Media Mayhem: The climate's right for hope
As the Senate takes up the climate bill (maybe), activists need to point Americans away from lies and despair, toward inspiration and opportunity.
Mon, Oct 05, 2009 at 03:40 AM
Photo: Laura Padgett/Flickr
You’re leading a group of plane crash survivors across the Andes Mountains. You know that civilization lies in the direction of the setting sun. But discord and delusion begin to spread among your cohorts.
“Let’s just stay put,” the weak-minded tell the others. First, they whisper. Then, as their negativity takes hold, they get bolder. “She’s only trying to get us to go over that next ridge because she wants to kill us.” What do you tell the group?
1) That’s a lie! These people are fanatics. Don’t listen.
2) If we stay here, we die. Do you want to be responsible for killing us?
3) Look, everyone gather ’round. Now, let me explain to all of you the trajectory of the sun during this particular season in the equatorial regions of Earth, and why I believe that odds are we’re headed toward the roads that I saw while studying the landscape out of the plane’s window and calibrating those roads onto the topographical map I had before we crashed. I believe those roads may be over that ridge, although there’s a small chance that they’re over the next ridge, and a yet smaller chance that they’re in an entirely different direction. But all probabilities point to the likelihood that this is the correct direction.
4) Just over that ridge are your loved ones! You know that is true. They are there right now, searching for us. Don’t give up! Don’t lose faith! It will be a difficult trek. But we are in this together: It will be the defining moment of our lives. The sooner we move, the closer we are to salvation -- to a clean bath, hot food and the warm embrace of our families. Let’s go now!
As a key Senate committee finally turns -- maybe, if it’s not too difficult -- to the climate change debate, the real question is whether the American people will demand action. And the tactical challenge for those trying to convince us to demand action will be to overcome a sophisticated, powerful campaign of denial.
My impulsive response to the deniers is moral outrage. Like Charlton Heston coming off Mount Sinai, I want to expose them for what they are. I want to throw the book at them.
And there’s a lot of exposing to do -- from the rich conflicts of interest among groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute to the endless stream of lies on Fox News and talk radio. Most of those folks are, like the Eugene Robinson character in The Ten Commandments, just chasing after gold.
There are two problems with moral outrage, however. The first is that nobody likes to be scolded.
The second is that discord is exactly what the marketing geniuses down at Dr. Evil’s headquarters want us to engage in. It’s an old propaganda tactic: Get everyone lost in a maze of accusations and counterattacks; make climate change seem “controversial” and “disputed,” rather than as real as rising sea levels and dying polar bears. As long as we’re in that maze, motivating everyone to act together will be nearly impossible.
Then, there’s answer No. 2: The heavy approach. Our way of life will perish if we stay here.
There’s some truth to that warning. If anything, recent climate studies have pointed to things getting worse more quickly than anticipated. And the prospect of climate change setting off a chaotic cascade of unforeseeable calamities is particularly scary.
There’s also a lot of art to be found in angst. One of the most powerful -- and creepiest -- climate change ads I’ve seen is this animated story produced by the French group Quercus.
The reality check reminds us what the stakes are. But is Quercus really going to inspire people who haven’t acted yet not to “give up” by showing animals hanging themselves? I don’t think so.
Approach No. 3: Cold, hard science in all its complexities might help get people to go over the next ridge, if it’s communicated well enough. An Inconvenient Truth, which was both straightforward and slick, surely shifted some minds and gave pop culture a reality check.
But the audience that will be swayed by science probably already has been swayed. When confronted with careful recitation of all the facts, many folks are likely to turn away and take very different action.
OK, so I’ve loaded the dice for answer No. 4. Last year, Great Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts examined 3,000 TV commercials and analyzed award-winning ad campaigns as part of a study called “Selling Sustainability.” The team’s mission was to figure out how the British government could motivate people to act on climate change. In a nutshell, the study found that
climate change campaigns should avoid being “miserable, gloomy and bleak,” despite the serious nature of the issue, instead emphasizing that taking action is "normal" and "encouraging engagement". The research also showed that ad campaigns need to show fairness, meaning that government and industry also need to "do their bit", and be personally relevant by relating directly to the environment U.K. citizens live in. Ad campaigns should also identify opportunities for people to take action.
The challenge of those engaged in the climate bill debate in the United States differs from the challenge that the British government faces. Brits largely share a consensus that action must be taken, but they need to inspire each other to move quickly. We are still struggling to win that consensus.
But the findings of “Selling Sustainability” are just as relevant for us. A message of hope is needed -- and it seems to me that there is an especially strong message of hope for Americans. It lies in our self-image as a nation of problem solvers, of people who embrace change and new technology, who turn problems into opportunities. It lies in the promise of a green economy.
We’ve seen elements of that message in ad campaigns by green collar/blue collar coalitions -- unions and business leaders working with environmental groups.
So far, however, that message has been spotty and not quite inspirational. Part of the problem is that the issue is complex and in the future, so the scientific message has to be used to convince people. And the issue is dire, so alarms must be rung to warn people. And the opposition is dangerous, so the lies must be countered to keep people from being distracted.
At its root, however, the message must be about hope and opportunity. It must be the kind of message that moves people off the floor, up from their armchairs and out the door -- ready for action.