How to make the climate emergency clear from Biden’s bully pulpit
President Biden has put climate at the front and center of foreign and domestic policy. He’s appointed climate leaders at Treasury, State, Transportation, Interior, Energy and throughout the government. His proposed 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 is consistent with the Paris Agreement. For the first time, the U.S is taking action at the scale needed if we’re to have any hope of tackling the climate crisis in time.
To emphasize the benefit of these actions to the American people, the president says, “when I think of climate, I think of jobs.” That’s true — many jobs can be created decarbonizing our industrial, energy, housing and transportation infrastructure, investing in smart agriculture and nature-based solutions, preparing to weather the impacts of climate change we can no longer avoid, and by accelerating the transition to clean energy. Jobs are an important solutions message.
But this is only half the equation. To want to solve a problem, you first have to know there is one. And the data is clear: most Americans don’t know how much of a crisis we truly face, nor how little time we have left to solve it. They still view climate change as a distant issue, one that matters only to future generations, to people in low-income countries, to ecosystems — but not to them.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that only 26 percent of Americans are “alarmed” about climate change. Even more disturbingly, the Yale researchers consistently find that people don’t talk or hear much about climate change. Among those surveyed, 64 percent say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends. Only 35 percent talk about it even occasionally, and only 22 percent say they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month.
Here’s the connection: if we don’t clearly communicate the risks climate change poses to us, here and now and in concrete ways that matter to our lives, why would people care? And if they don’t care, why would they want to do anything about it?
Biden does refer to climate change as an “existential threat.” But that’s a term most people won’t understand, when so many are already so confused. The research finds that 40 percent of Americans still believe climate is changing due to the ozone hole; only 21 percent know there’s a strong scientific consensus on the issue; and the majority don’t think it matters to them.
Addressing these misconceptions helps people understand that climate change is real, and serious; and explains why solutions are needed.
For example, extensive testing has shown the effectiveness of simple and clear explanations like the following:
- When we dig up and burn fossil fuels, we are wrapping a blanket of carbon pollution around the earth. This pollution blanket is trapping heat in our atmosphere that would otherwise escape back out to space.
- That trapped heat causes more damaging downpours that wipe out farmers’ crops. It powers stronger hurricanes that devastate our coasts. It means hotter temperatures that fuel wildfires and cause crippling heat waves, where our kids can’t play outside. It causes sea level to rise, which will flood millions of American homes.
- As for the science, 99 percent of climate scientists agree: it’s real, it’s human-caused, it’s serious, and there are solutions that will benefit us all. The faster we cut our carbon pollution, the better off we’ll all be.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” used radio to help the public fight the Great Depression and win World War II. Today, as Bill Gates argues, to solve climate change we need the equivalent of a mobilization for war. But you can’t mobilize for war if people don’t know they are under attack. And Americans largely don’t.
Biden could change this quickly, by talking about the risks from climate change. The president “literally has the ability to change what people know, think and talk about,” according to UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff.
Embracing the power of what Teddy Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit,” Biden can clearly communicate that we are in a war, a race to save our livable planet. And when opponents challenge climate action, it’s not about justifying the job numbers — as Lakoff would say, change the frame. Ask what their plan is to protect America’s health, security and prosperity from the dangers of climate change.
In the United States, Paul Revere has not yet made his climate ride. Most people do not know what is coming. Biden can fix this. Depending on who the next president is, that opportunity may not come again for many years. The science is clear: later will be too late.
Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., is chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University. She is the founder of Science Moms. Her new book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World” will be released in Sept 2021.
David Fenton founded the social change communications firm Fenton in 1982.
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