I want to make it clear off the top that I have nothing but respect for the tireless work Al Gore has done to bring climate change into the public agenda in the United States and beyond. Through "An Inconvenient Truth" and numerous other efforts dating back almost 20 years, Gore has done more than any other individual I can think of in American public life to bring attention to the urgency of the climate crisis.
That said, when the news broke on Tuesday about his new initiative, the Climate Reality Project, I felt a reflexive sense of dread that transformed, as I read the fine details, into a sort of weary disappointment just short of anger. Here we go again and all that. What’s that famous aphorism about the definition of insanity? Something about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?*
There’s an excellent summary and analysis of Gore’s project over at the ever-insightful Climate Progress blog, and David Roberts at Grist has a pretty solid positive spin on the project’s prospects if that’s the angle you’d like to view it from. (In essence, Roberts hopes that Gore’s admirable persistence will eventually bring enough of the daily-more-troubling truth about climate science into the light of public consciousness that it will win out over indifference and denial.)
My heart’s totally with Roberts on this. I’d love to see the floodgates of public apathy finally burst, the inconvenient truth finally rushing through to wash climate denial into history’s dustbin alongside smoking-kills “inconclusiveness” and other agents of human misery. But the more I read the fine details of Gore’s plan, the more my gut’s winning the debate and the harder it is to see how this new plan intends to overcome the failures of 20 years of failed consciousness-raising advocacy.
In an exclusive interview with Climate Progress’ Joe Romm, Gore claimed he and his team had conducted an “extensive strategic review” that had produced a “new strategic focus.” Then in the next breath he claimed his new project would “bring energy and focus to the climate issue by reaffirming the reality of the climate crisis and the urgency of the climate crisis.” How’s that new? Unless I’ve been missing something, affirming the reality and urgency of the crisis has been the core focus of climate activism for as long as there’s been climate activism.
“We know the solutions require broad changes,” Gore continued, “and we know it’s a fight that won’t be won overnight. And the politics, the campaigns, the media cycle, will all ebb and flow on this issue. But the reality of the crisis marches on. If we keep focusing on that reality, it is only a matter of time before we reach a tipping point with the public, beyond which inaction is no longer an option.”
Sorry, Al. Godspeed and all, but this is not a strategy. This is an assertion – the same assertion that has fed the passionate advocacy of 350.org and Greenpeace banner unfurlings and your own inconvenient truthtelling. It is an assertion that has not only failed to eliminate the option of inaction but by many available metrics (opinion polls, global greenhouse gas emissions, the number of Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – all of them – who openly deny the science of climate change) has actually amplified the chorus of inaction.
Despite Katrina, despite heatwaves and drought and the annual recurrence of “100-year” floods, despite climate models predicting over and over that the US Southwest will be a permanent Dust Bowl within a decade, despite killer tornados and pine-beetle infestations, public opinion has steadfastly failed thus far to reach the tipping point you’re predicting. The tipping point in fact seems to be fading into the distance as another year passes without sufficiently castastrophic consequence (and clear enough cause and effect) to compel immediate action.
The notion that the next consciousness-raising event or the next headline-making catastrophe will breach the tipping point and turn the tide forever is, by any objective measure I can think of, a baseless assertion. In any case, it’s a terrible strategy – the same one that has failed repeatedly over almost a quarter century now to create any resolve whatsoever among the vast majority of the North American public about the need to put climate issues at the top of the agenda.
In pursuit of said tipping point, the Climate Reality Project proposes, to begin with, “24 Hours of Reality.” This will consist of a series of 24 livestreamed slideshows, one per time zone worldwide, with local content showing specific climate change impacts in that time zone. Forgive me if I can’t see immediately how this is substantively different from a mashup of Live Earth and An Inconvenient Truth with a local content patch and no backbeat. Forgive me if I fail to see how this might begin to address the established reality of the human response to climate change, which is that it is not predominantly reasonable or rational and connected only loosely to the scientific facts of the case.
People haven’t been responding to the facts? Well, give ‘em more! Lots more! Different sizes, local packaging! Eventually they’ll be so full of facts they’ll totter back and forth on a great distended gut of inconvenient truths like vox-pop Weeble-Wobbles! And then we can just push ‘em in the direction we want them to go!
So what do I suggest? Well, I’ve already written a bit in this space about the broad arsenal of cognitive biases arrayed against climate activism. I’ll continue to write on those themes. I’ll talk about cleantech and green jobs and the Second Industrial Revolution now passing much of North America by as we argue on, fruitlessly, about the finer points of climate science. I'll talk a lot about behavioral economics, a toolkit of enormous promise which continues, near as I can tell, to sit unused on Al Gore's shelf.
Folks don’t need to understand how satellite signals are transmitted to enjoy a TV show, and they probably don’t need to be clear about albedo effects and the carbon cycle to work at a solar panel installation firm. People don't need more vivid depictions of the grim reality of climate chaos; they need a future that looks like a place they want to strive to make real.
Here's an inconvenient truth for you: Most people aren’t persuaded by facts. They’re persuaded by emotion, by greed, by information (however dubious) conveyed along established lines of trust, by keeping-up-with-the-Jonesian efforts to conform to what people like them (or like they want to be) are doing. The news media is tilted away - irredeemably so, I'd wager - from any kind of re-embrace of its Cronkite-era role as guardian of the legitimate public interest. The primary opponent of climate action is the energy industry – the richest and most powerful industry on earth. It is, by almost any metric, better at the persuasion game than the activist crowd is. And the urgency of climate change thus compels us to find a strategy for broad action that is not dependent on first engendering widespread agreement on the facts of climate science and the necessity of action dictated by those facts alone.
I’d like to be pursuaded I’m wrong about this. I will gladly hop aboard any bandwagon that stomps my doubts flat as it rolls past, and I’ll bring my megaphone with me. Meantime, though, I find myself searching, still, for a climate stategy that looks like a real winner.
(* For the record, the origin of this oft-traded quote – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” – is not Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein or Chinese proverb, despite widespread citations to the contrary; the phrase actually comes to us from the American mystery novelist Rita Mae Brown.)
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