Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (aka, FUD) is a common sales technique in the tech industry. Made (in)famous by Microsoft’s tactics against open source in the early days of Unix, FUD is most often used to convince your prospect (or entire target audience) that your competitor has hidden issues that make it a poor choice. For instance, Microsoft used to claim that open source may be free, but unseen support costs will bury you over time – which can be true, but it is also true of any infrastructure technology – including Microsoft. In the startup world, FUD is usually delivered in conversational mode, where concepts like financial viability, executive turnover, and other common startup issues are brought up in a competitive situation in an attempt to undermine competitors.
The point of putting FUD into the market is so a target customer chooses your product over a competitor’s. The nature of FUD is that it is often not based on actual facts, it cherry-picks information to support that your competition is not up to the task. When FUD works, it’s usually because you’ve been able to choose the right information to create a hot-button issue in the client – even if no such issue existed before. But what often happens is that nobody wins – a customer becomes confused or wary of the entire product segment and simply switches off. This “customer apathy” and is the primary risk of using FUD tactics in the sales process. In the end, too much FUD can be bad for early markets.
Climate change is also an early market. While FUD is a well-known tactic in the tech business, it is now being used to undermine solid science in climate change. Several groups all over the world (but especially here in the US) are using this strategy to call into question the authority of experts. In fact, the word “expert” has acquired a negative connotation in some circles and people are becoming more distrustful of science. This is a dangerous trend because there is more at stake here than a simple purchasing decision, it’s an issue that affects our very future. To remove our trust from science without an appropriate place to put it is not a sound strategy.
At the risk of sounding opportunistic, this year should have been the year for the advancement of the climate change agenda. Extreme weather threatens Pakistan. Studies on climate refugees estimate over 50 Million people will be displaced by climate change by 2011, increasing to over a billion by 2020. And still, in America, climate change denial is on the increase in the GOP. Climate FUD is at an all-time high against climate change, but it’s not clear what the other “competitive option” is.
The problem is that we haven’t put our trust elsewhere, we have simply switched off. A recent article in Fast Company really illuminated me to a fact that I have suspected for some time. The survey suggests that no matter what happens, climate change skeptics will simply not change their minds, regardless of the consequences. Is sounds a bit alarmist, but the survey the magazine commissioned outlines a study that offered climate change skeptics different scenarios like “if the polar ice cap melted, would you then believe in global warming?” (15% said yes), or if the people of Samoa had to relocate because their island sunk below a rising ocean (0.06% said yes), or –and this is an actual question – if your kids could no longer go outside, would you then believe in climate change? A whopping 15% said they would then change their minds. Let’s be clear: 85% of the respondents said they wouldn’t change their minds about climate change if their kids had to remain inside for the rest of their lives.
That’s the one that got me. If the climate has become so bad that a climate skeptic’s kids can’t go outside and they will still not believe in global warming, then we simply aren’t dealing on a level playing field. This made me realize that we now at an impasse and are not talking on the same level. We need to change our tactic because the Climate FUD approach employed in the US has led to “customer apathy”, where nothing you can say or do will get them interested, even an issue that impacts them at a very personal level.
Put in this context, what looks like sheer insanity looks more like a basic FUD strategy gone wrong, a common occurrence in the business sector. So, how to you combat Climate FUD?
Our first reaction is to fight FUD with FUD, but this is always the wrong approach and only hastens apathy in our target base (e.g., the American population). Think FOX News vs MSNBC. I can only listen to Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann so much before I simply start to tune out, regardless of where my political leanings may lie. Fighting FUD with FUD simply doesn’t work, but it does tend to whip up the outliers at first. I believe the climate change debate is past this point with opinions firmly set on either side.
Another common approach to combat Climate FUD is to make it personal. Show people how climate change will affect their lives – how climate change could, say, prevent their kids from going outside. But as the survey above illustrates, even this tactic is failing in the fight against climate change denial.
Another, more realistic way is to show a clear ROI in climate change. This was the underlying concept in one of my startups, Carbonetworks, where companies could actually see the money they could save (or make) by reducing their impact on the environment. Environmental issues simply become another financial asset to manage for the corporation. The problem with this approach is that it only works for corporations, not for the average individual. Of course, we as individuals are motivated my more than just financial returns.
The best way to fight Climate FUD is to expose it for what it is – an attempt to undermine a sound strategy by using out-of-context, cherry-picked information, recast in a light to distort the facts. These are the facts of countless scientific papers, expert opinion, and the prevailing consensus around the world. Most people I meet in the US are surprised to hear that there is little serious climate debate in the rest of the world, and global warming is widely accepted as a critical global issue. Though a conversation on climate is international, hardcore skepticism is a particularly American phenomenon. It’s not that Americans are different, it’s just that we are the last to the climate change party, and we have domestic interests that simply don’t want us to join in.
It’s important to emphasize that Climate FUD is primarily a position of weakness rather than strength. Groups of people may tend to act irrationally, but individuals are intelligent, and they don’t appreciate being played. We need to work to focus on Climate FUD and ignore the climate skeptics. It can be difficult – the are certainly the vocal minority. Let’s stop wasting our time and resources trying to turn skeptics, and focus on undermining the strategy that drives them. That’s the real – and only – way to fight the Climate FUD that is paralyzing climate progress in America.
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.