We Need Better Climate Propaganda

For those of us anxious about climate change, last week felt
like a lot. In addition to witnessing the ongoing present-day fallout of climate
change worldwide through floods and fires, we got some scary news about the
future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with yet
another report on the consequences humans will likely face if we fail to take sufficient
action to curb emissions and protect the planet.The report plainly stated that although all is not lost, extreme
weather is now inevitable no matter where you live. The dire warnings
circulated widely: “How
Climate Change Kills the Future,” read an Axios headline. The Washington
Post was equally blunt: “The
Climate News Is About to Get a Lot Worse.” The 314 Action Fund, a climate action
group, besieged me with email all week, admonishing, “We lost a decade in the
fight to get a handle on the climate crisis.” An email from MoveOn told me that
the report was a “code red for humanity”—a phrase from the report that appeared
in many headlines—and urged me to get a sticker reading “The Earth Can’t Wait.”Then there was this baffling tweet
from one of the most powerful individuals in the world. “We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis,” President Biden
wrote. “The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of
inaction keeps mounting.”What do you mean by “we”? Isn’t the president of the United
States in a better position than most of us to “tackle the climate crisis”?Widespread public worry represents huge progress: It’s
better than denying or ignoring the climate crisis, as many of our leaders and
media outlets have done in the past. Yet the chatter around the IPCC report and
the report itself still managed to be unhelpful, scaring us to death while
missing an opportunity to galvanize us into action. It’s a common dilemma in
climate activism—one activists, scientists, and politicians are going to have
to get a lot smarter about if we’re to avert catastrophe.The report failed as propaganda—and as basic information—in
one glaring way: failing to name the enemy. As the writer Emily Atkin noted, the IPCC
report and its summary for policymakers discussed “human” activity at length
while saying very little about the fossil fuel industry. The report failed to
unify potential readers against the relevant foe. Much of the media coverage
replicated this problem. This framing makes us feel guilty just for existing, when it’s our existence
that is at stake, and worth fighting for.It would be bad enough if the report and its chroniclers merely
punted on identifying the bad guy in the climate change drama. But the
psychological consequences are worse than that: By naming the enemy as
ourselves—all humans—the report maximized the potential for self-reproach with
no clear path forward. A Guardian headline, for instance, referred
to the “IPCC report’s verdict on climate crimes of humanity: guilty as hell.”
This framing makes us feel guilty just for existing, when it’s our existence
that is at stake, and worth fighting for.While the report is scientific and its credibility rests on the
idea that the IPCC is not political, of course it is propaganda in the sense
that the authors would like to persuade the readers to do something about the
problem. (Propaganda has a sinister reputation, but that’s unfair—all collective
projects require extensive persuasion, especially in a democratic society.) The
IPCC warning might get better political results if the group acknowledged the
propagandistic goal of the enterprise and simply produced better propaganda.Fearmongering, while dangerous, can sometimes be effective if
accompanied by a specific call to action. Vaccination rates are up in many places
newly devastated by Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations. Millions of people turned out to vote against Trump not
primarily out of excitement over Joe Biden and the Democrats, but because
they were afraid that the best parts of our world couldn’t survive a second Trump
administration and that the worst parts could. Those not in swing states wrote
postcards to swing-state voters, made phone calls, and knocked on doors for similar
reasons. Some of the most successful recent appeals in public life have
involved a clear enemy (a virus, a drug, Donald Trump) and a simple, specific action. Vote. Write postcards. Get a
shot.But naming an enemy can be risky if fear is
emphasized at the expense of a positive message. During World War II, for
example, the Roosevelt administration created and tested a variety of
propaganda, hoping to convince the American public to support going to war against Nazi Germany and to make the sacrifices this war would entail. Initially,
as historian James Sparrow has documented
(and as I have discussed in a book
on focus groups and persuasion), FDR’s Office
of War Information, helped by social scientists at Columbia University, found
that overemphasizing the badness of our enemy could backfire. Imagery
and radio broadcasts by the U.S. government depicted the Nazis as bloodthirsty,
demonic, barely human. The U.S. government then discovered, using early market
research techniques including the very first focus groups, that these
portrayals were too frightening. Focusing on the enemy’s depravity, especially the ruthless
killing of civilians, tended to discourage Americans from wanting to fight the
Nazis at all: Any sensible person would want to avoid a confrontation with such
an enemy. In contrast, a more positive message, emphasizing American rationality
and democracy, and optimism that we could prevail and work together, tended to
carry the day.We’ve seen the same problem
with climate change: If we become too afraid, we’re paralyzed.Much of the coverage and propaganda in the wake of
the IPCC report seems to ignore these lessons of both the present and the past, doomsaying
at loud volume while naming neither the enemy nor any specific course of
action. The report itself does mention some ways we can avoid the apocalypse,
and to the IPCC’s credit, the group will release a separate report on
solutions later this year. Let’s hope that sequel gets
at least as much attention as the apocalyptic dimensions of last week’s blast.In fairness, some environmental groups sent emails and
tweets urging action on specific environmental policies, including pressure on
Biden’s EPA. On the Tuesday after the report came out, I got a text from the office of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, referencing the report and the
“dire consequences” of climate change we’re facing. “We’re knocking on doors to
talk about taking environmental action with our neighbors,” the text continued,
inviting me to come to the Bronx and canvass for the Green New Deal and against
the new power plant in Astoria. It was a deceptively simple but effective message: Things are bad, but you can help make them better.  

2021-08-18 | Apocalypse Soon, My Climate Anxiety, Life in a Warming World | English |