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!