Last week, I attended a presentation on climate change and the Maine coast. In general, it was an excellent presentation, but since I’m going to be somewhat critical of it here, I will not draw attention to the presenter or her employer.
There was some information in the presentation on climate science (which I’ll work into other posts), but most of the emphasis was on communication—the idea being that instead of telling people scary, alarmist stories about climate disasters, it makes more sense to give them tools to help with mitigation and leave it up to them whether to use those tools. No persuasion, in other words, and no education that might hint at persuasion. Apparently people feel more respected and less overwhelmed this way, and some start to believe climate change is real on their own, eventually.
“This is a long game,” said the presenter.
That’s when I started to boil over. I mean, we have no time for long games, for one thing, and the disaster stuff isn’t alarmism, it’s just an alarm. Did you know some researchers are pushing to add an extra class to the hurricane rating system, to account for the stronger storms that seem to be the new normal? It’s alarming. I’m alarmed. Let’s face facts, people.
Of course, there’s the old question—do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? In other words, let go of the need to win the argument, and keep your eye on the prize. There is a lot to be said for gentle non-confrontation, for respect of other people’s sovereignty and dignity…not many people can really hear you if you’re shrieking at them, even if the things you’re shrieking happen to be 100% correct and a perfectly understandable thing to shriek about.
She says her method is getting results, and that’s exactly why I held my piece in the presentation, and why I’m not identifying her or her organization right now. I don’t want to get in her way.
But at the same time, it’s worth considering that climate denial is not a natural phenomenon, not a simple matter of people needing to hear the message in a gentle and accessible way. No, climate denial is deliberately manufactured, which is why is it is virtually non-existent in countries that don’t speak English and therefore don’t get the propaganda. So, clearly the old-style environmentalist messaging works, it did work, and it worked so well that people with a different message started pushing back—quite effectively. The lesson isn’t to abandon persuasion, it’s to get better at it, because we’re not the only persuaders out here.
The other thing I think about is The Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King famously calls white liberals out for telling black people to be less assertive in their demands for freedom and justice, as if white people might concede if only black people asked more nicely. That anyone, anywhere, achieves justice by becoming less strident about asking for it is a crock when it comes to racism, and it’s a crock when it comes to climate change, too—which, make no mistake, is also a matter of justice. Climate change is landing on the heads of the poor and the marginalized, not on those who make bank on the industrial processes that put us in this mess.
Climate denial did not become a political force because we were too strident, and it will not go away if we cease being strident. It will simply win.
What we need to do is to become smarter and more strategic in our stridency.
Yes, of course, be respectful. Ordinary people who don’t know whether climate change is real are not the enemy, and should not be treated as such. Offer solutions to problems people have, not the problems they don’t have or don’t think they have. Listen, learn, and acknowledge the importance of the collateral issues, such as race, class, and ethnicity, that can prime a person to reject a message for reasons that seem irrelevant but aren’t. Be accessible. Be empowering. Do everything and anything that experience and social science tell us might work.
But don’t take your eye off the prize.
Don’t cede ground lightly or without paying attention to the strategic value of that ground.
And don’t let your adversaries define the terms of either engagement or retreat.
For example, if you’re speaking to a group that may include climate skeptics, sure, go ahead and use some tact. Put the emphasis on issues you can agree on. Acknowledge their right and ability to make up their own mind. But do not refer to scientific controversy over what is causing climate change, because there is none. You’d just be repeating someone else’s lie. That’s an example of ceding ground without paying attention to its value—you have ceded the truth, and you’ve given your adversary the power to redefine consensus reality as needed. Do not do that.
Likewise, the suggestion that we focus only on offering tools to help with mitigation concerns me because it does nothing whatever for the fight at the ballot box—which is where the end game we’re looking at will play out. We need pro-climate government leadership, or we simply aren’t going to win this thing.
How very convenient.
I’m being strident at the moment. I’m being slightly impolitic, perhaps. But I’m deliberately speaking to the converted right now, and not to anyone else:
Yes, definitely, use whatever gentle message works for your corner of the issue, for your own specific campaign. No one can work on all fronts simultaneously, anyway. But figure out a way to be gentle and tactful without spreading climate-denier propaganda yourself and without abandoning the fight to get the climate-sane leadership we so desperately need.