Marketing a Better Future

This is Part 2 in the Sustainable America series.

One of my biggest disappointments with the climate movement today is in the quality of journalism covering the most important news story in human history. In many respects, both science and journalism adhere to the same purpose: to seek out and share the truth. They both serve the public good, and they allow people and policymakers an informed understanding of the facts. This doesn’t always lead to better decision-making, however, as climate change in particular proves rather starkly. In perhaps the greatest failure of the press since its inception, climate journalists and the scientists they interview have had precious little success in moving the needle on public perception of climate change and its consequences. With time slipping away to act on the issue, an eleventh-hour change is needed to turn public opinion to the side of science.

For 50 years, environmental scientists have known that burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming, and over the past 30 years, that well-established result has played out at remarkable speed and quickening pace. Scientists thus far have done an exemplary job of describing the impacts of this warming — we all know sea level is rising, droughts are longer, and the Arctic is melting, for example — but these facts alone haven’t stirred our society to act with the response the situation demands.

Even today, in 2017, a man who doesn’t believe in climate change is allowed to inhabit the White House. Every step forward seems to be followed by two steps back. It shows in the polling numbers as well: even though 70% of the American people believe there is solid evidence of global warming, only half of us understand that it’s human-related, despite a well-publicized consensus that the observed warming is in fact caused by human economic activity. Only 33% of Americans believe climate scientists understand whether climate change is even happening, with even fewer believing they know the root cause. Climate scientists know what they’re talking about and have said so over and over. But it hasn’t done enough to change how Americans perceive the issue.

The question is, why? How can it be made any clearer? We’ve heard the same messages over and over, seen the same graphs, been told time and again to take personal responsibility. But as many have pointed out over the years, climate change is a singular beast that, while life-threatening, is a slippery concept for nonscientists to grapple with. Most people aren’t scientists, which is probably why, in this anti-expert moment of American discourse, only 39% of Americans trust climate scientists to tell them accurate information. The news media fares even worse, with only 7% of Americans trusting it to report the facts of global warming. One needs look no further than these statistics to know where our collective failure lies. Climate change is no longer a scientific problem; it’s a marketing one.

There are several reasons why climate journalism has floundered these past few decades. An excerpt from an article published by The Guardian on April 29 reads as follows: “Virtually the entire scientific community — more than 99% of peer-reviewed studies — has concluded that climate change is real. It is caused by human activity. And the impacts are devastating.” While this is but a small sample of mainstream climate reporting, it illustrates several crucial points for how to improve climate journalism for an indifferent American audience.

The first issue is that the above paragraph is boring and wholly unconvincing. One of the biggest issues with climate reporting is its insistence that numbers — one number in particular — will sway people. The magic number “97%” rears its head in what feels like 97% of all climate articles — “97% of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused,” a “97% scientific consensus” — and it only adds fuel to the debate. “99%” comes up often too. The trouble is, everyone paying attention knows there’s a scientific consensus around climate change. To those who care about such things, the 97% adds no new information, and may actually imply some doubt, because of course now they’re thinking about that 3% that disagrees. And for those who don’t care about scientific consensus, knowing that 97% of the scientists they already don’t trust agree on something won’t change their minds. 97% is the most useless figure in all of climate science. Global warming isn’t 97% anything. It is 100% happening, and needs to be communicated like that. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, it’s hard enough to believe the veracity of anything, but as long 97% continues to be bandied about as proof of fact, people will continue to have doubt, and that’s the complete opposite of the point. There is no doubt. There hasn’t been for 30 years.

Climate science has always been about weighing uncertainty, but human psychology doesn’t respond to that; we readers need something more tangible to draw upon. Focusing on the probabilities and minutia of the science tends to remove readers from the emotional core of the argument, which is that tackling our carbon problem is a moral responsibility and a beneficial undertaking in all respects. Climate change cannot be painted in uncertainty anymore, and journalists covering the topic must speak forcefully with the weight of authority. That means no more using words like “might” and “could,” but “will” and “must.” This gives people less of an opportunity to argue whether or not it’s an issue.

This doesn’t mean publications should shy away from reporting on the high stakes climate developments like Arctic sea ice melting and carbon emissions. We still need to show people that there’s a grave threat upon us. But the science must be less emphasized than it’s been in the past, and the focus instead be on more personal stories from the people on the ground dealing with it. The logical argument is already won. The science should be taken as a given at this point, which is why articles that try to convince readers of climate reality just seem like they’re wasting their breath. Climate change is happening; we get it already. The more it’s said, the less convincing it sounds.

We also need to stop using the word “belief” when it comes to climate science. People don’t get to choose to “believe” in gravity, and they don’t get to choose to believe in climate reality, although some may try. So I never want to see the phrase “believe in climate change” ever again. I think we should use the word “care.” Accusing someone of not believing in science is an attack on their intellect, but saying they don’t care speaks to their character. People don’t get to choose whether they believe in climate change, only whether they care enough about it to act. When framed in that way, most people would choose to care.

When it comes to actual action, the easiest way to motivate people is by not making them feel helpless. Psychologists have found that people have a “finite pool of worry” with regard to climate change, according to Elise Amel, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas. Current environmental reporting, especially when the global climate crosses a new worrying threshold, tends to hit the audience over the head with doomsday scenarios and boring scientific reporting. It’s absolutely numbing, and if we are to reach the disinterested majority of Americans, our stories need to be simple and personal — these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, these are the victims, and this is what they’re doing to fight back. This simple formula can reshape the climate conversation in a way that actually might produce some traction on the issue.

It’s also important not to freeze people by scaring them. We need our audience to be activating the empathic circuits of their brain, not the fear response. When people are scared, they get defensive and resistant to change. People should be scared, of course, but that doesn’t help produce the results we need, especially when it comes to dismissive conservatives, whose entire worldview and ideology is threatened by the issues raised by climate change.

Speaking of conservatives, another crucial adjustment is to eschew the label “climate denier” entirely, because it’s a great way to end the dialogue immediately, with skeptics walking away from the conversation feeling attacked. Yes, there’s a scientific consensus around climate change. That doesn’t give the journalists license to insult everyone who disagrees with it. This is why the gulf between those who are and aren’t concerned is so wide: because they both view the other with distrust and condescension. Since the problem demands that Americans come together on this issue, there needs to be a softening of this tension if the uncaring half of the country is to join the cause.

The best term to use, according to climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, is “dismissive,” because that’s exactly what they are: they’re dismissive of the evidence. They comprise 10 percent of the American population, as a whole a smaller group compared to other segments of the country that are merely “doubtful” or “unconcerned.” Incorporating all of these more neutral labels into environmental reporting will be more productive than using inflammatory words like “denier.”

With regard to the “dismissive” demographic, they represent a vanishing minority of the American populace, and their opinions should be treated proportionally. While climate reporting should be inclusive of all people, it shouldn’t cater to the incorrect beliefs of those who don’t consider climate change a threat to our nation. It is a threat, and to say otherwise is nearly tantamount to treason — but don’t say that. Instead, we must focus on the numerous positive developments taking place every day by people and companies and governments everywhere, news that can empower people to take action themselves. Developments in the green economy should take a focus in climate reporting, since adapting our economy is essential to the sustainability effort, and conservatives respond better to economic language. The happy fact is, most people tend to agree on the solutions to climate change more readily than they agree on the problem.

The best way to engage those already concerned is by giving climate science an entertaining and artistic touch. While the story of climate change is fraught with drama, painting it in terms of end-of-the-world stakes blunts the emotional impact. Compare, for example, a movie like Titanic to a movie like Independence Day: Resurgence. Aside from being a poorly-written spectacle of CGI sludge, ID:R erases all personal drama by making the stakes be about the entire human race. Can you emotionally process the weight of 7.5 billion people? Not really. But can you empathize with a handful of people in a specific situation? More likely than not. Climate reporting should cover specific people in specific locations, and domestic news agencies should focus on people and communities within the US. Why? Speaking for myself, I personally have a hard time imagining life in the Marshall Islands, a nation fraught by sea level rise. It’s very hard for me to understand what they’re going through, even if the writer explains it in detail. But I can picture Florida quite easily. Alaska too. There is plenty of climate drama happening right here in our own country, the country with the worst deficit of climate understanding. If we want to reach out to the “dismissives” in our communities, it makes sense to start with familiar faces.

Lastly, among the biggest losers in the climate change tragedy aren’t merely the poor, but the young. Young people today, specifically millennials and below, will witness global temperature increases within their lifetimes on a scale that could devastate civilization and the place we call home. These people are being robbed of a future on a generational scale, not very much unlike a genocide. Climate change has always been about “the children,” these future generations, and they’re growing up before our eyes. We’ve dallied so long on addressing the issue that it’s now up to the kids to save themselves. The parents, the people in charge and steering the ship, have plotted a rather disastrous course, and now it’s up for the children to undo the damage before it all falls apart. That’s a story worth telling, how betrayed these younger generations feel. It’s one thing to not care about climate change, but how would people feel if they realized it also means they don’t care about their kids? This tension has been part of the narrative for a while, but it hasn’t been the narrative. If climate change is a story of heroes and villains, then surely most of the evil can be found in this generational conflict. This would both build an identity for the younger generations and espouse guilt in their forebears, those who still hold the reins of power and still have a chance to do something. Again, the question isn’t do you “believe” in climate change. The question is, do you care about your children?

For decades, scientists have warned the American public that carbon pollution must be curtailed to prevent a climate catastrophe. Even with the impacts plain as day — in recent years, most Americans have noticed an increase in extreme weather events associated with climate change — the issue elicits little response from the American people, well short of what’s needed to combat the crisis. The media thus far has spoken to our heads; it’s time to speak to our hearts. People act when they feel something, and climate change can elicit a lot of feelings. By channeling these emotions into productive action, Americans everywhere can join the movement to save ourselves from an uncertain future.