New Year’s Resolution: Jumpstart The Climate Change Conversation — Like The Pope

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

If you didn’t make a New Year’s resolution because they don’t seem to stick, or if you’ve already broken one, here’s one you can keep: Start talking about climate change. With everyone. If the Pope is going to do it, so can you.

Indeed, if, as reported, Pope Francis does issue a rare encyclical this spring explaining to the Earth’s 1.2 billion Catholics why their faith creates a moral urgency for climate action, then 2015 is the year to truly jumpstart a broadened climate conversation.

It’s time to break the deeply flawed — and ultimately self-destructive — unstated social contract on behalf of climate silence. I’m assuming it’s a social contract that explains, at least partly, why the media and the so-called intelligentsia and the vast majority of national politicians and Hollywood largely ignore or downplay what is the single most important preventable crisis facing American and the world (see here).

Even those who are knowledgeable and concerned about climate change have largely bought into this social contract (at least until very recently). Heck, when the environmental and progressive political community finally had a serious shot at a climate bill in 2009, 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.

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. In fact, the only time we saw any widespread and sustained science-based messaging on climate change (and its solutions) — was in 2006 and 2007 with the release of An Inconvenient Truth (and the four assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the resulting surge in media coverage). The data make clear that strategy measurably moved the public to become more concerned about the threat posed by global warming (see major study here).

Silence is an especially ineffective strategy when you are also dealing with the largest and most well-funded disinformation campaign in history, which devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to deny the science, downplay the danger, intimidate leading climate communicators, and generally promote a pro-pollution (and hence pro-collapse) message and political agenda.

One of the most amazingly nefarious successes of that campaign is convincing otherwise intelligent people that they shouldn’t talk too strongly about climate change to a general audience — or the broader public — for fear of offending some people. And so even some of the smartest and most well informed public figures use the ridiculous construction “even if the scientists are wrong.” For instance, Secretary of State and climate hawk John Kerry himself used it when discussing global warming in his Boston College commencement speech last May.

If we make the necessary efforts to address this challenge — and supposing I’m wrong or scientists are wrong, 97 percent of them all wrong — supposing they are, what’s the worst that can happen? We put millions of people to work transitioning our energy, creating new and renewable and alternative…

Imagine how well the anti-smoking public health campaign would have gone if the Surgeon General’s warning labels had said: “The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health — but supposing he’s wrong or medical researchers are wrong, what’s the worst that can happen? You save some money, stop yellowing your teeth, reduce the chances of starting a fire in bed…” The tobacco industry would have loved that.

And again, we are as certain that humans are responsible for most of the recent climate change as we are that smoking is unhealthy, as both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed.

In fact, if the world’s scientists are “wrong” about anything, it has been in ignoring key amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks in their climate models, such as the defrosting permafrost, or in downplaying the possibility of rapid, dynamic ice loss in the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica — even though it is already happening. If the scientists are “wrong” about anything, it’s in creating the impression that we know 2°C warming won’t result in a very dangerous world and in letting the deniers create the impression the IPCC is alarmist, when in fact it is quite conservative.

The only people who are likely to be offended by blunt conversation about the reality of climate change are the extremist Tea Party crowd. More and more public opinion analysis makes clear that talking about climate action drives a wedgebetween the anti-science Tea Party extremists and the rest of the Republican party (and independent/moderate voters).

For instance, a Pew poll out in late 2013 found that the Tea Party is the only major political group in this country mired in denial. While 67 percent of all Americans say “there is solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades,” and 61 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans say that, only 25 percent of Tea Party Republicans agree with that basic statement of fact.

In any case, to the extent society’s general silence and downplaying of the uncomfortable and “inconvenient” subject of climate change has been due to some sort of unstated social contract, that contract required in return that the “intelligentsia” actually deal with this problem. That didn’t happen.

The LGBT community didn’t advance marriage equality rapidly in the last decade by staying quiet in the closet. Instead, by having members of that community at every level of society break the previous social contract of silence, they were able to transform an issue that ten years ago was viewed as an outright political loser for progressives into one that has advanced faster than anyone expected — to the point where now it is mainstream conservatives who don’t want to talk about the issue.

Yes, the fight for serious climate action is vastly different from the fight for marriage equality. But it shares one major thing in common with it and indeed with all social movements: There is little possibility of success if the people who understand the morally untenable nature of the status quo don’t actively seek out and change the conversation across the board.

For those who do resolve to start speaking out more, a good place to start is this post from November, “How To Engage And Win The Conversation About Climate And Energy” and a post from 2013, “Moral Majority: Team Obama Finally Embraces The Winning Argument For Climate Action.”