Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It pays to advertise

Advertising.  What if advertising is a big part of the solution?

First, here’s the problem, as a series of related and overlapping questions:
  • Why aren’t average Americans more worried about, and engaged with, climate change?
  • Why, if a majority of Americans “believe” that climate change is real, do so few rate it as a high priority for action?
  • Why, in this hottest ever year on record, aren’t average Americans badgering their representatives and senators in Congress to DO SOMETHING, and do it NOW?
  • Why, after years of messaging about environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular, is the climate change message not gaining more traction?
  • Why, when asked to rank their worries did Americans place climate change almost dead last on their list? 
Advertising is the lingua franca of the United States of America.  We swim in a sea of advertising from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep.  We are surrounded by, engulfed in, and showered with countless advertising messages every day – from radio ads with the morning weather report, to billboards as we drive to work, to advertising hoardings around the field at the Big Game, to relentless streams ofcommercials at the movies and on television, to every show on TV (even the ones “On Demand”) and You Tube and Yahoo and all of the websites we use.

Everything is sold to us with advertising.  EVERYTHING.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Here’s a partial list of things that are hawked with aggressive ad campaigns.

  • Pharmaceuticals  (ED, diabetes, Afib…)
  • Education (trade schools, on-line MBAs…)
  • Dating (Match, eHarmony…)
  • Cars
  • Lawyers
  • Movies
  • Sitcoms (with more advertising interrupting them)
  • Gifts
  • TVs
  • Lawn care
  • Hair care
  • Deodorant
  • Tech
  • Games
  • Baby food
  • Diapers (infant, toddler, adult…)
  • Fast food
  • Slow food
  • The American Petroleum Industry
  • Koch Industries
  • Political candidates
  • Political opinions
  • Television news
  • Child care
  • Elder care
  • Insurance
  • Good causes
  • Pain killers
  • PSAs (smoking is bad, drinking is bad, drugs are bad… unless you’re talking about prescribed meds, and then… see “Pharmaceuticals”)
  • Love
And that’s just off the top of my head.

Americans are fluent in the language of advertising.  Most of us have been marinated in advertising since birth, and respond to it on an almost cellular level.  The familiar cadence of the snake oil salesman is deeply understood and being used to sell us everything from denture cream to the conviction that fracking is a benign way to bring Americans clean energy and more jobs.

Most folks think they’re pretty jaded about advertising.  It’s common for people to say that they “know how to tune that stuff out” and “don’t really believe” in the pitch.  That’s not the case, alas.  Advertising works.  Despite protestations that we’re “too sophisticated” and can resist the lure of the jingle and the slogan, we are in fact responding to and being influenced by all of that rootsy guitar music, and those images of babies and handsome people having fun.  Why?  Because modern, sophisticated ad techniques take advantage of how your deep brain operates.

Effective advertising isn’t all about giving you the information you need to make a rational choice.  It isn’t only aimed at the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made.  It also cleverly aims its messages at the limbic system – the “lizard brain” that deals in emotions, memory, and arousal.  And that, of course, is why ads traffic in babies, syrupy music, holiday memories, frolicking families and beautiful, healthy people doing aspirational things, even if those images are laughably unrelated what they’re selling.

Don’t believe me?  Think about any popular product being advertised these days, and then remember HOW it’s being pitched.  Cell phones are technical gadgets – but they’re pitched with moms and families and catchy, hook-laden music that stirs the heart strings.  Same with cars, riding lawn mowers, blood thinners, and big box retail outlets.  And it’s impossible to enumerate the unrelated agglomeration of products being sold to you with sex.

While your prefrontal cortex is scoffing and thinking “That’s nonsense!  Cooper and Britnee aren’t going to love me more if I take them to Disneyland!”  the limbic system is listening, too, and absorbing the lesson.  You KNOW the truth, but begin to associate the images of a loving family with the Disney brand – whether you want to or not.  Watch one of those beer ads featuring healthy 20-somethings on a hike, and while you KNOW that buying that brand of brew isn’t going to make you adventurous and outdoorsy and slim, your limbic system is buying at least part of what they’re selling.  You’re being aroused by the music, and feeling the sensation of happy good times, whether or not you actually believe a word of the voice-over.

Advertising also works by the simple power of repetition.  Hear one simple message over and over and over again, and you learn it.  For example, I know that Arby’s has “all the meats!”  I know DiGiorno is “better than delivery!”  And I’ve learned a LOT about Koch Industries since they started running ads on the Rachel Maddow Show.  What have I learned?  That they’re a great place to work, and care deeply about water quality in the slums of Brazil.  I have no idea if either of those things are objectively true – but I sure learned them!

The Koch Brothers know that advertising sells economic ideas and political beliefs as well as it sells products.  The Petroleum Council of American knows that it can sell intense pride in America, fear of unemployment, AND “drill, baby – drill!” disguised in a soothing 30 second spot about “clean energy from right here at home,” featuring an anodyne cast of blandly diverse actors.  And they know that if they keep repeating those messages – those simple, clear messages – they’ll eventually move the dial on public opinion.

In short – if you want to sell something, hire a good advertising agency and get your billboards and 30 second spots out there.  And keep at it, too, with simple, easy-to-grasp messages packaged to arouse the lizard brain.  It’s only a matter of time before your audience associates the feelings triggered by the carefully chosen images and music with your simple message, and bingo!  You’ve gained traction.  You’ve gotten people fired up and ready to do something.

Which begs the question: if the Kochs and BP and Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Council and their profit-driven, emitting ilk are out there advertising like crazy, why is there no ad campaign aimed at firing up Americans to take personal and collective action on climate change?  Why are there no PSAs repeating incessantly that climate change is already upon us, and it’s time to give up meat, turn down the heat, and call your Senator?  

Why aren’t there any billboards hammering home the point that the time is NOW and we have to act?  Why aren’t there any pop-ups on Yahoo’s landing page intoning “In case you were wondering – this is what climate change looks like!” and featuring a picture of flood victims in South Carolina?  Why aren’t there any messages with soothing, folksy guitar songs and video of soldiers on patrol somewhere in the Middle East, talking about working together as Americans to lead the world on climate action?!

Mostly, of course, because climate change doesn’t have an industry organization.  Climate change has many, many activists fighting against it in many and various ways, but it doesn’t have a single powerful lobby.  There are multifarious groups working for clean energy, carbon legislation, and so forth – but no ONE big group that has the financial clout to take out an ad campaign or two.  There are individuals – from movie stars to nobodies like me – tweeting away in a frenzy of intensity, but we seem to be mostly tweeting to ourselves.

Information about climate change is available, to be sure.  It’s covered in the media – although mostly as a “debate” or “conversation.”  It’s in popular culture: take “Years of Living Dangerously,” for which there was a robust ad campaign.  But that ad campaign was for one TV show – and in order for an individual to engage more deeply, it was still necessary for them to take the leap and opt in.  And to do that requires a level of motivation as a baseline.

At the moment, most Americans are NOT motivated by and engaged with climate change.  Whether or not they “believe” or are “very concerned,” they aren’t ready to storm the barricades.  They aren’t primed to take the leap and take personal responsibility for their actions to address it.  Most Americans aren’t tuned in to the same frequency as those of us who are already passionately committed to doing something about it.

Many people say they “believe in” climate change but then are honestly gobsmacked when someone suggests to them that climate change is more of a personal threat to them than, say, terrorism.  They don’t get the connection between climate change and their breakfast – or climate change and their health – or climate change and their homeowners insurance.

Advertising has the power to dramatically change that dynamic.  Advertising has the power to put climate change at the forefront of the national conversation.  It has the power to carry simple, bold messages, like:

It’s time to do everything in our power to slash emissions and slow the progression of climate change.

You’ve been lied to.
You’re in danger.
This is urgent!  This is happening NOW – to YOU!

Nuance can come later.  The thrilling emotional impetus must come first.  Before we get a groundswell of citizen action, people need to get fired up.  Before we get EVERYONE out in the streets marching and demanding that Congress stop lying and take action, we need them moved, and touched, and energized… and furious.

And to get them there, they need to be SOLD ON climate change.  Sold on it – with advertising.
We have the power of truth on our side.  There’s no need to feel grubby or dishonest.  Advertising isn’t necessarily or inherently about selling snake oil – it’s about influencing people by using emotional connections and repetition of easily-grasped concepts.  The climate change movement needs to use this American lingua franca to our benefit!

Now, there might be a billionaire out there who is on the right side of history vis-à-vis climate change and would be willing to splash the cash on a few gripping PSAs.  In fact, I am probably going right over to Kickstarter after I publish this.  But I think there’s a critical role for the government here, too.

There’s been much chatter about the need for a “new greatest generation” and a “war time level of mobilization.”  It got me thinking – specifically, about the fact that during WWII, the federal government created the United States Office of War Information to:

“…formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion picture, and other facilities, information programs designed to facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the Government.”

I’m calling on the next president of the United States to immediately upon taking office, create a United States Office of Climate Change Information, to:

“…formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, TV, motion picture, electronic and other platforms, information programs designed to: facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent  understanding of the imminent threat of climate change to each American; report on the progress of the Government’s efforts and activities devoted to reducing emissions, developing renewable energy sources, and lowering the nation’s carbon footprint; provide information on the climate change policies, activities, and aims of the Government; and let each citizen know both how critically urgent it is that they pitch in and do their part in combating this planet-wide catastrophe and that it is vital that the United States of America lead the world.”

In a word: advertising.

I’m envisaging advertising by the government as analogous to the war information in WWII: part of a broader strategy.  There were many governmental agencies and actions involved in mobilizing for war.  In the case of climate change I think that broad spectrum communications – advertising – is an immediate need and requisite first step.

If we elect a President Sanders, we know he’ll be focused on climate change from Day One.  But in order to actually do anything – and do it fast enough – he can’t have Congress blocking him every step of the way.  That means he has to have all Americans on board to either chuck out or change the positions of the liars and deniers who are currently stalking the halls of the House and Senate.  Those who suggest that we need a “war time mobilization effort” have it right.  Part of that must include a vigorous, effective advertising campaign the likes of which Americans haven’t seen since WWII.

That’s where an energized, informed, activist American people comes into it.  The messaging I propose should be designed to hit people like they’ve been gut shot, and let them know that years of inaction by foot-dragging, heavily-lobbied, and bought-off politicians has led us to this perilous position, facing a future of hellish heat waves, devastating droughts, rampant “once in 1,000 years” storms, epic deluges, terrible public health challenges, inundated coastal cities, and hordes of frantic climate change refugees.

This isn’t the time for business as usual.  It’s not the time for long explanations.  It’s not the time for nuance and for coaxing people along with rational explanations for why carbon dioxide can, yes, be a very good thing (in moderation) for our friends the plants, but at higher concentrations in the atmosphere beings to trap more heat which….. zzzzzz…..

The years of teaching and educating and imploring and exhorting Americans to get worried about polar bears and shrinking ice sheets at the far reaches of our globe just hasn’t mobilized enough of us.  Yes, it’s mobilized some.  I am not overlooking all the excellent education and communication that’s been done.  I was at the Seattle People’s Climate march, for Pete’s sake!

But our “leaders” in DC are very well aware that most of us simply aren’t fussed enough about climate change for them to pay it much heed, either.  They read the polls.  They see where public opinion sits.  So they know they can keep on taking the money and lying like rugs (looking right at you, Senator McConnell) and not get voted out of office.  They know full well that they can hem and haw, splutter and obfuscate, deny, declare they’re not scientists, throw snowballs, and suffer no consequences.  And so while the dial has been moving recently – and President Obama has been raising a bit of a ruckus all by himself – we’re not moving in the right direction fast enough.

It’s time to crank it up to 11.

We need an electorate that’s furious at government inaction on climate change and will vote for politicians who promise to take immediate action.  We need an electorate who won’t put up with their lies any longer, and demand that their representatives do their will on this most urgent and pressing of issues.  We also need a population that is fired up enough to take the personal actions required, like giving up or rationing meat, driving less, buying green and renewable and local products, and more.

So let’s get Bernie Sanders elected, and then let’s call on him to start by getting Americans fired up and marching in the same direction – which is roughshod over the folks in Washington who want to stand in the way of us saving our one and only home.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Climate change communications... are we doing it wrong?

Note: At the exact moment I hit "publish" on this piece when I posted it to dailykos today, President Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline application.  Hah!  Nevertheless.....

In my last post I fulminated about the lies being told in the media about the Keystone XL pipeline and climate change.  Specifically, I called out MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show and the insistence of host Joe Scarborough and Senator Joe Manchin (D, WV) on one popular piece of misinformation – that the pipeline will create 40,000 jobs.

To say that the veracity of that claim is hemmed about on all sides by caveats is to stunningly understate the case.  Nevertheless, Scarborough and Machin said it on TV, in their outdoor voices, and were not challenged by anyone.  Given that the pipeline is a late pipeline, and is pushin' up the daisies, I won't link to the politifact take-down of that jobs claim here.  The point is moot.  However...

Into the same time frame came a piece by Seth Borenstein on a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found that, while most Americans know that the climate is changing, they just don’t really give a flying flap.

Given that climate change will bring dangerous, damaging weather (got flood insurance, folks?), increases in public health concerns (think asthma and mosquitos, just for a starter), possible food insecurity, and the potential for global conflict and mass migration, among other horrors, it would seem to behoove us to snap out of our complacency and press the government for urgent action.  It was also seems to make sense to get rid of our SUVs and monster pick-up trucks, swear off factory-raised meat, and plant trees in profusion. 

American climate change communicators and activists are not shooting ourselves in the foot or alienating people when we call clarion attention to the criticality of the situation.  In order to make the systemic changes necessary to drastically slash emissions, to begin the hard work of mitigation and shoring up systems to withstand whatever climatic conditions are coming down the pike, and to navigate the treacherous waters ahead, ALL Americans need to be not just well informed, but mobilized and ready to move.  ALL Americans need to be on board!

We all need to know what we’re up against, what the time table is, what the consequences will be, and what climate change has already wrought.  And we need to get that message out effectively to more people than we have reached thus far.

Only then will we have enough people in the electorate who know the urgency of the situation well enough to make climate change a priority when voting – and (and I think this is key) will storm the barricades if government isn’t moving fast or urgently or effectively enough.

Yet Borenstein reports:

...fewer than one in four Americans are extremely or very worried about it, according the poll of 1,058 people. About one out of three Americans are moderately worried and the highest percentage of those polled - 38 percent - were not too worried or not at all worried.
Despite high profile preaching by Pope Francis, only 36 percent of Americans see global warming as a moral issue and only a quarter of those asked see it as a fairness issue, according to the poll which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

That so many Americans haven’t yet made the connection between their own urgent self-interests and the changing climate reflects a number of realities, including:

*) The media either doesn’t cover climate change or presents it in the context of false balance.  Rare is the report of a devastating flood, for example, that includes a sentence noting that climate change might have made the situation worse.  Media reports on the “conversation” or “the debate,” rather than reporting the scientific facts.  (Insert dark muttering about who owns the largest news outlets.)

*) Many (largely but not only) right wing politicians have eagerly taken campaign donations and other perks from fossil fuel corporations in exchange for lying about climate change.  To cite just one of the more egregious examples: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal industry.  Mis- and disinformation is rife, and our leadership in Washington DC riddled with active deniers.

*) We humans are wired to react to terrors that occur in the short-term, like “Snake!” or “Gun toting intruder!!” while being relatively complacent about threats that are perceived as a distant future contingency.  We’re evolutionarily fine-tuned to stuff happening NOW, and our brains are wired to respond to short-term disasters, not to something phrased as “a potential for 2.0 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the year 2100.”

*) Because of the scant attention paid in the popular media, we on the left - progressive activists and climate change communicators - have been doing most of the outreach about climate change.  We've made great strides in raising awareness, but we seemed to have reached the upper limits of our market penetration, at least using our current tactics.  We're not doing it wrong, but we need a few new tools in the tool box.

The first three bullets are true enough, but they're not what I want to talk about here.  Instead, I think we need to address the last point.  

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

As a registered Democrat I am painfully aware of my party’s tendency to speak softly while shooting ourselves in the foot.  We do not excel in snappy one-liners and zingy come-backs.  We aren’t willing to elide a detail here or there in order to get the main point across.  We do not excel at manufacturing, and sticking robotically to, talking points. 

I’ve observed that my brothers and sisters on the left are more likely to present several sides of a subject, and lard a discussion with caveats and footnotes.  We can be earnest and a little preachy.  We want to seem intelligent and rational and nuanced.  We want you to know we did our research, and will bore you with it at length. 

And climate change lends itself to this style of communication.  While the central precept is simple, there are many nuanced details and lines of evidence to consider, and these can lead inexorably to the aforementioned caveats, charts, graphs, and dense tangles of off-putting scientific jargon.

It’s easy to fail at crafting a message that compels the attention of people who aren’t naturally tuned to our frequency.  It’s easy to lose audiences who aren’t already primed to hear our message.  And even when we do come up with a headline we think will grab hearts and minds, we sometimes don’t recognize that there’s a big group of people who doesn’t share our priorities and concerns.  Polar bears and penguins don’t move everyone.  Neither does coffee, or merlot, or the fate of people in faraway lands.

We need to learn how to talk to the people who aren’t tuned in to Radio Progressive.  We need to add a channel on a frequency they’ll listen to, and can hear.

Take Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I adore Bill Nye.  He’s got a twinkle in his eye and facts on the tip of his tongue.  Bill Nye speaks truth to power, and isn’t even all that earnest and preachy.  Trouble is that to a goodly number of Americans, Bill Nye is the nerdy, unpopular brainiac they used to give swirlies in junior high.

Then there’s John Oliver.  Of course I love him, but every time I see headline on a progressive website to the effect of “John Oliver destroys climate change deniers in hilarious video!” I cringe.  People – he’s English!  He’s nerdy.  He’s sarcastic.  He peers into the Rube Goldberg edifice of American cultural life and makes wry, critical observations.  There is a broad swath of Americans who will be unmoved at best, or offended at worst, by his erudite British sniffing at what they’ll perceive he thinks is their idiocy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, and “Cosmos” host has a little bit more of a regular guy vibe, but he’s an astrophysicist.  He’s going to use science and reason and graphs when he talks.  To quote those recent irritating GEICO commercials – “it’s what he does!”

Being intelligent and good and rational isn’t bad: it’s just not enough.  Being intellectual and scientific and reasonable doesn’t play all that well to large swaths of the American electorate.  It’s not a sign of weakness – or an abandonment of our Lib/Dem/Prog ideals – to acknowledge that we must start reaching out to people using language and messaging tactics that they’ll respond to. 

Tried and true GOP/conservative communications tactics – like using family, faith, and patriotism to frame the narrative – are tried and true because they work.  Making a simple statement of fact/values and instantly pivoting to a powerful talking point is a typical GOP strategy.  It’s one of the reasons conservatives can be so irritating to debate with – but that statement/pivot tactic works.  Why don’t those of us on the left do that more?

I used to be conflicted about trotting out those tactics and memes to educate people about climate change.  I shouldn’t have been.  Climate change is the most important issue that’s ever faced humanity, and so far, efforts from the left to fire up “average Americans” have been largely inadequate.

  • Take patriotism: I suppose I am patriotic, but at the same time I’m deeply conscious of what America doesn’t get right, and what we’ve done wrong.  I am not moved by appeals to me on the basis of “American exceptionalism” – but a lot of Americans are.  We should be appealing to their sense of patriotism. 
  • Family: Begging folks to “think of your grandkids” is off the mark because it drives home the notion that climate change is far in the future.  But talking about climate change’s current impacts to families and children makes a lot of sense.  People are dealing with the personal and financial impacts of climate change right now – but they don’t know it.  We need to tell them.
  •  American exceptionalism: That’s something I don’t believe in.  Others do, and we should appeal to those people to consider that America is exceptional enough to lead the world in this urgent work.  A popular “denier” talking point is to whinge about how “China won’t keep their promises.”  We must craft a powerful counter-narrative, and drive home the point that America can take powerful action – just like we did in WWII, let’s say.

In short: we know the science, and we know the shit is hitting the fan.  So we’ve got to stop hedging and offering caveats.  We can continue a nuanced discussion of “average global fluctuations of temperature since the Industrial Revolution” among ourselves - but for other audiences, we need to replace that sort of argle bargle with simple, declarative statements and startling, compelling talking points.

We urgently need to connect with the people who haven’t tuned it, or who don’t get what we’re flapping our gums about because they’ve gotten the impression that climate change is arcane, abstruse and not happening right now.  It’s time to take a page from the right wing playbook – to use blunt, confident assertions and make broad appeals to American exceptionalism, patriotism, and self-interest.

The Tea Party is famous for all sorts of things, including Sarah Palin, the word “moran,” and getting their rabble well and truly roused.  We progressives laugh at their simplistic, perfervid communications style.  But you know what?  That sort of sloganeering and rabble-rousing works.  Did you happen to notice who won Kentucky’s race for Governor this week?  The Tea Party guy.  More half-baked ideas than a boulangerie with a broken oven, but he got elected.

If we don’t talk to people who aren't tuned to the frequency of liberal persuasion, who aren’t motivated or don't have the time to read something long and discursive, who shut down when regaled with statistics, who are accustomed to the timbre and cadence of right wing political speech and are more likely to be persuaded by arguments in that style because it’s familiar, and who respond to the classic GOP tactic statement/pivot, then we are leaving a lot of potential allies on the table.  We already know that we haven’t gotten through with polar bears and pie charts!

As George Bernard Shaw is said to have opined, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We don’t need to replace our pie charts and penguins.  But we should consider adding some mom, flag, and apple pie.

Next time – Fun with Facebook!  In which I use GOP and Tea Party talking tactics and re-work some climate change communications.  Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Life in a boring time...

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I’d glom onto and devour anything – mythology, poetry, plays, anthropology, horror, sci fi, romance novels, adventure tales, classics, penny dreadfuls – but I really, REALLY loved history, tales of swashbuckling derring do, and amateur science.
As a result, by the time I was 9 I had come to the glum conclusion that I was living in the Most Boring Epoch of Human History.
A "ship of the line"
There was no place to explore except space – and I was a girl, which meant the fighter jock-to-astronaut life path was closed to me.  I wouldn't be able to discover the Northwest Passage, or the source of the Nile, either - someone had beat me to it.  As for a life of adventure in a tall ship on the high seas?  Nope.  Those days were over.
I read to my disgust that most major diseases were either conquered, or soon would be - and that medical science was progressing at such an incredible rate that there’d probably be no horrible maladies left for me to find the cure for when I grew up. We’d certainly never again experience something as gnarly and gruesome as the Black Death (yes, little kids are savages sometimes – I found the idea of such a horrific epidemic a tad exciting).

Science was a possible avenue for an amazing career, but since flying cars were touted as being just around the corner, and "the future" appeared to be hurtling toward us at a dizzying pace, I didn't hold out high hopes.

As for social causes, well - feminism was making great strides possible for women, poverty would soon be a thing of the past, and life in a post-Civil Rights era meant we'd soon have racism whacked once and for all.

The vision of a future where everything had been discovered and all our troubles had been banished spread before me in a sunny, futuristic hellscape of blandness, devoid of conflict and strife, and empty of the possibility of peril and turmoil.

To a weird little 9 year old craving purpose, thrills, and a mountain to climb, it seemed pitiably depressing. How could the adults have ruined everything for their kids?  Didn't they know we needed a cause?  Didn't they know we needed mysterious far off places to explore?  Didn't they know we needed evil and wrongdoing and danger to fight against?
Flying saucers for EVERYBODY!
It's funny to remember how dejected I felt.  It took me years to realize how spectacularly and hilariously wrong I was, and when I did, I instantly wished I could be back in my 9 year old skin, believing with passionate intensity that life was improving for everyone on the planet - that people were being lifted out of poverty and disease so rapidly that there might only be pockets of strife left for me to help with as an adult, and that all the adventure and mayhem and unpredictability was being sucked out of life and sanitized by the twin forces of science and technology.

I like to think that 9 year old me would have recoiled in terror and horror at the challenges, danger, strife, suffering, and unknown vistas unfurling before us as we watch the climate change.  But 9 year olds are still young enough to not realize the real consequences of peril and horror.  The 9 year old me would probably leap at a chance to live now, in a world with ever more monstrous typhoons, scorching heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and rising sea levels.  The 9 year old me would probably thrill at the idea of a people's revolution if governments can't halt their climate altering emissions in time to keep planetary warming under 2 degrees Celsius.  The 9 year old me would probably be excited.

The middle aged me?  I'm just angry, frightened, and increasingly frustrated. 

In the United States, only one single Republican running for president accepts the science of climate change.  In Congress, the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee flatly declares climate change to be "a hoax."    And while most Americans now"believe" in climate change - a majority are also not convinced that humans are causing it - or that it will affect them personally!

If the topic of climate change has reached a "break-out" point, I haven't noticed it.   We seem to be stuck in 2nd gear.  The great "click!" that so many of us have been waiting for hasn't happened yet, and the talks in Paris this November - if 100% successful -

"will result in a rapid and dramatic slowdown in the growth of carbon from the energy sector - but will not reverse that growth within the next 15 years (emphasis mine)."

It's time to up the ante.  It's time to do something drastic.  It's time to put the pedal to the metal - but how?  What can "we the people" do to accelerate change, heat up the debate, and force our leaders to take much more drastic action on climate change?

Here's something I can get behind - and it's an issue around which there is currently heat and light.  Let's get the fossil fuelcompanies out of the climate talks

I'm joining 350.org with the express purpose of pitching in on that effort.  Here's their website if you'd like to join up too.  

This is timely - and it may be too late - but if you haven't been involved yet, it would be a great place to start.

If you're in Seattle and haven't joined 350.org yet, there's a chapter!  I plan to join this weekend.  Ping me on Twitter at @KiraOnClimate if you want to join and would like some company.  I hope to see you on the barricades soon!

Friday, October 16, 2015

If you wait long enough, it doesn't matter any more...

I got married in January of 1991, and that summer R and I had our picture taken together. We were goofing around in the courtyard of Da’s new place on West 50th Street and a photographer friend captured a few lovely images of us as newlyweds.  (“You’re looking at him like he’s an ice cream cone!” she giggled when she saw the prints.)

Da loved those photos, and he hung the best one prominently in the living room, everywhere he lived after that. But of course time passes, and people change, and eventually, Da asked me if R and I would have another portrait done together, so he could have a more current picture of us, too.

My Da was secretly a tender man, but his default exterior persona was professorial and gruff. That he asked was all I needed to know about how much he wanted that new image. He lived in Manhattan and we were living in Seattle, and we didn’t see each other often enough.  My Da wanted another picture to remember us by, and I fucked it up.

For years I thought about getting that portrait done. I plotted cool locations – naked (but tasteful) in a hot tub!  in motor cycle leathers on the roof of a building on the lower east side! - and researched photographers. But I never did anything concrete.

For one thing, I hate having my picture taken. R is tall and lean and classically handsome (think a really, REALLY lovely Chiwetel Ejiofor) and I’m... not. I'm zaftig and florid and red in the face, with pale, bushy eyebrows. I have tiny teeth and small lips. I make lots of funny faces. Don't get me wrong - I'm pretty - but when your own mother says "you really aren't terribly photogenic dear," you know you're not photogenic. So between my natural bent for procrastination and my fear of the camera’s all-seeing gaze, I put it off.  And off.  And off. 

But I had time!  Da's mother lived to be 97, and his father to 83. His older sibs all died in their 90s. His Aunt Sis was 100 when she attended her little sister’s 90th birthday party. If the rest of the family was any indication, he wasn't going anywhere for a long time.

And then he died.  He was 76. 


The diagnosis of lung cancer came out of the blue.  Da was lucky. As an actor, his excellent union insurance got him screened frequently, so it was caught very early. That same excellent insurance got him whisked into surgery within a couple of days. The nodule came out. It hadn’t metastasized, so he wouldn't need radiation or chemo. He recovered fast, and went home.

It was just before the first Obama election (Da was over the moon about Obama and the election results were the first thing he asked about in the recovery room). R and I had our plane tickets for a Thanksgiving visit. Then one night the week before Thanksgiving Da was pulling on his robe after a shower and dropped down dead of a cerebral aneurism.

I was still thinking about getting that portrait done - maybe for Christmas that year? - when suddenly, I had waited long enough that it didn't matter anymore. Da was dead, and no one else was asking for a picture of R and me.

When I read this piece on Skeptical Science, I wondered if we’re at the same point with climate change.  If you're concerned about climate change you’ve probably read it by now, but if not, here’s a taste:

“In only three years there will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff—cars, homes, factories, power plants, etc.—built to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5°C of global warming. The relentless laws of physics have given us a hard, non-negotiable deadline, making G7 statements about a fossil fuel-phase out by 2100 or a weak deal at the UN climate talks in Paris irrelevant.”

And then there’s James Hansen’s new paper.  Hansen has authored a lengthy study outlining a  

“...scenario of potentially rapid sea level rise combined with more intense storm systems. It’s an alarming picture of where the planet could be headed — and hard to ignore, given its author.  In the new study, Hansen and his colleagues suggest that the “doubling time” for ice loss from West Antarctica — the time period over which the amount of loss could double — could be as short as 10 years. In other words, a non-linear process could be at work, triggering major sea level rise in a time frame of 50 to 200 years. By contrast, Hansen and colleagues note, the IPCC assumed more of a linear process, suggesting only around 1 meter of sea level rise, at most, by 2100.”

And David Suzuki, of all soft spoken people, is calling the recent G-7 agreement a "horrifying joke."  Yes, he wrote that.  

So…. have we waited too long?  Are we at the point where no matter how fast we act, and how drastic the action we take, it’s no longer possible to avoid catastrophic warming? Have we waited so long that it doesn’t matter anymore?

Is it time to just fling up our hands, approve the Keystone pipeline, call off the #ShellNo kayakers and drill, baby, drill? Is it time to start work on our time capsules, so we can leave a message for whatever sentient species makes it through the nightmarish hellscape of the future? To start writing down our stories and recording our songs so we can bury them deep in an impregnable bunker, to be found by someone else after we are all gone?

Is it time to start preparing our children for the inevitable, and ourselves for the terrifying road ahead?  What do we do? Build sea walls? Build underground fortresses? Migrate north en masse? 

Or do we stay where we are and hunker down, buy better auto insurance for the next time a wildfire hops the freeway and sets our car on fire, then surf the web to learn more about the Kardashians, and watch trashy TV?

It's a serious question.  And I don't know the answer.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Willfully ignorant howler monkeys

Now that I have your attention... have you seen this 2015 Ford Edge ad

A gorgeous young woman drives an enormous red SUV through a gleaming, modern city.  Sweeping, pop-serious music swells behind her.  In voice over, the woman resolutely enumerates her personal odds in a city of "two million, four hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred and eleven people."  As we begin to hear the lyrics - "this is MY LIFE!" - and the music reaches a thundering crescendo, all I can help but think is - we are F***ED.

What does this ad - what does anything about this ad - have to do with the CAR they are flogging?  Yes, I obviously get the stretch they're making (car = powerful) but... really?  What does this striving young hottie in a business suit have to do with how the car is engineered, or how well made it is, or the features it has? 

Oh - and - since I care about the emissions that are causing our climate to change... what's the MPH?

The 2015 Ford Edge gets "up to 20 mpg city, 30 highway."  That's per Ford.  That's their mileage brag.

These big, bulging SUVs - all curvy lines and jellybean colors, replete with cup holders and mini computer screens and icy air conditioning and GPS - are rolling off the factory lines at a tremendous pace and selling like hotcakes.

They're being sold the same way everything is sold these days, via shameless appeals to the id and the limbic system.  Is mileage even mentioned in this ad?  Nope.  Is it mentioned in most ads these days?  Not that I have noticed.

Instead, we're buying gas guzzling cars at an amazing pace, because... personal ambition.  Love.  Sex.  Family.  Babies. 

They all do it, although the Subaru "Love.  It's what make a Subaru a Subaru." ads make me craziest.

And every industry advertises the same way, with powerful music and gauzy images of happy, sexy, vibrant people.  The ads make us long for the feelings promised by the images and the music, and make us greedy - nay, LUSTFUL - for more.

We have never been more marketed to, and we have never been hungrier for MORE.

Anyone who knows anything about climate change should know by now that we must SLASH CO2 (and other GHG) emissions by HUGE percentages immediately in order to have a hope of slowing climate change and keeping the total warming under 2 degrees Celsius. 

But we're buying SUVs and pick-ups like they're going out of style.  We're consuming like it doesn't matter what we buy.  We're addicted to enormous cars and air conditioners and riding lawn mowers and immense TVs and power tools and heated swimming pools and cities that blaze like brush fires at night with light after light after light after light...  and we're mostly ignoring an issue so immense that it boggles the mind.

If you haven't read Margaret Atwood's piece about "it's not climate change - it's everything change!" I encourage you to do so at your earliest convenience.  And then I challenge you to get a good night's sleep, or stay on the sidelines of the climate change fight. 

Into this apex consumption moment, President Obama has rolled out his new national Clean Power Plan, requiring that U.S. power plants reduce their emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

No, the plan doesn't do anything about personal consumption, but bear with me.

Personally, the majority of Americans seem to prefer to keep the status quo.  They want their SUVs and their McMansions and their rooms full of flashy new appliances.

So maybe government can help?  Maybe government can implement sensible regulations, and work with private industry, to rapidly bring online cheap, renewable energy that will allow us to continue our lavish collective lifestyle without emissions?  Surely President Obama would like to include BOLD, effective action on climate change in his legacy, no?

Actually, yes.  He would - hence the plan.  The only problem is that, compared to the scale of the action that we need to take, this is an almost laughably meager effort.  No less an authority on climate change than James Hansen says the new policy is 
practically worthless.
Nevertheless, the usual troop of willfully ignorant howler monkeys are ENRAGED that our imperial muslin communist usurper president would DARE to make even the tiniest change to the relevant EPA regulations.  The GOP is prepared to fight with everything they've got to stop this new presidential action in its tracks.

And here we are, and that's why we're f***ed.

There's no personal will to learn about climate change and take sensible, immediate, personal action.  All the vast majority of us want to do is consume, consume, consume and damn the torpedoes.

There's no political will on the right to act with intellectually honesty and take immediate, urgent, "war effort" style action on climate change.  All the vast majority of politicians - left and right - want to do is get along to go along, appeal to their base, take Big Daddy Oil's money, and get reelected.

The president - our intelligent, caring, effective, fired up president - puts forth a demonstrably timid climate change plan that is doomed in the cradle.   

A national plan that would actually make a difference on emissions would be centralized and coordinated federally.  It would take enormous effort and enormous will and unprecedented amounts of cooperation and "reaching across the aisle," to use a tired old phrase.

It would require immediate government action and personal sacrifice from every single American.

And we're not there.  The people don't even care enough to worry about the mileage their new gas guzzling SUVs get.  The republicans pretend climate change isn't happening.  And our next president very well might be Donald Trump - the actual living embodiment of the MORE IS MORE personal credo of consumption.

Yep.  We're doomed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's talk about insects

Let’s talk about insects

I live in Seattle now.  I consider myself a New Yorker despite not having lived there since right after 9/11 (it’s been a long, strange trip).  And my family farm is in Iowa. 

As a kid I spent weeks there every summer, peeling potatoes, hanging up laundry, picking beans, making pickles, husking corn, going fishing, “helping” Grandpa Channer milk the cows, exploring in the pasture beyond the apple orchard, and taking minute inventory of the astounding variety of insect life.

I was a mini-biologist back then, and the farm was paradise for someone so inclined.  Everywhere, there were insects.  If you couldn’t see them you could hear them, thrumming and whirring and scratching as they went about their business.  Bees crowded the garden, all industry and drive amongst the peonies and bachelor’s button.  Palm-sized garden spiders hung in wait in the long grass at the far side of the driveway, midriffs bright with orange and scarlet coats of arms.  An almost infinite variety of beetles were everywhere to discover – huge ferocious stag beetles, pretty ladybirds, longhorns, and loud, startling click beetles.

There were giant walking sticks and waterbugs to catch and release – katydids and praying mantises to observe – wasps to fear as they buzzed protectively about their immense, bulging nests – fireflies to catch and imprison in Mason jars – and giant red velvet mites astonishing in their tiny perfection.

Clouds of gnats hovered in the cool under the oak trees at the bottom of the lawn, and at the stone quarry in Chickasaw Park there were traffic jams of dragonflies – bright blue skimmers, heavy cruising darning needles, emeralds and petaltails.  In August, any tiny patch of moisture on bare ground attracted cabbage moths, yellow and white, fluttering delicately as they sipped and looking in their numbers as if, when they flew off, they could hoist the Earth with them.

And now?  Now, there isn’t nothing, but there’s not much left.  The full-throated chorus of droning, humming, throbbing insect song is a barely-heard ghost in the distance.  A handful of gnats bother late porch-sitters if the screen door isn’t closed.  The garden spiders are a greatly reduced army, and they are all much, much smaller than before.  A Monarch butterfly in the garden is cause for exclamation, and farmers are importing bees from Australia

A recent study published in Science and led by UCL, Stanford and UCSB found that invertebrate numbers have decreased by 45% on average over the last 40 years.

I can see the decline when I visit the farm each August.  I can hear the silence where once there was an omnipresent roar.  But I had no idea how drastic the change was – and when I saw it quantified, I was astonished.

You might ask, “So what?  I don’t like spiders.  Gnats are nasty and annoying, and butterflies are pretty, but who needs them?”

According to the study,

This decline matters because of the enormous benefits invertebrates such as insects, spiders, crustaceans, slugs and worms bring to our day-to-day lives, including pollination and pest control for crops, decomposition for nutrient cycling, water filtration and human health.

And Dr. Ben Collen, last author of the study, said,

We were shocked to find similar losses in invertebrates as with larger animals, as we previously thought invertebrates to be more resilient. While we don’t fully understand what the long-term impact of these declining numbers will be, currently we are in the potentially dangerous position of losing integral parts of ecosystems without knowing what roles they play within it.

And yes, climate change.  

It’s not the only reason, of course, that insect populations are in decline.  We don’t know what’s happening with the honey bees yet.  In Iowa I suspect that factory farming, so reliant on chemicals, is killing off populations of any number of species.  And monoculture agriculture can’t be conducive to biological diversity, even where insects aren’t bug-bombed into oblivion.

But climate change isn’t helping.  Sure, a species here or there is able to expand its range – but that comes at the expense of other, neighboring species, on whom it must encroach.

Most concerning, I think, is that WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING.  We don’t know what’s out there.  We don’t know precisely how these complex ecosystems work.  We don’t know which species can die off with no human repercussions, and which are lynchpins on which our very survival might depend.  We suspect – we think we know – we study feverishly, attempting to limn the outlines of the story before the players change – but we don’t know.  Not for certain.  Not enough.

The issue is not that we act as though insects are pests to be gotten rid of.  The issue is that we are heedless in every way.  Our lumbering, careless, devouring predation and annihilation of ecosystem after ecosystem does not strike us – or at least not many of us – as the amoral violence that it is.  We’re rushing toward the future and we think it’s bright.  We think of planetary prosperity and food for everyone, a never-ending upward rise and expansion, a glorious future of technology and pleasure.

The minatory finger of evidence, however, points in the exactly contrary direction.  The insects are telling the real story.

So listen, will you, when you step outside.  What do you hear?

The path in the dark toward mayhem...

As a Communications Manager at a large regional healthcare system, I deal with change a lot. In fact when I was hired, the working title for the position was Communications and Change Management Lead - and change management is still a big and important component of my job.

So I am intimately familiar with the sound of squealing stuck pigs. I am intimately familiar with the whining, denying, tantrum-throwing, conniption-fitting and desperate bargaining  that accompanies change. I deal with it every day. To say that I am "over it" after almost a decade of helping people navigate unwelcome change is to indulge in reckless understatement.  I hear you, people - you don't want to change.  You like the way things are.  Got it.

Now, while there's little direct comparison between learning how to navigate a set of new data entry screens in an electronic health record system and the fundamental lifestyle modifications that will likely be required if we are to adequately address climate change, the human reaction to both types of change is the same.

First fear. Next denial. Then highly motivated, panicked bargaining. Eventually, after much heartburn, foot dragging, and time wasting, acceptance.

Even many of us in the liberal activist community (Robert Kennedy Jr. is a case in point - check out this cringe-inducing video) who accept the science and are highly motivated to work on the issue of climate change are not thrilled with the idea that fundamental changes to how we live day to day may be required in the very near term.

Almost every American wants to continue to live the way they do now, or better.  In America, the average person already enjoys a sublimely lavish standard of living compared to people in the 2nd and 3rd world.  In America, the problem is that even many climate change "believers" want to change nothing about the way we live, while at the same time changing everything. Or rather, we want to change very little about the way we live, while making a major, major change to the way the world does business with respect to energy use and production.

Meanwhile, the people who do not live as lavishly as the average American are hoping, praying, striving, and working their fingers to the bone with the singular passionate goal of some day enjoying the comforts and conveniences of the first world. Asking people to continue to live with less - or to understand that it is no longer possible for everyone to dream of an ever-upward trajectory in their standard of living - is an almost impossible task.

But things as they are now are unsustainable and insupportable. And it is massively, desperately unfair that the first world has heedlessly consumed and emitted us to this dire point, while much of the rest of the world lives in grinding poverty and hunger and despair, without hope of ameliorating their life circumstances.

The fact of the matter appears, however, to be that this planet cannot support a population of seven, eight, nine, and more billion people at such a high level – at least not with our current technology.

Clearly, the status cannot remain quo. We must interrupt, disrupt, erupt. A revolution is coming. What form it takes is up to us.

If we take urgent, immediate, collective global action (hollow laugh) that will constitute a revolution, and in the right way. Immediate collective sustained global action on climate change would be a positive, hopeful revolution.

My fear is that instead we are plunging headlong down a path in the dark toward mayhem. All around I read and see and hear the signs that we are already experience disruptions and calamities caused (or worsened) by climate change - and I fear that we are hurtling toward what amounts to a global revolution based on mass migration, emptying flooded cities, the breakdown of food supply chains, unquenchable wildfires and punishing drought, food insecurity, the crumbling of governments and the rise of dictatorships.

Change is painful. No one likes it. That's the assumption going in.  Now let's take a deep breath and think together about how we can change productively and effectively in the immediate near-term - together as a nation - to fight climate change. I believe it will take the sort of mobilization that was required during the Second World War - although perhaps on a grander scale.

Recently in California excellent climate change legislation was watered down to accommodate fossil fuel interests, because people were afraid of the dreaded "R" word - that is, rationing.

But what, pray tell, is so dreadful about rationing?  We’ve done it before.

When talking about the generation of Americans who “won WWII,” it’s usual to exclaim effusively about their strength and fortitude and patriotism and sacrifice.  Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book about them and coined the phrase, writes variously:

...there on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.

They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.

A common lament of the World War II generation is the absence today of personal responsibility...

And this, despite the off-topic, off-putting, bit about marriage:

The WWII generation shares so many common values: duty, honor, country, personal responsibility and the marriage vow " For better or for worse--it was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option.

This is fulsome language, and it may in no small measure be true.  What it does not reveal is that the greatest generation didn't do all of that commendable sacrificing and acting selflessly in the best interests of their country without being required to do so.

For example, the greatest generation was required by their government to ration.

Gasoline was rationed during WWII, as were tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, nylon and other goods.  Can you imagine how we’d react to such restrictions today?  I leave it to your imagination.  Yet not that long ago – well within the memory of actual millions of living Americans - we dealt with it.  During WWII Americans made do in conditions of relative privation because they knew their sacrifice was for the greater good.  Of course people cheated, sold ration books on the black market, and tried to weasel out of doing the right thing.  But that’s exactly my point.

If you’re proud of your grandparents or great-grandparents for being part of that generation, be aware that they did not just rise up and act as individuals for the collective good of all Americans.  While it is true that many citizens signed up to go fight the war, here on the Home Front it was government programs –funded by tax dollars – that required folks to act.

If fossil fuel must be rationed while we are transitioning off it and if we can offset the personal inconvenience of driving less with creative solutions like carpooling, better public transportation, and job swapping, then why not ration?  It makes excellent, practical sense to me.  Obviously the legislation would need to be mindful of limits, of when such rationing might be lifted or re-imposed under changing circumstances, and set timelines and provide alternative transportation options where possible.  It wouldn’t be easy legislation to draft – but what legislation is easy?

And of course there's the dreaded "T" word - taxes. Everybody hates taxes.  But what if we must put additional taxes on carbon?  What if, in fact, we must put taxes not just on carbon itself, but on some consumer goods?  I can imagine the necessity for a tax on luxury products that produce insupportable levels of emissions during production and transport.

And what if it's necessary to tax the super rich to pay for a government program, based on the WPA, that produces good jobs working on infrastructure projects, planting trees, leading local Community Climate Corps, and cleaning up after the inevitable natural disasters that climate change is going to continue to bring?

Regulations are another “R” word.  Recently, the GOP has been up in arms about sensible EPA regulations imposed by President Obama.  But how do we move forward without regulating things like fossil fuel, coal production, power plant and car emissions, and more?

It is difficult to imagine a mechanism other than government intervention - regulations, taxes, rationing, new public works programs and the like - for limiting emissions, scaling back consumption, sharply reducing or eliminating our use of fossil fuels, developing modern, high-tech clean energy technologies and shoring up infrastructure to cope with the flooding, heat waves, and violent weather we can expect (and are already experiencing) as the world continues to warm.

However well-meaning, people and corporations aren’t going to all of a sudden begin moving on these things, all together, in the same direction, without the government stepping in.  IMHO, that is one of the fundamental things that government is FOR!  Simply put: We the People aren't going to #ActOnClimate effectively and quickly enough without being required to do so.

The alternative to asking our government to step in and enact sensible, climate change-focused legislation to help move us in the right direction is… what?  Even if the Paris talks in December this year are a resounding success, the agreements arrived at there are only the start.  Once the last limo has left for the airport, policies must be put in place to enact the decisions made there.  That means Big Gubmint, like it or not.

Are we a lesser generation than those who went through WWII?  Perhaps we are, if we can’t rise to this challenge.  Perhaps we are, if we continue as a nation to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “la la la la la – I can’t hear you!” to the voices calling for action.

And if that is the case, then do we - lesser current and future generations - deserve what we get?  Do we deserve to reap the whirlwind?  Are we on a path in the dark, hurtling toward mayhem?