An article in New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, Economic Collapse, a Sun that Cooks Us: What Climate Change Could Wreak—Sooner Than You Think” has gotten the climate communications experts all peeved. No no they say, “Fear is the mindkiller.”
and don’t go scaring Americans with “paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
Resilience.org’s own Richard Heinberg weighed in with his take.
Let’s face it, climate activists have been complicit in the biggest ongoing strategic communications failure of all time. We cannot figure out how to get Americans to care about their own survival regarding climate change yet. We have failed, are failing right now, and as far as I can tell will continue to fail far into the future, but in our defense:
- Climate science is surrounded by uncertainties and probabilities.
- Scientists are trusted messengers, but are too timid for the dog-eat-dog public sphere. Always hedging definitive statements with statements like “highly likely” even when they are talking about the fate of THE ENTIRE PLANET!)
- Global, slow-moving disasters always take a back seat to nearby fast-moving news stories. So, apparently, one person being killed is more of a headline grabber than THE ENTIRE PLANET!?!
- Our brains are not wired correctly to process the information.
- Facts are not enough, and as George Lakoff reminds us, if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off. Some of the frames in question are: I gotta feed my family, and if some invisible gas is emitted as a by-product, so be it. And I don’t want to sit in a dark room huddled in the cold just so I can feel virtuous for some benefit to my grandkids that you can’t even guarantee. Plus China is just going to keep emitting, so f- it.
- The fossil fuel industry has funded a wildly successful (for them) disinformation campaign (that, if it continues being successful, will doom THE ENTIRE PLANET!)
- We have never experienced anything like climate change before. We have never lived in an era like the Anthropocene before. This stuff all takes several Ph.D’s to understand and process, and no one has time for that.
- Apparently, being dumb is cool, and our country is turning into an Idiocracy of drooling, reality-TV watching, Internet trolls, who only care about themselves and their annoying Internet memes where they make fun of people who actually care about the FATE OF THE PLANET.
- And tons more, this is just a taste to get started.
Climate change communicators seem to prefer “happy talk” that includes enough “maybes” and “possiblys” so as to not exaggerate the science. True, climate activists are known for their doom and gloom. And true, there are some great business opportunities in decarbonizing our unsustainable economy (see Musk, Elon). Most of us are not going to become multi-billionaire entrepreneurs, but we could get involved in community-level efforts to green our schools, cities, congregations, etc. The real lesson is to include solutions in every article.
That said, the only thing to fear is NOT fear itself. Ignorance and self-imposed blinders are pretty bad too. Uncalled-for optimism could prevent us from making the really tough decisions that we probably will need to make. We need to be educated and willing to face inconvenient truths about the current state of the planet. So let’s name a few:
- No more wild elephants in 20-30 years
- 500 West African lions currently remaining
- At least 23,000 species are threatened with extinction, including 22% of mammal species, 14% of birds, 29% of evaluated reptiles, as many as 43% of amphibians, 29% of evaluated fish, 26% of evaluated invertebrate animals, and 23% of plants
- 7.5 billion people currently on Earth, which could go to 9.5 billion by 2050. Solution: provide access to education, economic opportunities, and health care, including family planning services, with a special focus on women’s rights.
- Sea level rise projected 2-3 feet by 2100.
- Current emissions trends are on track for a 7.2 degrees F (4 degrees C) rise in global mean temperature by 2100.
And while we’re at it, let’s discuss a few elements from previous mass extinctions of the ancient past here on Earth, things we need to be on the lookout for during our current human-caused climate disruption:
- Shutdown of the thermohaline cycle: If the movement of hot ocean water at the tropics toward the pole where it’s cooler shuts down, watch out!
- Forests drying out: Keep an eye on the Amazon. If it starts turning into kindling, watch out!
- A sudden release of methane clathrates: If there is a sudden release of pressurized methane trapped in tiny ice crystals known as “clathrates” caused by a melting of the permafrosts in Siberia or a warming of the deep ocean, watch out!
- Deep ocean anoxia: A lack of oxygen at the bottom of the ocean, which when combined with the thermohaline cycle shutting down, could lead to a takeover by hydrogen sulphide-spewing bacteria with the potential to kill everything in its path. As Peter Ward memorably describes it, in his book Under a Green Sky (a book that overly-sensitive climate communicators may want to avoid), if the ocean turns purple and the sky turns green skies, watch out!
I’m not a “doomer” but I also know that things are getting worse not better. We need to make a change before we get to the inevitable breakdown of the world’s agricultural and economic systems, refugees, extinctions, diseases, mass migration, and increased Malthusian resource wars.
So I am a proponent of climate apocalyptic literacy, and I even wrote a quiz (that sadly, has not yet gone viral the way other pop culture trivia quizzes sometimes do).
This includes some occasional harsh doses of truth, aka reality. If you can’t talk about the problem, how can you come up with commensurate solutions?
So yes, it is solutions time! (Rejoice climate communicators, rejoice!) Remember, climate bloggers, never write a column without a solutions section. You don’t need to make it a 3:1 solutions to problems ratio, but if you’re going to list the heavy problems like I just listed, you better have some good solutions to balance it out. Let’s see…how about:
- A cap on global carbon emissions, with revenues returned back to people as a climate dividend (link to CapGlobalCarbon). Or, to get started, how about a Cap & Dividend pilot at the city or State level )?
- Ban fossil fuels by 2050. Folks, do you think listening to REM’s song “Shiny Happy People” on repeat is going to get us to the point where we collectively decide to shut down the whole fossil fuel industry? We never will if we don’t know how serious the consequences could be if we don’t. So be brave, readers, even if it means some dystopian thoughts about purple oceans and green skies. At the localized level, this means divestment, banning coal and banning internal combustion vehicles.
- A steady-state economy that provides for its citizens with levels of population and consumption within the ecological carrying capacity and avoiding the paradox of striving for infinite economic growth on a finite planet. In the near term this means championing these ideas in economic departments, at city council meetings, lobbying government agencies that use the flawed Gross Domestic Product indicator, and becoming a steady-stater.
Strategic climate communicators still don’t know what will be successful. The extent of our failure is of Biblical proportions and continuing. In the meantime, everyone should do everything, all the time, even if it means finding motivation by thinking about an uninhabitable world.