I’ve FINALLY gotten around to reading through Dimitri Orlov’s blog and it is excellent. Some will think he is a bit harsh in his humor but I’m loving it in part for that reason. A recent post on Selling Climate Change is a great example. But not only is it funny, it is right on target.
Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is likely and would be a catastrophe.
Let’s deconstruct this message on behalf of the person you see seated here. Starting at the end, there is this big scary Greek word. Tune that out: ‘cat… here, kitty-kitty!’ Let’s also cross out all the words he doesn’t care about: ‘scientists,’ ‘average,’ ‘global’ and ‘Celsius.’ These are all noise words. What we are left with is ‘It will be 6 degrees warmer.’ If he were wearing a sweatshirt, he might be prompted to think about taking it off, but as he is already down to just the boxers and the wife-beater, we shouldn’t wish him to disrobe any further. If he succeeds in processing ‘by the end of the century,’ he would translate it as ‘not any time soon.’ If the word ‘likely’ makes it through his cognitive filter, it would come out as ‘maybe.’ The message, as received, thus reads: ‘Maybe it will get a bit warmer long after I am dead. Well, whoop-tee-doo! What else is on TV?'
You may ask yourself, What difference does it make what this individual thinks? Well, it does and it doesn’t. It doesn’t because he has zero political or economic power or influence. It does because those who run the country in which he resides find it convenient to pretend that his opinion matters, to dumb down public discourse so as to frustrate the smart, educated people to the point of not wanting to participate, because dumb people are easier to exploit than smart people. If we want to influence public policy and try to prevent climate catastrophe (to the extent that it is still preventable) we need to have this fellow squarely on our side. This is not impossible by any means, but it is a dead certainty that scientific mumbo-jumbo won’t make a convert of him.
The word ‘climate’ is a bit of a non-starter already. He likes ‘climate control,’ and what we are telling him is that he might have to get a bigger air conditioner… by the end of the century. That’s just great. But the real howler is the persistent use of the word ‘average.’ Imagine him poking his head out of his double-wide trailer home to surmise the weather, and, turning to his Spandex-clad, morbidly obese wife, exclaiming ‘Sweet Jesus, what an AVERAGE day! Take out your teeth, woman! Let’s celebrate!’ Are you beginning to get the picture?
Here is a mapping I would like to contribute to the question of how to sell climate change to the general public.
Unlike the problem of stopping climate change, I see this communication problem as solvable. The issue, as I see it, is that nobody has really tried to solve it. The reasons for this are many and varied, but none of them is particularly good.