Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing.

In a front page article Saturday, “Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus,” the NYT opens with some mostly bad messaging advice from EcoAmerica:

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”

Yes, EcoAmerica is pushing the inapt phrase, “our deteriorating atmosphere” over “global warming” (and even over “climate change”).  And EcoAmerica recommends generally skipping or dumbing down most of the climate science message.  And EcoAmerica is pushing stuff that is just plain counterproductive — I quote now from material they handed out at a 2-hours presentation I attended last week:

It is also important to accept people’s uncertainty about climate change but move past it with messages such as “whatever caused it, scientists know what will fix it.”

Not.  Definitely not.  I’m not sure it even makes sense for moderate politicians talking to groups of swing voters and trying to push a very, very short-term message about Waxman-Markey.  But I’m quite certain it would be a suicidal message for climate science activists, for anyone seriously concerned about averting catastrophic global warming.

We know what is causing global warming and climate change.  To suggest that we don’t is the equivalent of undermining the essential credibility of our message and of what we are trying to do — help the public and policymakers make decisions based on science to preserve the health and well-being of their children, grandchildren and the next 50 generations.

I have previously argued that phrases like “whatever caused it, scientist know what will fix it” are pure gobbledygook.  If humans are not the cause of global warming then in fact scientists don’t know how to fix it.

[Note:  Many readers asked for the source of my earlier recommendations — Messaging 101: ‘Green’ jobs are out, ‘clean energy’ jobs are in. It is EcoAmerica.  But whereas their suggestions on energy are mostly good, the same is not true about their climate advice.]

Let me run through some of the reasons why their climate messaging analysis is neither reliable nor strategic:

  1. Other recent messaging and polling analysis contradicts it.  I heard an extended presentation just last month from a different group with their polling, and they did not recommend shying away from the science.  They simply suggested not making it more than half your message.  That’s certainly what I recommend.  Indeed, other people in the audience with me at the ecoAmerica presentation made the same point that they had seen polling with different conclusions.
  2. Many of EcoAmerica’s findings are based on dial group responses.  If somebody has a controlled study on whether a phrase that gets a positive response in a dial group is actually more persuasive or more memorable over the long-term than a phrase that gets a negative response, I’d love to see it.  Obviously if you give people a dial to turn when you are telling them bad news — “you have diabetes” — they aren’t going to like to hear that message.  But if you are a credible source, I suspect they are more likely to take action (especially as more symptoms reveal themselves) than if you just tell them — “eating tasty fruits and crunchy vegetables will help you live longer,” which would probably score much better on a dial group.  You need both messages.  Equally.
  3. In fact, I believe it was ecoAmerica’s president and founder, Robert Perkowitz, himself who conceded to me after the meeting that people will sometimes give a negative dial response to a message that in fact turns out to be an effective and persuasive messaging strategy.  I believe that ecoAmerica work’s on clean energy messaging is pretty good, as I discussed in Part 1, because I think the dial groups can tell you which positive message works better than another positive message.  But I think the dial groups are largely useless for helping you with what I’d call “reality-based messaging” on climate.
  4. The dial groups (but even the focus groups to a certain extent) are essentially passive ways to measure a response to a message to a very targeted audience.  If you were giving a short speech in front of a large group of swing voters, then in that narrow case, their results might be useful to factor in.  The vast majority of people I know don’t do that.  We sometimes go out and give talks, but then we have a lot of time to explain ourselves.  I also have serious doubts about using some of their suggestions for many other audiences, including the media.
  5. “Our deteriorating atmosphere” is a dead end phrase.  It is too inapt and unwieldy to be picked up by the key message pushers.  EcoAmerica wants to tie in the general frame of “pollution threatens your health and your children’s health.”  That is always worth talking about.  But it is very hard to see how a six-syllable word is going to be a core element of successful messaging, especially in a passive phrase like that.  Now ecoAmerica was also pushing the word “damage,” and I do think an active phrase like “we are damaging the atmosphere,” isn’t bad.  But the message isn’t strategic, which brings me to the key point:
  6. We are engaged in a multi-year messaging struggle here.  The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme.  One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned.  To shy away from telling people the truth because they don’t want to hear it or they think it’s liberal claptrap is just incredibly un-strategic.  EcoAmerica doesn’t want people to talk about “global warming.”  And — even worse — they don’t want people to talk about extreme weather, which, as I have previously argued, is in fact the same thing that the climate deniers want — see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?”  You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.

True, if you use phrases like “global warming” you will activate certain frames in the audience because the right wing and fossil fuel disinformation machine have done a tremendous job politicizing this issue, making it seem like just another liberal-conservative argument, rather than a science vs. denier argument.  But does that mean we concede the powerful science frame just because the other side is more consistently effective and repetitious with their messaging?

The NYT reports:

Environmental issues consistently rate near the bottom of public worry, according to many public opinion polls. A Pew Research Center poll released in January found global warming last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and decreasing the influence of lobbyists. “We know why it’s lowest,” said Mr. Perkowitz, a marketer of outdoor clothing and home furnishings before he started ecoAmerica, whose activities are financed by corporations, foundations and individuals. “When someone thinks of global warming, they think of a politicized, polarized argument. When you say ‘global warming,’ a certain group of Americans think that’s a code word for progressive liberals, gay marriage and other such issues.”

I think Perkowitz has this backwards.  Why is it “lowest”?  Lots of reasons.  Probably the two most important factors that drive what the public thinks is important  are 1) How the major news stories are framed by the media and 2) What the White House focuses its messaging effort on.  The media by and large downplay the issue — since they basically believe they “did global warming” back in 2006 with Gore’s movie and 2007 with the IPCC report.  In particular, they follow ecoAmerica’s bad advice and largely fail to tell the public about the link between extreme weather and global warming (see, for instance, “CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story “” never mention climate change”  and most stories here).

The media also downplay the issue because their primary source for information on climate science — climate scientists — also downplay the issue.  As one top UK environmental editor wrote recently, “Far from over-playing their hand to swell their research coffers, scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction” (see UK Guardian: “To stop a climate catastrophe “¦ Scientists must stop sanitising their message”).

And let’s please remember a 2007 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded: “The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”  For 8 years!  So I don’t think it’s a big surprise that global warming is not a bigger issue for the public, especially in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression.  And let’s remember that while progressive messaging has been scattershot at best, the right wing deniers have been both persistent and effective in their disinformation campaign.  They have politicized this issue and pushed a partisan framing.  But that is hardly a reason for climate science activists to give up explaining the issue to the public.

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

Well, I’m all for dropping the word “environment” (see Let’s Dump “Earth Day”).  As I’ve said, messaging 101 is to be specific.  Yes, “jargon” is bad.  But details about science, economics, and technology are what people are hungry for.  That is in fact what makes you seem more credible.

Yes, if you are giving a 10 minute speech in front of swing voters, skip the details.  Duh.  But most of the rest of the time this just isn’t good advice.

Yes, aspirational language is important to use.  But a core tenet of rhetoric is to speak truthfully about what you know.  Rhetoric is the 25 century-old art of persuasion, which has largely been forgotten by people today, although modern day messaging gurus are constantly reinventing the wheel, figuring out core tenets of persuasion that were documented and taught centuries ago by the Greeks and Romans and the English-language masters of rhetoric, the Elizabethans.

If you don’t know the climate science, then you probably shouldn’t talk about it.  But frankly if you don’t know the science, you will be eaten alive by the informed conservative doubters in your audience, not to mention any professional deniers you might be debating or who might be on the same panel. A classic technique of rhetoric and debating is to go after your opponent on whatever they are weakest on.  That’s why you need to know the science and how to explain it and defend it.

So if you are out there pushing gobbledygook, a savvy conservative a clever contrarian (or even a sharp reporter) will make you look like an uninformed fool.  Remember the key line of the smarmy tobacco lobbyist in the must-see movie, Thank you for Smoking:

I don’t have to be right. I just have to prove you might be wrong.

So the deniers have the easier end of it on global warming messaging — they can throw out 100 lies and succeed if even one sticks.  That’s no reason to walk away from the science.  Quite the reverse.

Indeed, I think at some level, some of ecoAmerica’s recommendations are elitist, suggesting that we can’t explain the facts to swing voters — that they can’t handle the truth — but instead we need to use obscuring or vague phrases to persuade them.  I couldn’t disagree more.  And I’m not alone.

The fact that our best communicator — President Obama “The green FDR of clean, safe sources of energy that never run out” — takes every opportunity he has to speak about capping carbon dioxide and avoiding catastrophic global warming impacts is probably the clearest evidence that the rest of us climate messaging amateurs should also keep doing so.

I mostly agree with this sentiment from the end of the NYT article:

Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental communications, said ecoAmerica’s campaign was a mirror image of what industry and political conservatives were doing. “The form is the same; the message is just flipped,” he said. “You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell that. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”

He said the approach was cynical and, worse, ineffective. “The right uses it, the left uses it, but it doesn’t engage people in a face-to-face manner,” he said, “and that’s the only way to achieve real, lasting social change.”

I do fully agree that engaging people in a face-to-face manner with the truth is the only way to achieve real, lasting social change.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the best techniques of rhetoric (even if they have been partly rediscovered and abused by the advertising industry) in your messaging.  You’ll never win a debate against a skilled debater without rhetoric.  But I also think you’ll never win on this issue — and by win I mean avoid Hell and High Water [Note to self:  That phrase is as unlikely to replace global warming as “deteriorating atmosphere” even if it is both   — get over it!] — by downplaying the scientific reality.

What you need to know is not how to avoid talking about climate science to the public.  What you need to know is how to talk about climate science to the public — and that is subject of the next part in this series.


61 Responses to Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing.

  1. paulm says:

    Some thing we all probably suspected…well its true!

    Internet ‘draining world power’
    Web providers must limit internet’s carbon footprint, say experts

    Soaring online demand sapping electricity at increasing rate, say scientists

  2. Harrier says:

    I have to say, I thought ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ was just about the dumbest possible messaging they could come up with.

    I mean it’s not even accurate. It isn’t as though our atmosphere is going to suddenly collapse and have all our air and ozone and other stuff sucked away into space.

  3. Joe says:

    Nah. Very overblown. The energy use of internet is almost certainly higher than the energy saved by the internet.

  4. Susan says:

    Sadly, in the NYT reader’s comments there was a huge parade of lies, ignorance, and insults. It seems even the fairly literate readership of the NYT is willing to use anything and everything to either lead or be led into danger. “global cooling” prevalent, also the argument that using climate change represents a contradiction to global warming and the usual Gore kill the messenger stuff. I wish I had seen this earlier so I could have inserted something with facts and logic in it, which was largely absent.

  5. paulm says:

    “In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the internet … we need to rein in the energy consumption,” said Subodh Bapat, vice-president Sun Microsystems,.”

    Peak oil is going to have a big effect on the inter connectivity of society. Will we be able to keep up the globalization of information and knowledge?

    Its funny that they even made this comparison in the article…
    “One mile of driving completely dwarfs the cost of a search,” he said.

    and ends with the most ignorant of statements…
    “Internet usage is part of our consumption, just like TV is, or driving. There is consumption there, but in the grand scheme of things I think it is not the problem.”

  6. Gail says:

    I just ordered Fred Pearce’s “With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change” and I’m, um, looking forward to reading it, I guess!

    Susan wasn’t it you who said softening the science is like telling a lung cancer patient he has a bad cough? That’s an excellent analogy.

    I still like “climate chaos” because I think it implicitly contradicts the denier point – but it was cold in Michigan this winter! People need to understand that average temperature rise does not equate with even temperature rise, and that weather will make unpredictable shifts because of it. “Climate chaos” has a visceral impact and connects extreme weather events that do get a lot of media attention but not, so far, the connection to global warming/climate change.

  7. paulm says:

    So many people now recognize that bad climate change is occurring. They just haven’t a clue how bad its going to get and how close down the road it is. This includes most of the ones running our countries.

    Obama seems to be the only individual at the right level of power with the capacity to portray the grave severity of the situation to the masses. But he has to tread carefully. We need a few more leaders to realize and to stand up and convey this to everyone.

    The situation is just about at panic level and we are all mulling around with our eyes wide shut. This is so bizarre.

  8. Gail says:

    paulm, I am afraid that the percentage of people who recognize bad climate change is occurring is still fairly tiny, especially those that believe it is happening now, and is going to affect them personally. Most of the people I interact with – and they all have college degrees if not more advanced – are utterly oblivious. I work with young children and it amazes me how much their parents worry germs, and pedophiles, and pesticides in food, and they buy the latest most expensive safety equipment – but they don’t give a stray thought to the climate.

    I almost wish I was like them. I miss the days when I worried about less intransigent problems.

    And I do agree with you – it is bizarre.

  9. Susan says:

    Thanks Gail, I’ve used points like that but it is not original with me. The thing that is grabbing me by the eyeballs (and every other part of my fear and loathing sensory mechanism) is the intensity of the denial effort. I think we all underestimate how much money and influence is being used to create confusion and indifference. Being by nature truthful and trusting, we find it hard to believe that denial professionals lie a lot.

    Two hopeful things: Dr. Holdren is outstanding!

    This one is really sad, but I think there’s a pretty good chance we’re in for a truly nasty summer.

  10. Gail says:

    anyone seen this?

    It’s the new nimby.

  11. paulm says:

    I think we are at the stage now were bodies like the EPA should start compiling survival plans, advisories and manuals for there is a more than likely possibility of a BAU outcome.

    The probability for a complete collapse of civilization and society is growing by the month and has got to be quite high now. Has anyone seen a figure for this anywhere?

    The EPA should now start advising the public on this possibility and advertise how to cope with this outcome. I think the situation is similar to the cold war scenario , only worse (but on a more drawn out scale). There were all sorts of procedures for coping with that reality.

    This is what we need now. People have to realize that the outcome of BAU will be very much survival on a family and community level, with a total collapse of global civilization.

  12. Bob Wright says:

    A friend who teaches 4th grade is very busy, and says she gets a lot of news and information from the “Weekly Reader”, including climate change. Humorous, yes, but if you read some of the WR stuff, its clear and to the point, and proves you don’t have to further dumb down concepts a 10-year-old can understand (of course not expecting critical analysis).

  13. Susan says:

    hi Gail,

    yes, I like fivethirtyeight. The comment community is a little radical and they are largely uncensored, but there was some excellent sense by some of the commenters. The true community are not in need of enlightenment on the situation, but it is a statistics site, which makes it one of the few legitimate places to post about polls.

  14. Alex J says:

    I remain somewhat partial to “global heating”. More accurate, encompassing terminology, like “accelerating holocene climate change”, may not be very media-friendly.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    Off-topic, but alarming indicates why it is not just the atmosphere.

    Furthermore, ocean acidification is happening even more quickly in the Arctic, as shown in Stenacher et al. (2009, April), “Imminent ocean acidification in the Arctic projected with the NCAR global coupled carbon cycle-climate model,” (open access):

    We highlight that the Arctic Ocean surface becomes undersaturated with respect to aragonite at even lower CO2 concentration (than the Southern Ocean). The combination of observation-based estimates … with NCAR CSM1.4-carbon model projection indicates that 10% of the surface water along the investigated Arctic transect will become undersaturated for at least one month of the year when atmospheric CO2 exceeds 409 ppm.

    Thanks to Larry’s comment 422 on the RealClimate thread
    “Hit The Breaks Hard”.

  16. Dave says:

    I have to agree with you, Joe. Watching the panic unfold over the swine flu shows that the way to get public interest is not to minimize the threat. People listen to professional health organizations like the CDC and WHO; I wonder why some of these same people won’t listen to the IPCC and all other relevant science bodies in relation to global warming.

    The only thing I can think of is that they have truly been deluded into thinking climate change is not a threat and, if it is, that it won’t affect them. For instance, if swine flu was only found in third-world sub-Saharan African, do you think any of these panicky people would care about it? They sure don’t care about malaria and other diseases over there that have been eradicated. So, the key to convincing people that action needs to be taken is to stay on message and NOT minimize the threat whatsoever. I’m not saying it should be exaggerated – just tell the truth about what is likely to happen and connect it to their lives (or the lives of their children/grandchildren). As the climate continues to warm, certain calamitous events will certainly become more likely. The few holdovers will lose an audience, even among the right-wing.

  17. Gail says:

    Dave, I think one of Joe’s points is that there has been a very well-funded orchestrated campaign to cast doubt on the climate science, whereas there is no comparable effort to downplay the ravages of a disease. Plus, people can relate personally to becoming sick but they don’t see any immediate convincing links between extreme weather, for example, and climate change.

    That’s why I’ve been trying to convince people that in fact, they are experiencing damage from climate change, which is going to get much much worse, and soon. Although, to little avail.

    Look I haz a blog now! It’s Richard Pauli’s fault, he egged me on. I think because he’s sick of seeing me post here at CP so much! haha. I blog therefor I am!

  18. I prefer, “Climate Chaos” overall, as this best describes what is now happening and what the future holds in store for all of us.

    But it makes absolutely no difference at all what it is called

  19. paulm says:

    Hey, go Gail go!

    Why do we listen to WHO and CDC and not IPCC?

    Scientist have failed to convince the policy makes on the gravity of the situation. I guess a lot of them where in denial of the level of risk involved – after all this is way out of proportion to what we have been exposed to in modern history.

    The function of the IPCC was to inform mainly on the science and not policy. That responsibility needs to be now taken on by WHO, CDC, EPA etc. They need to get their finger out and raise the level of alarm and prepare us for the various outcomes.

    So more disturbing news….

    Climate chaos predicted by CO2 study
    World will have exceeded 2050 safe carbon emissions limit by 2020, scientists say
    The world will overshoot its long-term target on greenhouse gas emissions within two decades. A study has found that the average global temperature will rise above the threshold that could cause dangerous climate change during that time.

  20. Gail says:

    Thank you paulm!

    Significant Other blames the scientists for not sounding the alarm. I constantly point out that isn’t the way they operate or are trained, it’s like, blame the messengers…but the Aussie letter is an encouraging sign that may be changing.

    And Susan, I agree if the spring thus far is any indication, we are looking at some wild and to put a hopeful spin on it, convincingly indicative weather this summer.

    Survival Acres, in visiting your site, you have put this into an entirely new level for me. Thank you for being refreshingly blunt, even if you have put a serious dent into my evening.

  21. Bob Perkowitz says:

    Hey Joe… What background do you have in the cognitive sciences or marketing?

    [JR: Formal-Education-wise, none. But then, we aren’t exactly talking cognitive sciences or marketing here, are we? We are really talking the 25-century-old art of rhetoric, which isn’t taught much any more (and most of the people who do teach it, don’t really understand it) and which marketing has (unwittingly, in most cases) embraced. Most people who are expert in rhetoric these days are self taught.

    I seriously doubt there are very many people in or out of the business (or academia) who have read more books on rhetoric and the art of verbal persuasion than I have — or studied the subject as closely. I have also taken professional speaker-training, given hundreds of talks, listened to and studied as many polling/focus group presentations as I could in this area, and written about rhetoric and messaging extensively.

    This is an art as much as a science. If someone out there has a degree in global warming messaging — if somebody out there is the world’s expert on what the right message is — please speak up. I am all ears. I spend almost 100% of my time doing this and am always looking for how to do it better.]

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Correction: Larry’s comment 424.

  23. Leif says:

    I have preferred “global climatic disruption” but must “climate chaos” has promise.

  24. ecostew says:

    The issue is AGW and its mitigation as we secure a sustainable energy security protecting food, water, and health (including education/population) as we protect the environment. AGW change is human driven, which is supported by peer-reviewed climate science.

  25. Gail says:

    framing the threat as climate chaos has a certain alliterative appeal.

    Lest us grasps at whatever fortuitous formulation we can use!

  26. David B. Benson says:

    “Climate chaos” implies lack of predictability; on decadal and regional scales that is certainly the case, while on centennial and global scales there remains the attractor, global overheating.

  27. Brad says:

    What about “the risk of the falling climate” or something. I think that history tells us that people react favourably (ie panic) when confronted with imminant catastrophies that they don’t understand.

  28. paulm says:

    how about ‘toxic climate change’

    I like ‘catastrophic climate change’ (CCC) as it adds the human dimension to it.

    Or you could refine it to ‘catastrophic climate failure’ (CCF) which reinforces the total collapse of the biosphere.

  29. Bob Perkowitz says:

    Hey Joe,
    Rhetoric all you want. As Einstein says, insanity is…

  30. Bob says:

    People react pretty strongly to immediate and obvious threats. But if a potential threat doesn’t quickly turn into something real and tangible, they tend to become complacent, and start to regard further warnings with some skepticism.

    We’ve been hearing about the threat of global warming now for years. Yet in terms of what people can see and feel, the climate really hasn’t changed all that much over that same period of time, because the rate of change is still pretty slow. At best, our impressions of weather trends are formed mostly by extreme or notable events, rather than changes in the average. We remember the big snow storm of ’94. We may have only vague impressions of how much more (or less) snow there was when we were kids (and yearning of a day off from school). Most will have a very poor ability to quantify trends in annual snow fall, based on their subjective recall of winters past. More often than not, we will be surprised when someone pulls out weather records and shows how imperfectly our subjective recollections match the data. Yet it is those subjective impressions that lend urgency to our reaction to a situation.

    This is the core of the problem with communicating a sense of urgency about climate change. I think that even if the media did what Joe wanted, became a propaganda arm for the environmental movement, came on TV every night with 30 minutes devoted to a detailed discussion of dire consequence, and imminent catastrophe, it would soon lose it’s power to motivate, if direct and visible confirmation of the predicted disaster was not forthcoming. And given the variability of weather, and the gradual nature of changes in climate, that direct confirmation will usually not be evident or clear cut.

    The swine flu story is a perfect example of the tendency to grow complacent to a threat: Right now, the media is giving us all kinds of dire warnings about what might happen, as illustrated by repeated discussion of the 1918 flu. Anxiety levels are high, and people are willing to act to protect themselves. And yet, one week into the story, with the fatality rate seemingly low, questions are already being asked: has the media over hyped this, has the government overreacted? If we don’t have a significant body count develop within the next couple of weeks, the story will wither away. And next fall, when the flu returns, and warnings begin to circulate again, the reaction will likely be: Oh No! Not this silliness again….

  31. Bob Perkowitz says:

    sorry Joe… we should take this offline.

  32. Bob Perkowitz says:

    the bob above with the big answer is not me

  33. Jim Beacon says:

    Oh lord… I’ve been as guilty as anyone else in suggesting how best to message this stuff for public consumption — particularly in advocating using terms like “human accelerated warming” to hammer home that we are not talking about whatever ‘natural’ warming/cooling cycles there may or may not be — but this is getting ridiculous. Global warming was a perfectly fine and descriptive phrase… the only reason it now conjures up visions of “shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes” is because the mainstream media portrayed it that way for the last 30 years (and because the deniers love to caricature it that way as well, it suits their purposes).

    So, OK, now we’re using Climate Change instead as the preferred phrase and that works too. It’s actually more utilitarian because it can also be used to describe the effects of, um, global warming, such as increasing hurricane and flood activity and general disruption to the biosphere that the warming results in.

    But what we don’t need is yet *another* term for the problem. Nor do any of us need to spend precious time debating what the new term should be when we could all be doing something more serious about it.

    Besides, the EcoAmerica suggestions were just plain stupid. Not viable at all… almost like they were deliberately intended to spark debate and controversy and distract people. (?)

  34. Frank C. says:

    Joe, I am a professional communicator, and frequently work on public policy issues, and I agree with you 100% .

  35. Frank C. says:

    Let me add that I think Bob Perkowitz is taking private sector techniques too far in a realm (politics) where they are only partially applicable.
    Many experts can go wildly wrong…just read Lakoff’s Elephant, where his section on foreign policy is absolutely atrocious. Yet there is fine work in there as well.

    Finally, I’d like to emphasize the importance of context and actors in communicating about these kinds of issues. Al Gore often pays the price of his prior (political career) strategic communications bumbling even when he speaks scientific truth at any given moment; he becomes a lightning rod too easily. Moreover, it’s a negative to have this too closely tied to him; this is much more than his personal crusade.

    However, when a President Obama discusses carbon dioxide, he is not easily mocked. And over time, a President’s language and framing does tend to disseminate within a party. If Obama chooses to make this a priority, we’ll see others talking about concrete scientific concepts like carbon dioxide more.

    Also, Joe, I would urge you to continue to press your views on scientific communication; you’re well placed to do so.

  36. Anne says:

    Increasingly, I am convinced that the best way to describe climate change is to name the impacts:

    Coastal Flooding

    Deadlier hurricanes

    Damaging Storm Surges

    Heat Waves

    Prolonged droughts

    Insect infestations in our forests

    Threats to food security

    Threat mulitipliers

    Threats to national security

    Human-induced global suicide

    … and ratchet up as needed…..

  37. I was hoping that you would write about this article!

    There are nuggets worth saving. I do think that it’s important to move away from debating climate change as a general rule. And I think that any climate change argument should not be entirely grounded in the future, but should include a What’s In It For Me laundrylist of practical, immediate benefits. Electric cars do as much to reduce asthma rates and smog now as they do to avert catastrophe later.

    I also strongly believe that climate change messaging must be aspirational in order to work–it’s the only way humans enjoy thinking about the future or the unknown. Cleaner is nicer. Cleaner is moving up the ladder.

    But merely parroting conservative tactics at a time when conservatives are listening to people like Glen Beck and waving teabags around and Sarah Palin is awash in ethics charges seems behind the curve at best.

    And what is a deteriorating atmosphere? I can’t see that!

  38. If climate change messaging wants to get with it, we will all turn away from the climate part and the global part and the atmospheric part because those terms are enormous and vague and do nothing but induce a sensation of powerlessness that makes people walk away–even people who kind of care.

    It is more truthful to think in terms of Human Extinction. The earth is going to be fine–what we are working to save here is the human race and civilization as we know it. But of course saving oneself from extinction is decidedly not aspirational.

    Another way to get at the same human-not-climate framing is to launch a much more complex narrative that turns away from the individual rights of Americans and works to build communities of humans that work together toward environmental aims–Michael Shellenberger writes eloquently about this in Breakthrough.

    It’s more subtle, and the right phrase doesn’t exist yet because the actual work of turning environmentalism into a collective and not an individual pursuit isn’t done yet. But if people who cared started banding together on a community level and started thinking about their common environment in a joyful, immediate, sustaining way, this would go a long way toward solving the pervasive scale-and-fear problems that confound climate change marketers.

    Bob Perkowitz, if you’re still listening, I honestly think it’s smartest to think bottom-up, in terms of a hybrid that marries activism, certain community aspects of church, and experiential marketing.

  39. Dorothy says:

    Paul, thank you for the link to the BBC story on the Global Carbon Emissions Budget. We have this on our West Coast Climate Equity site, as well a one from the Australia Climate Code Red, which has more detail:

    This is truly one of the most frightening news items I’ve read, and we should all try to get something about this into the mainstream media. But how do we do this? People everywhere should know how badly out of balance our carbon budget is. To fix it before it’s too late will be a truly daunting task.

    I’ve just Googled ‘Global Carbon Emissions Budget,’ and there are no mainstream stories that I can see, and very few of the climate blogs have put it this up. Four, actually. Our blog, West Coast Climate Equity, Yale Environment 360, Climate Change: The Next Generation, and Climate Code Red. People should see this story covered on their TV news programs.

    Great post, Joe, and intelligent response. Perhaps we could coin a new term: ‘climate thinkers.’

  40. Rick says:

    how about – Wealth Redistribution Gasses? or maybe we could establish a new bureaucracy: The Power Centralization Emission Control Commission.

    – but whatever you come up with, I can’t help wondering if this messaging problem is indicating a cracking in the structure of the whole movement…..just wishful thinking I suppose.

  41. paulm says:

    Good MSM article on the consiquences of toxic climate change…

    Climate change and your health

    The debate is over; nearly all scientists (and politicians) agree that climate change is real, is here, and is the result of human activity. Experts also agree that the consequences of global warming are serious and far reaching. All too often, though, these consequences are framed in terms of the threat to polar bears, exotic wildlife, and beautiful glaciers. Without minimizing the value of stately bears and snow-covered peaks, many people find it hard to make lifestyle changes and economic sacrifices to protect such distant assets. But climate change threatens more than the earth’s vistas. It also threatens human health — and it’s already causing problems here in the United States.

  42. paulm says:

    Looks like the health sector finally getting in on the act – CDC shouldn’t be far behind – maybe they have read your blog joe.

    The CDC have nothing on the web front page and no alerts in the relevant section.

    Come on Climateprogress blogger lets petition them to start addressing the most important issue in the history of the human race (MIIHH) at the right level of alarm.

  43. The choice is between “Dirty Power” and “Clean Power.” A simple and accurate battlecry is what we need. “Power” is better than “energy” because it has fewer syllables, is more to the point, and does not have the baggage of “renewable energy.” Power sounds like it’s got a purpose, but energy sounds like a lot of aimless dithering around — more heat than work, like the Green Team so far. Power generation, for electricity and for transport, is the issue.

    Dirty Power (delivery of energy for work using coal and fossil fuels) has the downside of ash emissions, CO2, and acid rain. It has the upside of familiarity and reliability.

    Clean Power (delivery of energy for work using wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal) has the downside of intermittency and unfamiliarity, which defects are amplified by the antique grid we have now for the delivery.

    Natural gas and biofuels are still Dirty Power (they emit CO2) and the fact that they are not as bad as coal does not make them clean. Discussion of biofuels and natgas is relevant to energy independence, which distracts from global climate change.

    The term “green” should be scrapped, as it has been way overextended and has no intrinsic meaning. I agree with David B. Benson: “climate chaos” sounds a lot more like Hell and High Water than the wimpy and wonky “our deteriorating atmosphere” which sounds like the whine of an aesthete.

  44. Maybe Smart-Stupid instead of Clean-Dirty, or even pound it in harder by calling for a change from “Stupid, Dirty Power, like we had in the Bush years” to “Smart, Clean Power, which America now aims for”). The spectrum describes a lot of things, including foreign policy, earmarks, lobbyists, etc.

  45. Wilmot, I see what you’re getting at, but if the Bush-Rove machine taught us anything, it’s that us v. them is effective in the short term, but it has a serious recoil.

    Truly smart climate change strategy will create serious, tangible narratives and opportunities for all the people liberals have been calling stupid for so long.

  46. Not just carbon fuels, but now big pharma gets caught in the act of duplicity and ethical lapse.

    It seems that Merck create their own phony peer reviewed journal – for the sole task of promoting their drugs

    Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine

  47. Deborah Fisher — I agree about the recoil, and about the need to enlist more friends, rather than confirm old enemies.

    The boast of Clean Coal will now be called, to the chagrin or credit of its proponents. Let’s see what they can actually do to reduce coal emissions. Then we can call them smart and clean, but while their battlecry is “No We Won’t” it probably is better to call them something else.

  48. How about “Weird World Weather”?

    Everyone agrees the weather lately has been weird, and what is chaos but weirdness (non-linear dynamics, e.g. the butterfly effect)? You pump up the energy in the global atmosphere (global warming) and it wants to dissipate that energy, by a coherent dissipative system, otherwise known as a hurricane. “Weather” sounds like storms, whereas “climate” does not.

    “Global climate change” does not sound like anything to be upset about, no matter what Al Gore says. “Global” means too big for an individual to care about, “climate” is an average (which scientists admit won’t be skewed more a few degrees, seemingly trivial), and “change” sounds like either the usual ups and downs or else something that’s beyond our power.

    “Global climate change” is just a shibboleth of the cognoscenti, since only bumpkins say “global warming.” Yes, it encompasses cooling, but is that such a big increase in persuasiveness?

  49. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Thanks. I was agreeing with Gail on “climate chaos”.

  50. Gail says:

    the intro is a bit tedious, but Dr. Stephen Holdren makes a pitch for his terminology. I still prefer climate chaos, but his explanation as to why change and warming are inadequate is worth perusal.

  51. Susan says:

    Gail, I like your blog! Does Stephen Holdren (baseball) come into it? John Holdren was impressive in person at MIT.

    After at least 30 years of cyclical broken record denial arguments, I agree it’s time to find a way to finesse the echo chamber and move on. Somehow the poorly educated public needs to regain their self-respect through learning what is really going on.

    re global warming/climate change, I think we’re stuck with the words. But it’s easy to say global warming is a description of what causes climate change, perhaps too simplistic but fairly effective. It disses the guff that we changed from GW to CC.

  52. Susan says:

    Please take a look at this. The rest of his work and links are newsworthy as well but this one is spot on.

  53. Sere says:

    Our greatest stupidities may be very wise.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein

    Wittgenstein was not being merely paradoxical when he said that. He meant that there are reasons, deep reasons, for all sorts of human behaviors and institutions that would otherwise seem retrograde or irrational. Yet Wittgenstein himself was no irrationalist; indeed, mathematics, logic and the structure and use of natural language were his main concerns. Yet this genius rejected the idea that we *know all we need to know already.* When he wrote that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” his point is profound. He means that philosophy does not make progress like an empirical discipline, a science; and yet, despite this lack of progress, we are always returning to the large philosophical questions. And the large questions of theology and morality. He did not expect solutions to these eternal questions, but he hoped we would go very slowly and realize how “slippery” these largest questions remain. He wrote: “he wins who gets there last.”

    Today we want to move very quickly indeed. The sort of people who are reading the NYT have a new religion. It is a compound of moralizing “environmentalism” and perpetually offended and righteous egalitarianism. Let’s call it “eco-nihilism.” This quasi-religion has a fundamental idea: “Nature” is truth; is innocent; is undefiled.” Human beings, the detestable exploiters, are “destroying Nature.” The Hummer-roaches, the humans, are an outrage to Gaia. In their lust for control and dominion (very dirty words indeed), they have abominated the innocent Earth, and the outraged eco-consciousness, the green mind, must find a way to reduce this disgusting and vulgar “human footprint.” The only other valid purposes are the cultivation of “social justice” and the elimination of suffering. When human rationality has chastened itself and achieved “justice” – when human institutions have lessened the unbearable weight of human and animal oppression and pain, then the endgame may begin.

    The ones who will execute this endgame are the eco-nihilists. They believe that human beings have been “bad stewards” of the Earth. The Earth, a mere material object, is no mere material object to the eco-nihilists. It is, rather, a despoiled temple. The eco-nihilists believe that man should take steps to remove himself from the earth; to voluntarily seek extinction. This is the morally most perfect act according to the dogma of eco-nihilism.

    The people who will most violently reject Fish and Eagleton’s mild claims are precisely these eco-nihilists. They know everything; and they know what to do. In my opinion, these servants of Gaia are the most miserable creatures to have ever existed, and some of us will resist their dogma and indoctrination until the end.

  54. Gail says:

    Sere, you are so silly. Start with the ludicrously broad brush stroke in referencing “The sort of people who read the NYTimes.” If you bothered to read the comments to op-eds about gobal warming/climate change/chaos you would realize that a significant proportion of writers is solidly in the denier camp.

    If there are any “eco-nihilists” they are a tiny fringe and not evident here at CP. I get the impression there are a number of followers who are trained scientists. Then there are people like me, ordinary citizens who have done enough reading to understand that our species is in peril due to our own wasteful habits and further, if we want our children to enjoy a habitable environment, we should have started yesterday to clean it up. Hardly a religious belief.

    I can picture you in the not-so-distant future, shrieking at the rising waters to slow down, and resisting the indoctrination of those dogmatic waves, until the end.

  55. Gail says:

    Ha ha Night Owl Susan, thank you for that dark green humor, I have bookmarked the Throbgoblin site!

  56. That’s heavy, Sere. Wittgenstein on Weird World Weather, praising deliberate stupidity as wisdom. Now we can see that George W. Bush was a deep guy after all, with an intellectual pedigree like Wittgenstein — and we thought he couldn’t read! The eco-nihilist, NYT-reading, do-gooder dupes of the Uber-Nerd, Al Gore, are in full retreat before the invincible forces of George W. Bush, the Uber-Goober.

  57. Sere has a point.

    The environmentalist argument as it currently exists is structurally problematic. It’s essentialist instead of pragmatic, and because of this structural flaw, it’s really easy to mischaracterize or ignore as nihilist, perpetually aggrieved, fundamentalist.

    There are a million ways to move forward with a strong, pro-environment agenda that is pragmatic instead of essentialist, and that refuses to collapse into the religion-ey aspects Sere is finding so offensive. I am a die-hard supporter of environmental causes, and I find them offensive too.

  58. Mike Mason says:

    What should be obvious is that the US does not lack fossil fuel resources. Resources that, if developed, would provide fuel at our current use rate for a thousand years, that would achieve fossil fuel independence and could make the US a net exporter of energy.

    Why did we have to have $4 a gallon gas, why is the domestic auto industry on the ropes or down the tubes, why are we paying Trillions to middle east Tyrants so they can develop nuclear bombs to use on us and the Jews, why are we there at all?

    The answer is that our government actively prevents and has prevented private industry from drilling offshore, from drilling in the arctic, from developing oil shale, from developing the Bakken field or developing Nuclear power. It even acts illegally, in constraint of trade, to prevent local power development and jobs that could greatly benefit our community. First under Bush and his RINO hypocrites (Republicans) and now with a vengeance under Obama and his National Socialist Party (Democrats), it is a failure directly and deliberately brought on by our government and nothing else.

    These destructive laws are being proposed to head off the so-called evils of “Global Warming”. But before we go on a rampage against our economy some one should ask what is the cost benefit ratio of cutting our carbon use? For example what would it cost to cut our carbon (fossil fuels) use by 10% and just how much would the earth cool as a direct result of that? The answer certainly surprised me. It has already cost Trillions in increased oil payments to Arabs because we didn’t develop our own substantial oil reserves and therefore choose to remain dependent on them. It will cost Trillions more in electric bills that are expected to triple because cheap coal fired power plants are not being permitted or are being idled. All this damage, war and wasted effort to cool the earth just 1/100th of a degree Fahrenheit, 1/100th of a degree that won’t even be measurable if at all for 50 to 100 YEARS. This is pure insanity and a crime committed against our own people by their so-called representatives.

    All of this completely unnecessary destruction of wealth and human potential is being imposed by politicians who seem to have no understanding of the economic engine and the principles of liberty and freedom enshrined in the Constitution that gave us such unprecedented opportunity in the past.

    Vote the bums out ASAP before, penniless, we freeze to death in the dark for nothing!

  59. Marion Delgado says:

    Look at how many people foolishly embraced, and tried to push off on the rest of us, the “Death of Environmentalism” trope and the Breakthrough Institute.

    The corporate media likes nothing better than having stooges or people who are inept or non-representative pretend to represent the opposition to their preferred position on issues.

  60. Marion Delgado says:

    As a point of technical accuracy, in the States the media conversion from global warming to climate change was a coordinated public relations campaign by the Republican National Committee, on advice of their chief pollster, Frank Luntz, who found that the public was less fearful and more receptive to the idea that there was not a climate crisis when “climate change” was used vs. “global warming.”