Maybe they think we have all the evidence we need. Without going any further, the heat waves that engulf Europe are breaking records and causing havoc. In Athens, last Friday they had to close the Acropolis because the temperatures were approaching 48 degrees. In Lisbon, tourists expecting perfect blue skies were disappointed to find gray skies, but not because of clouds, but because of smoke from forest fires. In Italy, this year there has been no spring: the floods have given way to unbearable heat with hardly any respite.
It’s happening everywhere—torrential rains in New York state, wildfires in Canada—and yet humanity behaves as if it’s not facing a planetary emergency. Extreme weather is fast becoming the norm in America, and yet Americans say in polls that it’s not a priority. In fact, in a recent Pew poll, it ranks 17th out of 21 national issues. Even when it impacts personal lives, as it did for many Australians when bushfires ripped through the country in 2019, opinions are very difficult to change. According to one study, about a third of people “directly affected” by the fires saw no connection to the climate crisis. They were “impassive”.
How can it be? How can we, like Nero, keep playing while the Earth burns? Part of the explanation lies in human nature. As a species, we tend to prioritize the urgent over the important: “Thanks to our evolutionary trajectory, we’re programmed to deal with the lion that comes from the forest, not strategize to save our civilization in the next hundred years,” Jeff Goodell, author of a must-have new book, The Heat Will Kill You First, tells me.
There is also the syndrome that the movie ‘Don’t look up’ captured so well, in relation to the very human inability to contemplate our own destruction. We’ll find almost any excuse to look elsewhere, to find something immediate and to amuse ourselves: in the UK this week has been a scandal surrounding a BBC TV presenter. We will always find some excuse.
Those defects are part of our essence; they are hard to change. And yet, there are other explanations more likely to remedy. The most obvious is the fact that an immensely wealthy industry has spent billions to get people to think the way they think. In the three years following the Paris climate change accords alone, five of the largest fossil fuel companies spent more than $1 billion on communication and advocacy campaigns denying the climate crisis.
The truth is that his strategy dates back decades, focused on selling a basic product above all else: doubt. Like the tobacco industry before it, the oil and gas industry has tried to persuade the global public that it cannot be sure that the climate crisis is real, man-made, or serious. It has been enormously effective. To cite just one figure: only one in seven Americans is aware that there is a consensus in the scientific community around the climate crisis. In other words, 90% of scientists who are experts in climate change have “come to the conclusion that global warming caused by man is taking place.”
This specific problem, the climate crisis, is generated by human beings, which is infuriating and encouraging at the same time. It infuriates because it is born from a greed that puts profit above a habitable planet. It encourages because most of the problems generated by human beings can be solved by them.
The climate movement, scientists and activists have long done a lot to combat this threat, but it turns out that they too are part of the problem. They have not been able to convey the seriousness of the threat that we face as humanity, in the appropriate way, and loud and clear. On the other hand, those who are interested in sowing doubt do know how to communicate their messages in a massive way.
Let’s start with the most basic terms. The concept of “Global Warming” was rightly dismissed by many some time ago, not least because, as Goodell writes, “it sounds mild and reassuring, as if the most noticeable impact of burning fossil fuels would be a more pleasant temperature on the beach.” Talking hot isn’t much better: “In popular culture, hot is sexy. Hot is cool. Hot is new.”
However, “climate change” doesn’t work either. Mere “change” is too neutral: it does not indicate whether the change will be negative or positive. It is not urgent: it implies that its consequences will only be felt in the future, when in fact we are suffering them right now. That is why this newspaper is right when referring to a climate crisis or emergency.
But there are many other terms favored by experts on the climate crisis that run into a more basic obstacle: the public does not understand them. Net zero, decarbonization, or 1.5C—when put to the test, the listener’s face turns expressionless.
The population does not know what they mean or finds them confusing. David Fenton, an expert in public communication for progressive causes, cites the expression “climate justice” as an example. When most voters hear the word “justice,” he tells me, they think of the courts or the police. “If you add the word climate to the term justice, you don’t get to shake most people, you just confuse them,” he says.
Obviously, this connects with the perennial problem of the left, which often uses statistics and abstract concepts instead of simple images and emotions. The campaign in favor of remaining in the European Union is a good example. Fenton urges activists and experts who denounce the climate crisis to talk about pollution—a word that everyone understands—and to embrace the image of a “blanket of pollution that traps heat on Earth.” The communicator recommends explaining that each oil and gas emission thickens that blanket, and all that trapped heat contributes to causing floods and fires.
Once this concept has caught on, it has to be repeated over and over again, to the point of exhausting—and exhausting—those who use it. This also clashes with the progressive habit, which tends to cling to the “enlightenment fallacy”: the belief that the facts will convince themselves. According to this belief, they do not need to be repeated, simplified or integrated into a moral or emotional story: the plain truth will prevail.
Perhaps this is why the movement trying to address the climate crisis has devoted relatively few resources to reaching or persuading the public, apart from regular fundraising campaigns. They have made no effort to match their polluting adversaries, who hire marketing-savvy publicists to spread their denialist message relentlessly. As Fenton points out, “we are in a propaganda war, but only one side is on the battlefield.”
Fighting back will require genuine commitment from donors, but also a change in mindset. Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who now hosts the Outrage + Optimism podcast, admits that the climate community has shunned the marketing ploys, calling them “a kind of stain.”
“It’s sickening. ‘We’re too good at marketing. We’re too fair’… I hope we’re getting over this belief, for our own good,” Figueres says.
He has to do it fast, deploying any effective communication tool to convey a double message: fear and hope. Fear for all the beauty, for life and for all beings that will be lost on a parched planet, and hope that we still have time to avoid the worst.
Translation by Emma Reverser.