Why Can’t We Make Climate Change Interesting Enough for People to Care?
Since the November primaries there’s been a LOT of discussion about the death of climate legislation that was ten years or so in the making, and how exactly the environmental movement moves forward with little to no political will. Some folks are saying the best bet is to back clean technology, others are saying green jobs are the answer and still others maintain that the movement needs to connect back to its base, to stop being political and get back to the passion of the 1970s.
There’s a great series of essays on Slate from the Climate Desk folks, wherein a number of potential strategies, from natural gas to grassroots activism, are discussed by some of the leading environmental thinkers of our time. Fred Krupp, executive director of Environmental Defense Fund offered enviros a ray of hope via a “it’s not over yet!” post on The Huffington Post. And Bill McKibben was uncharacteristically pessimistic about our chances to stem global warming before it’s too late, writing in a Foreign Policy post leading up to the global climate talks in Cancun next week, “If the summer of 2010 — 19 countries setting new heat records, Russia on fire, Pakistan underwater — didn’t rattle leaders, it’s not quite clear what will.”
Perhaps what will is public outrage. What strikes me is how little anyone has been able to sway mainstream public opinion on climate change in the face of increasingly frequent climate-related disasters. In the 1970s, one oil spill in Santa Barbara kicked off a nation-wide environmental movement in the U.S. and sparked the creation of Earth Day, not to mention the EPA and the Clean Air Act. Today, 350.org can get millions of people all over the world to partake in art projects and work days, build signs and take pictures, but no one can get the U.S. to pick jobs and money and a future tomorrow over tax cuts today.
I talked to McKibben last month about how the media handles climate and his take was that in most of the rest of the world, people get that climate change is a big deal, and so reporters cover it often and readers are interested. In the U.S., McKibben, like so many others, calls climate coverage one of the major failures of the U.S. media.
Part of the problem is general “being heard above the noise” stuff. Part of it is the amount of money the fossil fuel industry pours into getting its message out, and squelching attempts to educate the public about climate change. But a really big part of it is the dull, inside-baseball way in which climate is most often reported. Climate stories are either based purely in fact, so concerned are reporters of being called out for any slight misstep when it comes to the science behind climate change, or insider-y and clever to the point of alienating the majority of readers.
Aside from stories of charismatic megafauna destroyed by our addiction to oil or plastic or both, environmental coverage fails to connect to human emotion. “Part of it’s enshrined in the tenets of our approach, which is that, you know, news stories must be balanced, even well past the day when there’s any real balance to be had,” McKibben says.
Conservatives seem to have long since gotten over that, and maybe it’s time progressives did as well. At the very least, it would be nice to see more environmental stories that are actual stories and not a list of facts or a snarky diatribe that does nothing but showcase the writer’s knowledge of the subject. After weeks of reading every policy article I could get my hands on, I just couldn’t shake the nagging question: If this stuff is boring to me and I’m actually interested in the topic, and convinced of its importance, how the hell are we going to get the message out to people who don’t “believe” in climate change?
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