April 03, 2020

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The Polar Bear Is Us: Communicating the Climate Crisis

Environmentalists and the media need to do a better job of communicating on the climate—but progress is being made.


By Francesca Rheannon

Forty-four years after the first Earth Day, most humans on the planet have not woken up to the crisis of global warming. A recent poll by Gallup showed that, although a majority of Americans understand that climate change is happening now and is caused by human activity, they rate it dead last on a list of issues to take action on.

This, despite the fact that the IPCC reports we have 15 years (some climate scientists say five) to start decreasing carbon emissions or we can kiss our livable atmosphere goodbye. We’ve already exceeded 400 parts per million of atmospheric carbon—more than 50 ppm above the safe level. It’s another milestone on the highway to climate hell.

The Media is Missing the Message

For the most part, the opinion makers – the press and pundits – have been comatose on the climate crisis. And it’s getting worse. Climate journalist Joseph Romm told CSRwire that the business crisis in journalism has been for one reason:

The media has been going through a major challenge to its entire business model from the Internet and it has unfortunately responded by shelving its environment sections and firing its most informed reporters on science and climate change.

Romm says this has happened “almost across the board,” leaving the biggest threat to human civilization ever to be covered by either general interest reporters – who lack both the knowledge and contacts to do in-depth reporting – or by political reporters, who tend toward the “he said/she said” genre of journalism that gives ideologically motivated climate change deniers equal time with the polar-bears-climate-changeleading climate scientists.

“Either way,” Romm points out, “the prominence of the story is reduced.”

Too Scary? Or Not Scary Enough?

But should we just fault the media for failing to bring the climate message to the public? Or has the environmental movement also played a part? Some, like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute have taken the environmental movement to task for scaring people too much—turning the masses off with a downer message.

But the Gallup Poll showed that while most people think climate change will have bad consequences, like extreme weather, they don’t think it will affect them. They think it’s happening to others, elsewhere, sometime in the future. So maybe they aren’t scared enough about the reality of climate change for them.

But, as one of the IPCC scientists said, “the polar bear is us” – and that’s the message that needs to get across (along with the good news that we can indeed de-carbonize our economies).

Showtime Steps Up to the Plate

A new series on Showtime is trying to grab the attention of the public by shifting the narrative from climate change’s impact on animals in the future to its impact on people right now. With nine episodes airing weekly, Years of Living Dangerously is using the star power of its “correspondents” – the likes of Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Friedman – to challenge the sleepy assumptions of the American public. Here’s the first episode:

It’s compelling theater to watch, matching outstanding cinematography with powerful personal stories and no-holds-barred confrontations with powerful figures whom, the series implies, are responsible for actions or policies that exacerbate the climate crisis.

Faith, Drought and Global Warming in Texas

Don Cheadle goes to a Texas town where the local Cargill factory—the economic engine of the community—has shut down: drought has destroyed the Texas cattle industry and, without cattle, the meat processing plant has nothing to work with. The people pray for rain but are reluctant to blame global warming (rather than “God’s will”) until climate scientist Katherine Hejo—who is an evangelical Christian—comes to town to preach the climate stewardship gospel to them.

At a meeting, she explains to the townspeople there is no contradiction between religion and climate science – and that global warming is making the drought more extreme, with hotter temperatures causing more evaporation of moisture from the soil and killing vegetation that could conserve water in the ground.

Through it all, Cheadle makes an intimate observer, connecting with the drought’s victims – the ranchers, farmers and workers who have lost their livelihood – in a way that is both compassionate and probing.

Climate Chaos and Political Conflict

Tom Friedman goes to Syria and Turkey to explore how climate change is driving political conflicts and social unrest—with security impacts on a global level.

Four years before war broke out in Syria, the worst drought in modern Syrian history destroyed many agricultural communities, displacing more than a million people. Former farming families streamed into the slums of Homs and Demascus, where jobs and food were scarce. The Assad regime did nothing.

A woman whose family abandoned their farm tells Friedman, "The land became a salt desert." She was arrested by the government and detained for two months for asking for help. A rebel commander tells Friedman the conflict is "a revolution of hungry people."

Forest Apocalypses, Firefighters Die

Schwarzenegger follows the human and ecosystem impact of the wild fires that raged across the American Southwest in 2013.

He goes with a team of “hot shots”—crack firefighters—and is told that the fires they are dealing with are on a “scale and ferocity no one has seen in living memory.” In fact, they burn so hot the soil itself cannot support the regeneration of the forest. Schwarzenegger tells us, “In this near apocalyptic environment, it can take trees up to a thousand years to grow back.”

He learns that 350 lives have been lost fighting fires and that half of all trees in the West are projected to be gone over the next few decades – a feedback loop caused by global warming that will intensify climate change.

Bringing Truth to Power

Harrison Ford follows another kind of deforestation – the wholesale and illegal destruction of what is supposed to be a protected national forest in Indonesia.

He minces no words in confronting those he holds responsible: first, a palm oil magnate, then the Minister of Forestry, and, finally, the President of Indonesia himself. He takes them to task for the greed and corruption that are undermining laws to prevent deforestation. This viewer squirmed at first, then watched, fascinated, as Ford expressed the outrage that too many of us suppress when in clear-cutting-forests-Indonesiathe presence of the powerful.

Maybe he was a little over the top; maybe he failed to stress enough the culpability of those outside Indonesia (the corporations who use palm oil). But clear-cutting down the lungs of the planet, destroying the livelihoods of indigenous people and eviscerating the habitat of our close relatives, the orangutans, is outrage-worthy stuff.

And, who knows? Maybe the recent decision to save half the threatened national park’s forestland was made at least partly because of the spotlight Harrison Ford shone on the issue. (A Greenpeace campaign had no small part to play, as well.)

Making the Message Fit the Listener

In reality, while the Showtime series is one model, there is no single way to spread the message on climate change. The Yale Project on Climate Communication has identified “Global Warming’s Six Americas” – six different population cohorts receptive to different ways of communicating on the climate crisis, from The Alarmed to The Dismissive.

And it’s clear from the trends the Project is following that, slowly but surely, the message on the climate is getting through. Americans may be more preoccupied with other issues right now, but a majority say the U.S. should increase its use of renewable energy and decrease fossil fuel use. Those who are most concerned, The Alarmed, have grown; while the other end of the spectrum, The Dismissive, have decreased.

Will the public wake up in sufficient numbers in time? That’s the big question.

I take heart in the lesson I learned in college from studying Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions: change in worldview happens slowly, even imperceptibly, for a long time—until the sudden revolutionary leap to a new understanding. Writing this post on the 44th Earth Day, my wish is for that revolutionary leap to come soon.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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