Having ‘failed colossally’ to communicate Climate Change properly, is it time to disband Defra?

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a very large agenda to address and no surprise it’s under constant criticism for failing to deliver or for upsetting the wrong people.

The big question is, is it really qualified and experienced enough to manage complex communication and advertising campaigns? It seems not.


One of the problems is that it’s trying to do too much, and like most government departments, bogged down in politics and bureaucracy.


Environmentalism, food, fishing, pets, farming, etc – it’s simply too big a list for one department to manage effectively and maybe it should be broken up into more focused departments.

But the latest attack on Defra is its failure to make us aware of climate change. In fact the phrase “colossal failure” has been used by Bob Ward policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (which brings together international expertise in the field of climate change economics and policy).

This year has seen some of the highest average temperatures in the UK’s history, 1.1C higher than expected, Christmas day was more like spring even if the temperature plummeted the next day.

10 of the hottest years in UK since 1910 (when National records began) have occurred since 2002. We’ve also had an increase in rainfall, 2014 was the 4th wettest since 1910, even though September was the driest on record, five of the six rainiest years have occurred since 2000. The result of global warming? Many believe so.

Spain has also seen some usual winter temperatures too, central Spain would usually be about 5 degrees at this time of year but has seen temperatures reach 18 degrees in the last week.

This is clear evidence of the impact of man-made climate change on the UK, according to Grantham. The latest assessment by the independent Committee on Climate Change shows that the UK public is largely unaware of how climate change is affecting their exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events. In short, they may know of climate change as a concept but aren’t connecting the dots.

Ward’s comments are damming, “The lack of awareness of the UK public of how climate change is affecting them represents a colossal failure by the Government and it’s agencies…” He added, “…in particular The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has utterly failed to invest enough resource in communications about climate change…”

Defra is the key agency entasked with educating the general public about environment and Climate Change, and I have to say as an ethical advertising commentator, I agree with Bob Ward.

I can’t say I can recall any impactful or dynamic advertising. I’m sure they have an active PR and social media strategy (Tweeting out about it all to a non listening public) but changing perception and behaviour requires big thinking and big media (TV and outdoor). In fact, outdoor would be the single most relevant medium for a Climate Change campaign. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work that one out.

Back in 2006 Campaign reported that Defra had decided not to spend  £12m of tax payers money on an ad campaign to tackle attitudes towards climate change.

In a deliberate break with usual government practice, the government rejected calls from some environmental groups and MPs for a major government ad campaign to tell people how they can help to save the planet by changing their behaviour.

Defra attempted to launch a “grassroots” effort to spread the message through local organisations (which included the Scouts , the WI and Bolsover Drama Group), campaign groups and businesses.

According to a home made video, funded by Defra, the Bolsover Drama Group discovered only 20% of people actually knew what Climate Change was really about, though over 90% thought they did. 30% actually knew about carbon emissions. Only 10% knew what a carbon footprint was.

Though the video is cute, being presented by kids, as an advertising vehicle it’s too long (14 mins), unprofessional and doesn’t persuade. A brilliant example of why you need professionals to do the job properly.

At the time Defra claimed they had research that suggested that press and poster campaigns would have only a short-term impact on people’s attitudes and behaviour. Who was telling them that? Certainly no one who knows anything about advertising. I gather they were not consulting a proper advertising agency but one that specialised in environmental communications. Big mistake!


The campaign they came up with limp at best, “Tomorrow’s climate, Today’s challenge“.  A turkey of a line if there ever was one, no wonder it fell on deaf ears and has obviously failed.

Which questions the judgement of those running the marketing department of Defra at the time and since. Like politicians, surely someone should do the honourable thing and resign?

Which now raises the bigger question, should Defra surrender the task to another agency or maybe an independent charity or environmental group to run a proper ad campaign to change minds and behaviour? Certainly a brief I’d love to do, as would most ad agencies I’m sure.

Charities and cause related groups can be much braver and more focussed. By all accounts, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment could probably do a better job with £12m, at least they are focussed.

My own experience of working with government departments (especially the COI) is they are ineffective because of the politics and bureaucracy and worse, lack of any courage to take risks and do what needs to be said and done. They are also too easy swayed by those with influence who may have other agendas.

I recall a Christmas campaign I worked on for Meningitis that the government scrapped at the last minute in case it upset doctors. What about the parents of the kids that died that Christmas that may have been saved?

As a friend of mine who once worked in COI said after I criticised the Think Bike campaign for being all on TV and not on outdoor (where motorists are),  “we are not in the business of changing consumer behaviour, just making politicians look like they are.” They did add, “don’t quote me.”

With an election coming in May I doubt the current government will do anything now, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens next. Maybe, like the COI, Defra will be disbanded. Either way, there needs to be a serious examination of its marketing activities and where it’s getting its advice from.



LSE statement:




Campaign Magazine – Defra opts for ad-free drive on climate change


Bolsover Drama Group video



    I agree, this is a critical issue, so what a waste of public money! Surely those responsible should be called to account. Is their marketing department run by experts or civil servants playing at marketing? They certainly got bad advice. What agencies have they used? If anyone else wasted £12m (and I bet there was more than that) they’d be called up in front of a Parliament select committee.

  • Darian Watts

    Over 9 years and they have failed to do their job. Wish I got paid well for failure. 2015, I say out with old, in with the new!


    I agree with you too Darian.

  • Chris Arnold

    I was one of the few voices in the ad industry who called fro the break up of the COI. Ed Miliband asked me what I thought about the COI and I wasn’t polite. I think Defra has done some great things but advertising is not one of their strengths. Certainly with so much public money not well spent there should be an inquiry. It’s our money after all.

  • Darian Watts

    The trouble with gov dpts is they will get away with it. The marketing boss will get a large salary and even a bonus, despite failing because they’ll spin figures to make it look successful and if they did fire him he’d get a big payoff. More of our public money being wasted !


    Defra aren’t the only ones wasting communication budgets, I can think of several well known brands I’ve worked on run by fools with no idea, in charge of £millions.

  • Chris Arnold

    Sarah, I think progressively there are less expert people running the marketing budgets, procurement being one. Thankfully, John Lewis is the bright star of the industry – brave, understands advertising and delivers a impressive ROI.