The WWF is one of the world's largest conservation non-profits. It is hardly an environmental extremist group - it works closely with national governments and its President Emeritus is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh - but it is also a complex bureaucracy with a governance structure that includes both "autonomous" offices that can operate independently and a handful of associate offices that cannot. This decentralized policy has allowed the autonomous offices in more than 40 countries to be more responsive to local conditions and adapt their programs to meet conservation challenges on the ground. It also leaves the organization vulnerable to exposure when one of these offices does something ill advised and it explodes on the Internet.
Such appears to have been the case with WWF-Brazil, which late in 2008 contracted with a local agency for a campaign to highlight the threats to human health and welfare of extreme climactic events like the Asian Tsunami. The result was a proposed ad which features the skyline of lower Manhattan in black and white - complete with its lost Twin Towers - and scores of descending aircraft, apparently meant to underscore the equivalent in passenger planes piloted by terrorists of the deaths caused by the Tsunami . The ad was either rejected or pulled after an extremely limited run - it is still early days in this Perfect Storm - but the image made its way to the Internet, as so many things inevitably do today which one thinks are dead and buried, and has gone viral.
This is a nightmare for WWF, and will almost certainly result in a loss of donor revenue, and a more centralized governance structure. The organization is still playing crisis management catch up, as its Website currently contains its 9/1 press release condemning the ad as unauthorized, a position they have been compelled to back away from today according to an article in The Guardian, with a joint statement by WWF-Brazil and the ad agency that :
"It was created and approved in late 2008, mistakenly, and was solely the result of lack of experience on the part of a few professionals from both parties involved"
This public relations disaster has many dimensions, but I'd like to focus on a couple in particular. The first is its target audience. The premise of the ad is horribly offensive to the governments, donors, and policy makers of the developed world, and especially the United States which consumes 25% of the Earth's resources and which the developing world hopes will help subsidize the costs of reducing their own carbon emissions. You can be sure that no US based ad campaign by the WWF would have blundered so badly.
In Brazil, though, and in much of the developing world, the impacts of a warmer climate are likely to be severe and there is resentment that so many resources have been put into the response to the terror attacks of 9/11 while comparatively little progress is made on reducing the death toll from things like preventable diseases in their countries. In this context, 3,000 deaths from a single event in the United States are contrasted with 2 million annual deaths of children from malaria. Rather than environmental extremism, the ad is a reflection of that mentality. There is nothing about the ad, however, that appeals to those of us in the developed world to shift our priorities and perhaps even accept changes in our lifestyle to increase resources to the developing world to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, let alone offset the cost of adapting their economies to reduce emissions.
The premise that the Asian Tsunami was a harbinger of more extreme climate events in the future is controversial. While a preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the overall climate is warming, the degree to which this is due to human activity is less certain than the link between species extinction and the activities of our own species. Had the WWF put the emphasis on habitat destruction and biodiversity, they would have been on much stronger ground. And all the marketing research of the major environmental organizations tells us that this would be a failed message, because biodiversity conservation is not compelling enough for human beings to open their wallets or change their behavior. It has to matter to us directly, we are told, so we have put people back into the equation when we pitch saving the environment. The next time you open a copy of The Nature Conservancy's magazine, take a closer look at the number of conserved places it illustrates by integrating people into the image.
Climate change messaging is therefore all about the survival of our species: about saving the natural systems that sustain life on Earth, certainly, but most especially our own lives and those of our children and grandchildren. A world without polar bears may compel some of us to act on their behalf, but a world where climate change is now a threat to our national security is another kind of argument for another constituency altogether. That constituency universally recoils at this type of ad.
Climate change is a highly complex issue. The policy implications and environmental consequences of our action or inaction are both vast and laden with uncertainty. An ad is by its very nature a distillation of complexity into something simple and memorable. The most memorable thing about this misbegotten ad is that WWF was associated with it, for there is the iconic Panda logo in the upper right hand corner. As WWF and the ad agency now admit, "it should never have been made", but what lies behind its making and what it means going forward will require the organization and environmentalists as a whole to take a hard look at how we work and communicate effectively.