Creativity can help us demand clean air, says founder of creative industry alliance COPI Humphrey Milles on Climate Curious by TEDxLondon.

The big idea 

Have you ever thought that the only people who could really fight climate change were scientists, engineers and activists? You know, the ones inventing carbon capturing technology, coming up with the next renewable energy source or glueing themselves to oil refineries. 

Those people are crucial, of course. But what if we told you that one of the things the climate conversation needs most of all is… creativity? 

So if you’re a writer, a poet, a film-maker, or you enjoy the occasional bit of crochet, there is space (and need!) for you in the climate movement and this episode is for you. 

Photo: Humphrey Milles live on stage at Climate Curious Live at The Conduit in London, 2022.

COPI: The Alliance Bringing Creativity to Climate Change

Remember the ads that showed kids inhaling their parents’ second-hand cigarette smoke? Or the ‘Kill Your Speed’ road safety campaign? 

Those public awareness campaigns came from the government’s Central Office of Information. The concept was simple: something bad is happening and we should probably do something about it. Sound familiar?

But in 2011, the COI was defunded and shut down. 

So Humphrey Milles set up the Central Office of Public Information, a creative industry alliance that runs the public awareness campaigns that the government should be running, but aren’t. 

It’s a group of creative industry professionals who usually work on ads for big brands that help them sell more stuff. But here they’re using their creative persuasive dark arts to help people and planet. 

We are creatives, producers, film-makers, academics, researchers, scientists, actors, directors & musicians. People who care about what’s going on in the world around us.

Humphrey Milles

Bringing Air Pollution to People’s Doorsteps

Their first campaign, Humphrey explains, launched in 2019 communicated air pollution, creatively. was a website that gave every Greater London resident the ability to check air pollution levels at their doorstep with a click. Try it now and find out yours

Think of it this way. You might start to nod off reading through a 2,000 page report about particle measurement and how harmful NOx gases are to lungs…

But what about if we showed you a picture of your home and by how much air pollution levels exceed safe limits right there? You might sit up and pay attention, right?

That’s exactly what the campaign did. And it made front page news, twice, was featured in more than 230 pieces of national and international press, TV and radio and has changed the property sector for good by making it a legal requirement for estate agents and landlords to disclose a property’s air pollution levels.

What we tried to do is simplify it and just give it to people in a way that they could understand and also in a way that’s going to make people pay attention. And we decided to use the property sector for that, because when you start talking about the property market, suddenly people who wouldn’t necessarily care about environmental issues go “Oh.” 

Humphrey Milles

Of all the climate problems, why air pollution?

First of all, it’s a whopper of a problem. 

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. That’s up to 100 people every day. Find out more about that by listening to our episode with Destiny Boka Batesa, the founder of Choked Up.

Air pollution is just shocking on so many levels. That’s the motivation behind why I had to do this. It was like one of those things, the more you read, and the more you understand about air pollution, and the absolute mountains of evidence of what it is doing to all of our health, but worse, to the most vulnerable people like kids, the elderly, the marginalised groups in society, you actually become furious about it.

Humphrey Milles

Secondly and intertwined with the first is that it’s affecting us right now.

One of the pieces of film that spun out of COPI’s air pollution campaign is a rather harrowing game of eye spy.

And thirdly, because “air pollution is not  insurmountable.”  An engine idling ban, for example, would bring down air pollution levels significantly in urban areas. 

How to use your creative skillset to fight climate change

Public awareness by its very nature drives political change.

Humphrey Milles

It all starts with public awareness. If you want to change something on a big, national scale, you have to get the public on side. If you want to change the law, start with public opinion. 

Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.

Abraham Lincoln

According to Milles, the first thing you do is use the newspapers to lobby the hell out of people to get them on your side. “It’s a gradual thing but I’m a firm believer that when people start understanding that a problem exists, people want to generally do something about it.”

And what more effective way is there to change public opinion than with creativity? It’s actually proven that creative messages get more attention, are longer lasting and work with less media spend. 

It works for big brands’ bottoms lines so why wouldn’t it do the same for climate change?

 Until next time – stay curious!

In this conversation, co-hosted by Ben Hurst and Maryam Pasha live from The Conduit in London, the founder of COPI Humphrey Milles shares how creative people can unite to drive climate action, why air pollution is a good entry point issue for climate newbies (hint: it’s a health issue), and although London’s toxic air is off the charts, it’s not an insurmountable challenge (yay!).

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