, they’d ask what we were up to, and we’d answer by telling them all the stuff we hadn’t printed on a flyer. AIDA in action.
Between school drop-off and pick up, we’d deploy our other project, The Think Game, which was how, 10 months later, we ended up in Germany. This time Effective Altruism was paying our expenses, as we were invited to speak on Effective Climate Activism.