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Climate change: A communications failure

Jonathan Strong wades through floodwaters in Iona, an unincorporated community in Lee County, Florida, trying to find residents who may be trapped in their homes after Hurricane Ian. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

To defeat the worst ravages of climate change, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and others have urged a WWII-style mobilization to rapidly transform our entire energy, built, transportation and industrial infrastructure to stop polluting the atmosphere. But how can the public be mobilized for war if they don’t even know they are under attack? 

They largely don’t.

Climate change is a low priority for most Americans. According to the respected Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, only 20 percent of Americans “understand that nearly all climate scientists (more than 90 [percent]) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening.” Meanwhile, 67 percent say they “rarely” or “never” discuss the issue with their family and friends. Only 20 percent say they hear people they know talk about it at least once a month.

When surveyed, few coastal homeowners in Florida accurately identified sea-level rise from a warming planet as the cause for regular flooding, according to Potential Energy Coalition data shared with me. Most blamed bad sewage systems or overdevelopment. This is among the most climate-threatened states in the nation. Among Republicans, the figures are even worse. Most people don’t know a disaster is coming.  

Likely as a result, the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act only squeaked by in a tied Senate vote. While there are many helpful provisions of the bill, it falls far short of what science calls for. The new law also expands new fossil fuel development, which scientists have warned us must stop if we are to maintain a livable climate. 

Of course, much of this public ignorance and confusion is due to decades of fossil fuel industry propaganda. But the environmental advocacy organizations, their funders and the Obama and Biden White House share some of the blame: They have never mounted a campaign at scale to get the truth to the public. President Biden has never given a prime-time speech on the issue, has never held a public meeting with climate scientists, and never explains that extreme weather is driven by burning oil, coal and gas. Former President Obama never made public education on climate change a priority. As  Anthony Leiserowitz, senior research scientist and director of the Yale Project of Climate Communication, puts it, “we are in a propaganda war with the fossil fuel industry, but we aren’t even on the battlefield.” Why not? 

UC Berkeley Professor Emerita of Linguistics George Lakoff explains that people from the humanities, sciences and law fields — who make up most of advocacy organizations and government — are trained to believe that the facts persuade by themselves. They look down on the idea of selling ideas. Lakoff calls it “the enlightenment fallacy.” They are up against people who went to business school, who had to master cognitive and marketing science to advance their careers. They learn the way to change public opinion or behavior is to guarantee the repeat delivery of simple messages, over and over, embedded in moral and emotional narratives. Scientists and some advocacy organizations, on the other hand, love complexity, and usually hate to simplify or repeat themselves. They almost never spend funds to ensure their message reach target audiences. In other words, they recoil from the very approach proven to work. 

In the U.S., although environmental advocacy organizations bring in billions of dollars a year, almost nothing goes to public communication, and most of that is for fundraising. This guarantees failure on the battlefield of public opinion. Plus, the very language of the climate movement is largely inscrutable to much of the public. Research shows that people do not much know what terms like “net zero,” “carbon,” “emissions” and “climate justice” even mean. Biden clearly cares about climate change. Yet, he talks about it as an “existential threat,” a term few Americans understand. 

The climate foundations devote the bulk of their funding to the supply of policy, commissioning studies, think tanks, reports, conferences, etc. Yet, we have no shortage of great policy ideas to solve climate change. What we lack is demand for these policies, otherwise known as political will. No one is yet funding the massive public climate education and mobilization needed at scale that would create it. And it isn’t because of a lack of resources. It just isn’t their worldview. 

As President Abraham Lincoln said, “public sentiment is everything…without it nothing can succeed.” Sufficient public demand for that war-like mobilization will only come when a much larger share of the public understands that climate change threatens their families, health, security, jobs, property and prosperity. Then they will insist upon government and market action to protect them. If we wait for the weather alone to teach them, it may be too late.

David Fenton is the founder and former owner of Fenton: The Social Change Firm. He is the author of “The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from 50 Years as a Progressive Agitator.” 

Tags Anthony Leiserowitz Biden Bill Gates Climate change David Fenton extreme weather floodswildfires Global warming hurricanes Natural disasters Obama Science

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