Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Selling Climate Change

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (December 05 2009)

Late yesterday I killed this post, along with the previous one, because comment moderation got to be too much of a chore. The fellow depicted here has a lot of cousins, and they all have internet access. Then quite a few people wrote to me to ask me to bring it back. As a compromise, I am bringing back just this post.

As some of you might have guessed by now, the topic of climate change is very important to me. I believe that all sorts of people should be made aware of climate change in ways that will make it very important to them as well. By "all sorts" I mean not just the intelligent, educated people with an ability to understand what a "climate model" is, but the sort of people you can see exhibited here.

I spent a year working in advertising, and have gained some understanding of what sort of ammunition it takes to make such people absorb and respond to a message. Significantly, it does not involve making them think; for those unaccustomed to thought, it is uncomfortable, and making them uncomfortable tends to anger them.

Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of six 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 six 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.

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Global

1. Washington County
2. Jefferson County
3. Franklin County
4. All the way over in Madison County
5. Fabulous places you have only heard about but might want to visit when you win the lottery, like Orlando (not funny-sounding ones like Bangladesh: "Bang what?")

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Warming

Translation: Screwed-up weather

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Increased precipitation

Translation: Flood! Your double-wide will get washed into the ravine!

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Average temperature increase

Translation: Heat waves! You'll be running your AC flat out and still sweating like a pig!

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Atmospheric CO2 concentration

Translation: Burning stuff is screwing up the weather; everybody must stop burning so much stuff before it gets any worse.

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo: Polar ice cap melt

Translation: Beaches, bridges and docks washed away. Interstate highway under water. Can't drive anywhere!

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.

If combating climate change requires everyone to understand climate science, then the battle has already been lost. As our dumb luck would have it, that is not necessarily the case.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home