The two greatest myths about global warming communications are 1) constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy and 2) that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive!
These myths are so deeply ingrained in the environmental and progressive political community that when we finally had a serious shot at a climate bill, the powers that be decided not to focus on the threat posed by climate change in any serious fashion in their $200 million communications effort (see my 6/10 post “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?“). These myths are so deeply ingrained in the mainstream media that such messaging, when it is tried, is routinely attacked and denounced — and the flimsiest studies are interpreted exactly backwards to drive the erroneous message home (see “Dire straits: Media blows the story of UC Berkeley study on climate messaging“)
The only time anything approximating this kind of messaging — not “doomsday” but what I’d call blunt, science-based messaging that also makes clear the problem is solvable — was in 2006 and 2007 with the release of An Inconvenient Truth (and the 4 assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and media coverage like the April 2006 cover of Time). The data suggest that strategy measurably moved the public to become more concerned about the threat posed by global warming (see recent study here).
You’d think it would be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless one explains why they should be concerned about an issue. And the social science literature, including the vast literature on advertising and marketing, could not be clearer that only repeated messages have any chance of sinking in and moving the needle.
Because I doubt any serious movement of public opinion or mobilization of political action could possibly occur until these myths are shattered, I’ll do a multipart series on this subject, featuring public opinion analysis, quotes by leading experts, and the latest social science research.
Since this is Oscar night, though, it seems appropriate to start by looking at what messages the public are exposed to in popular culture and the media. It ain’t doomsday. Quite the reverse, climate change has been mostly an invisible issue for several years and the message of conspicuous consumption and business-as-usual reigns supreme.
The motivation for this post actually came up because I received an e-mail from a journalist commenting that the “constant repetition of doomsday messages” doesn’t work as a messaging strategy. I had to demur, for the reasons noted above.
But it did get me thinking about what messages the public are exposed to, especially as I’ve been rushing to see the movies nominated for Best Picture this year. I am a huge movie buff, but as parents of 5-year-olds know, it isn’t easy to stay up with the latest movies.
That said, good luck finding a popular movie in recent years that even touches on climate change, let alone one a popular one that would pass for doomsday messaging. Best Picture nominee The Tree of Life has been billed as an environmental movie — and even shown at environmental film festivals — but while it is certainly depressing, climate-related it ain’t. In fact, if that is truly someone’s idea of environmental movie, count me out.
The closest to a genuine popular climate movie was the dreadfully unscientific The Day After Tomorrow, which is from 2004 (and arguably set back the messaging effort by putting the absurd “global cooling” notion in people’s heads! Even Avatar, the most successful movie of all time and “the most epic piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid,” as one producer put it, omits the climate doomsday message. One of my favorite eco-movies, “Wall-E, is an eco-dystopian gem and an anti-consumption movie,” but it isn’t a climate movie.
I will be interested to see The Hunger Games, but I’ve read all 3 of the bestselling post-apocalyptic young adult novels — hey, that’s my job! — and they don’t qualify as climate change doomsday messaging (more on that later). So, no, the movies certainly don’t expose the public to constant doomsday messages on climate.
Here are the key points about what repeated messages the American public is exposed to: