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:
- The broad American public is exposed to virtually no doomsday messages, let alone constant ones, on climate change in popular culture (TV and the movies and even online). There is not one single TV show on any network devoted to this subject, which is, arguably, more consequential than any other preventable issue we face.
- The same goes for the news media, whose coverage of climate change has collapsed (see “Network News Coverage of Climate Change Collapsed in 2011“). When the media do cover climate change in recent years, the overwhelming majority of coverage is devoid of any doomsday messages — and many outlets still feature hard-core deniers. Just imagine what the public’s view of climate would be if it got the same coverage as, say, unemployment, the housing crisis or even the deficit? When was the last time you saw an “employment denier” quoted on TV or in a newspaper?
- The public is exposed to constant messages promoting business as usual and indeed idolizing conspicuous consumption. See, for instance, “Breaking: The earth is breaking … but how about that Royal Wedding?
- Our political elite and intelligentsia, including MSM pundits and the supposedly “liberal media” like, say, MSNBC, hardly even talk about climate change and when they do, it isn’t doomsday. Indeed, there isn’t even a single national columnist for a major media outlet who writes primarily on climate. Most “liberal” columnists rarely mention it.
- At least a quarter of the public chooses media that devote a vast amount of time to the notion that global warming is a hoax and that environmentalists are extremists and that clean energy is a joke. In the MSM, conservative pundits routinely trash climate science and mock clean energy. Just listen to, say, Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe mock clean energy sometime.
- The major energy companies bombard the airwaves with millions and millions of dollars of repetitious pro-fossil-fuel ads. The environmentalists spend far, far less money. As noted above, the one time they did run a major campaign to push a climate bill, they and their political allies including the president explicitly did NOT talk much about climate change, particularly doomsday messaging
- Environmentalists when they do appear in popular culture, especially TV, are routinely mocked.
- There is very little mass communication of doomsday messages online. Check out the most popular websites. General silence on the subject, and again, what coverage there is ain’t doomsday messaging. Go to the front page of the (moderately trafficked) environmental websites. Where is the doomsday?
If you want to find anything approximating even modest, blunt, science-based messaging built around the scientific literature, interviews with actual climate scientists and a clear statement that we can solve this problem — well, you’ve all found it, of course, but the only people who see it are those who go looking for it.
Of course, this blog is not even aimed at the general public. Probably 99% of Americans haven’t even seen one of my headlines and 99.7% haven’t read one of my climate science posts. And Climate Progress is probably the most widely read, quoted, and reposted climate science blog in the world.
Anyone dropping into America from another country or another planet who started following popular culture and the news the way the overwhelming majority of Americans do would get the distinct impression that nobody who matters is terribly worried about climate change. And, of course, they’d be right — see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2.”
It is total BS that somehow the American public has been scared and overwhelmed by repeated doomsday messaging into some sort of climate fatigue. If the public’s concern has dropped — and public opinion analysis suggests it has dropped several percent (though is bouncing back a tad) — that is primarily due to the conservative media’s disinformation campaign impact on Tea Party conservatives and to the treatment of this as a nonissue by most of the rest of the media, intelligentsia and popular culture.
What’s amazing to me is not the public’s supposed lack of concerned about global warming — another myth, debunked here — but that the public is as knowledgable and concerned as it is given the realities discussed above!
In Part 2, I’ll discuss how we know that this works — blunt, science-based messages that lay out the realistic threat posed by our inaction and the myriad cost-effective solutions available now, repeated as often as possible from multiple sources.