Playing Defense Won’t Win the Day for Climate Communicators

Al Gore’s 24-hour climate change communications blitz faced a stiff challenge in its efforts to define the message while, in effect, playing defense. A challenge for climate communicators: How to re-capture the offensive.

There’s a cardinal rule of politics: If you don’t define your message (or campaign), your opponent will. The objective is to set the terms of the debate. Generally speaking, playing defense is not a winning strategy.

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And that’s why former President Al Gore’s “Climate Reality” event is unlikely to advance the climate conversation to a new, elevated place in the public mind. To understand why, let’s look at the motivating factor behind the 24-hour multimedia broadcast, which Gore explained in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this week:

“This presentation is a defense of the science and the scientists, against the timeworn claims by deniers.”

Such a strategy, besides forcing Gore & company into a defensive crouch, is built on the assumption that “deniers” are the primary reason for the stalemated climate politics and the public’s insufficient attention to climate change.

This approach presumes the public is also not getting a steady diet of well-communicated climate science facts, an assumption increasingly challenged.

For example, over at Climate Progress, a popular blog on climate change issues, an Australian educator recently asserted:

“We’ve got to realize that telling the truth again and again isn’t getting through in a society that navigates by ‘truthiness.’”

Truthiness is a term coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert. Wikipedia defines it as “‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ in that it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

But Joe Romm, the editor of Climate Progress, disagreed with his reader:

“Nobody is telling the truth again and again … There was a brief window when they did and it worked. When people explained the science — Gore and the IPCC — media coverage and public opinion rose together. When people stop explaining the science, both fell.”

This logic seems to be Gore’s operating premise, as well. Hence his high profile reemergence as a climate spokesman in recent months, and as the organizing force behind this week’s “Climate Reality” event.

Bryan Walsh at Time takes stock of Gore’s latest initiative and also offers a nuanced take on the public’s lessened interest in climate change:

“In 2007 and 2008 — in the wake of Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth — a solid majority of Americans saw climate change as a direct threat to their families. But that support has eroded — a recent Gallup poll found that just 53 percent of Americans saw climate change as a threat, and Washington has remained gridlocked on the issue. There are countless reasons why that’s the case — a cratering economy, overrepresentation of fossil-fuel interests in Congress, simple fatigue — but there’s no denying the fact that Gore and his allies have so far failed to convince enough Americans to share their urgency over global warming.”

What might do the trick? Walsh mentions some of the ideas and work of Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker, who recommends that the climate message be communicated less literally and more subtly through likable characters and storytelling.

At this point, given the political standoff and the Groundhog day-like debate, climate strategists would do well to start thinking outside the box. Various climate communicators like Gore have mounted a robust defense of climate science in the past few years. But as any football fan knows, even the best defenses rarely win games alone.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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3 Responses to Playing Defense Won’t Win the Day for Climate Communicators

  1. harrywr2 says:

    Lack of action on any ‘problem’ can be divided into two broad categories.

    1) Lack of understanding of the scope and seriousness of the problem.
    2) Lack of reasonably economic solutions.

    Let me quote from the website of bankrupt Solyndra
    http://www.solyndra.com/
    Clean and Economical Solar Power from Your Large Rooftop

    The US Government invested $500 million in this one case to address reason #2 for lack of action.

    If reason #2 is addressed then reason #1 becomes irrelevant.

  2. Andy says:

    I think the flaw in Romm’s statement is that priorities change. The fall-off in interest about global warming wasn’t because advocates stopped talking about it, it was because we entered an economic crisis and that became priority number one to almost everyone except independently wealthy ex Vice-Presidents and think-tankers paid to discuss climate issues. I’m not sure how messaging can change the fact that the primary concern of unemployed people is getting a job and almost everyone else is concerned about not losing the job they have. I don’t see this message getting a lot of traction while the economy continues to stagnate.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Andy,

    Your observation rings true generally for environmental issues on the whole. They are never top tier issues in elections and they wax and wane in the public consciousness.

    Ironically, the onset of the digital age has substantially increased the number of media outlets now reporting/writing on climate change and the environment. Look at the expansive “environment” section at the Guardian, to cite just one example. Every day there’s new content from its reporters and slew of contributors, much of it dealing with climate change. We see a similar proliferation of daily green stories and blog posts offered online at many other top newspapers.

    So this development, while certainly welcoming, probably exacerbates the frustration of those who bemoan the lack of traction climate issues have with the public.