Watching Frontline’s latest segment, “Climate of Doubt” I was once again reminded of the failure from the science and conservation communities in reaching out to the public.
Back in my early days, I used to be an agent for photographers and painters. From the talents I represented, it was clear to me that there were two categories of artists. The ones who believed that work would come to them and the ones who knew they had to go and get the jobs themselves. This reality also led me to understand one thing. The world is filled with talent and someone who might have less of it, but possesses great skills at promoting himself will fare better than the prodigy who is incapable of reaching beyond his studio. It is not always the ones with the greatest talent who become famous, but the ones who know how to promote their work. The moral of the story I concluded was that it didn’t matter what you had, it didn’t matter if you were the best, it didn’t matter if you held the truth, it didn’t matter what you meant to say. What mattered was how the world perceived you and how people understood you. It is not what you say, but what people hear. It is not what you do, but how people feel about it. And this is something the scientists and environmentalists – and by the same token, the democrats or liberals, have still failed to understand.
Communication, according to the dictionary, is “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium”. It is achieved when the receiving party processes the information with the same intent the emitter had when sending it. This means that if I say “Hello” to a friend, he or she will understand the polite gesture and therefore reciprocate with another “Hello”. This brief communication was a success since both agreed on the meaning of the word. If I say the same “Hello” to a total stranger walking down the street, my seemingly innocent gesture might be misinterpreted and suddenly the tone, what I wear, the location, the time of the day, my age, all will have an affect on how my simple salutation is going to be interpreted.
Communication is one of the most complex and difficult tasks in the world. Why? Because it is filled with innuendoes, interpretations, opinions and emotions. Add body language, culture, and religion to this, and you quickly find yourself with complete “miscommunication”. The US conservatives (Republicans or climate change deniers) realised a long time ago how to communicate efficiently. They have understood that the public doesn’t care about scientific facts. What people care about are jobs, the economy and security, in others words, their own priorities and personal values. Science is not this unbreakable knowledge. Some facts might be obvious but their interpretation varies extremely. But the scientists believe that simply giving people the facts will be enough not only to understand, but also to change the behaviour of an individual. In “Climate of Doubt” John Kerry (minute 33 in video) blames the loss of momentum in public perception about climate change because of a lack of money and lies:
“… as the campaign of fear built up people began to retreat they spent huge sums of money in a campaign of major dis-information that had a impact, a profound impact, and it has now made many people in public life very gun-shy because they are afraid of having those amount of money spent against them…”
His view is not only wrong but also reinforces the evidence of total lack of understanding of the dynamics of communication.
For most people, climate change is an overwhelming and extremely confusing topic. In a post I wrote earlier this year, “Climate Change: A Pointless Debate, I argue that:
“Instead of attacking the source of the problem, our lifestyle, our values, our system and its obvious, concrete, and irrefutable consequences – pollution, ocean acidification, disappearance of fish stocks, total destruction of the environment – so obvious in fact that no one can argue about them, we have had to focus our attention and debate on something so conceptual and evolutionarily insignificant as the rise in temperatures on a global scale….it is also moving the most pressing issues away.”
The issue has a lot to do about perception. Climate change will be good for some, a great opportunity for others, bad for many and tragic for numerous. It all depends on which side you stand.
Polarising the debate has also been part of the problem. For many, there are only two parties – the ones accepting climate change and the ones who don’t. But in reality, there is a broad range of opinions in between. Through media and other campaigns, the debacle now insinuates that if you don’t support climate change, you are against nature and don’t care about the future of our children. If you do agree with climate change then you don’t care about jobs and the economy. Both statements are preposterous and extreme.
The strategy of the environmentalists and the Al Gore team has been to use the “Cane of Guilt” – meaning to bash people over their heads on how bad they have been and give them an ultimatum on how fast they need to change. Anyone with a little bit of education will tell you that fear is not a good way to inspire people. After a while, people are simply tired of the negative narrative. This year’s article in the Washington Post “Young Americans less interested in the environment than previous generations” is no surprise:
“…Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism — or confusion — about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.
“It’s not so much that they don’t think it’s important. They’re just worn out,” Potosnak said. “It’s like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.”
A lot of young people also simply don’t spend that much time exploring nature, said Beth Christensen, a professor who heads the environmental studies department at Adelphi University on Long Island in New York…”
Going back to communication. It is not the two words “climate change” that people have now come to avoid. It is what they mean to them and what they insinuate. It is because of how they have been presented to the public, that the world is simply fed up of the topic. It is not a question of money, but a failure of understanding the core of the problem. The “pro climate change camp” keeps telling the world that the issue is about saving the world. This egotistical view is greatly limited. Over time, planet earth has been subject to worse catastrophes than climate change and is likely to see worse in the future. Changes in temperatures have come and gone over billions of years. Of course we are participating in, and accelerating the current trend. Of course there will be dramatic consequences, but they are small compared to the garbage choking our waters, the acid killing the oceans, the relentless plundering of the planet’s resources, and a total lack of respect of the consequences of what we do and create. As with disease, the western culture has always been more concerned about the symptoms than the causes. Obesity is not just a question of exercising and eating more vegetables, it is about our total relationship with food and about consumerism. Our problem is our absolute pretentious and arrogant approach to the world around us which is simply unsustainable.
It is important to watch “Climate of Doubt” to understand why the momentum on climate change failed. Fred Singer, Myron Ebell, Rep. James Sensenbrenner and Lord Monckton are not stupid, nor bad people. I don’t agree with neither of them, nor should you. But they have been successful at communicating their message, whether it is the truth or not. I have said it before, science is NOT and should NOT be the horse we ride on. Conservationists and scientists need desperately to understand that.