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 — led by team Obama — decided not to focus on the threat posed by climate change in any serious fashion in their $200 million communications effort.
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.
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.
You’d think it would be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless opinion-leaders repeatedly explain why they should be concerned about an issue. That’s especially true in this case, where there is a massive fossil fuel funded effort to persuade the public not to be concerned about the issue. The latest stunning example of the disinformation campaign is revealed in the New York Times, whereby a fossil fuel company paid a leading climate-science-denying scientist for “scientific papers” peddling easily debunked contrarian science. The Times notes that the scientist, Willie Soon, “in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.”
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, as I discuss in my book “Language Intelligence.” One of the most popular quotes in the book is from GOP wordmeister Frank Luntz:
There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.
Because I doubt any serious movement of public opinion or mobilization of political action could possibly occur until these myths are shattered, I’ve been posting on the best work on climate messaging and public opinion analysis (see “A Guide For Engaging and Winning on Climate And Clean Energy” and Stanford: Candidates “May Actually Enhance Turnout As Well As Attract Voters Over To Their Side By Discussing Climate Change”).
Since this is Oscar night, though, it’s time to provide an update on 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.
Indeed, just last month, the data journalists at fivethirtyeight.com answered the question, “Is Hollywood On A Dystopian Movie Binge?” — what with the Hunger Games franchise, The rebooted Planet of the Apes series, Snowpiercer, and Interstellar. The answer is a resounding “no.”
Yes, we had the most number of dystopian movies last year — 18 — but 538 notes that we’re making a lot more movies now. As a result, “The peak year for dystopian films, expressed as a rate, according to IMDb, was 1995.” Last year a whopping one-fifth of one percent of movies made were tagged dystopian. And, of course, very few of those deal with global warming (see here) — and the few that do don’t present it as a plausibly solvable problem (see below).
The motivation for the original version of this post was an e-mail I received a few years ago 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 the myth keeps getting pushed — mostly by confusionists who want to want to be left in peace to keep spreading their disinformation that climate change is no big deal. For instance, earlier this month, Bjorn Lomborg — a leading climate inactivist from Denmark (or, rather, a misleading inactivist from the Koch network) — had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (where else?) headlined, “The Alarming Thing About Climate Alarmism.”
Lomborg asserts, “But isn’t that what has been done for the past 20 years? The public has been bombarded with dramatic headlines and apocalyptic photos of climate change and its consequences.” The op-ed is his usual easily-debunked nonsense. In fact, you can safely assume that if Bjorn says something, it is untrue and perhaps even the exact opposite of the truth.
However, it is worth thinking about what messages the public has been exposed to. Good luck finding a popular movie in recent years that even presents climate change as a doomsday scenario we can prevent if we act now. A few years ago, Best Picture nominee The Tree of Life was billed as an environmental movie — and even shown at environmental film festivals — but while it is certainly depressing, climate-related it ain’t. In 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild was an environmentally-themed movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It was seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in domestic gross to date, which means it was seen by somewhere north of one million Americans.
Now 2014 did see Snowpiercer, a post-climate-change movie. But the film begins after 99.9999 percent of the population dies from a failed geoengineering experiment to stop global warming that turns the Earth into a frozen, dystopic wasteland. Plus it ends with a message of nihilism, and is mostly about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, not climate change. Finally, it only grossed $4.56 million domestically (and $87 million worldwide).
Yes, 2014 had Interstellar, a fairly successful movie ($188M domestic, $485M international). But although it is post-apocalyptic, it is far from obvious that global warming was the cause. And the theme of this movie, as I discussed, appears to be “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” Not exactly eco-consciousness-raising.
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 — $2.7 billion global gross — 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 had some hopes for The Hunger Games franchise. I’d read all 3 of the bestselling young adult novels — hey, that’s my job! — and while post-apocalyptic, they don’t qualify as climate change doomsday messaging. Indeed, the first book, at least, strongly suggests that the suppressed revolution that led to the creation of the annual slaughter-fest known as “the hunger games” was preceded by a climate-driven apocalypse. But, as I discussed back in 2012, any connection to global warming was excised from the movie.
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 has been precisely one single TV show on any network (Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” — now on Netflix!) devoted to this subject, even though it 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 “Silence Of The Lambs: Climate Coverage Drops At Major U.S. Newspapers, Flatlines On TV”). 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 (Tom Friedman being the main exception).
- 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 or CNBC anchor Joe Kernen dismiss climate science.
- 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. There is 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 website is not even aimed at the general public, though it probably is the most widely read, quoted, reposted, liked and retweeted, 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 — at least until Obama’s renewed climate messaging in mid-2013 — have gotten the distinct impression that few people who matter are terribly worried about climate change.
It is total BS that somehow the American public has been scared and overwhelmed by repeated doomsday messaging into some sort of climate fatigue. The public’s concern did seem to drop several percent — but 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.
Ironically it took the post-apocalyptic horror of an actual warming-fueled superstorm to bring home the message that global warming is here and now.
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, see Yale Poll (1-13) Finds Climate Change Action Is A Political Winner and “Poll (2-14): Most Republicans Want To Regulate Carbon Pollution”
So the question now is whether the media, politicians, and popular culture will finally catch up to where the public is.