Think Hotdogs (Fear, Guilt Need Not Apply)

A More Appetizing Hotdog Approach to Climate Communication?

Wanted: Climate change communication that is surprising, delightful, beautiful, or witty. Over-the-top appeals to fear or guilt need not apply.


Let’s say you take your dog to the veterinarian, where you learn that you need to give “Spot” a pill once a day for two weeks. At home, the trusty canine refuses to swallow the pill — it probably tastes bad, after all.

Like many dog owners, you’re likely to stick the pill into something more appealing, such as a wedge from that snack-time hotdog. With the pill safely inside the frank, Spot likely will scarf it down, no questions asked.

Might climate communicators adopt a similar technique? Can they present climate news in a more palatable package that will help people absorb, rather than repel, it?

The ‘Pill’ Of Climate

Like swallowing a pill, digesting climate news can leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

There’s no denying what greenhouse emissions have already done to the atmosphere and to the oceans, after all, and it’s not pretty.

Acidic seawater is wiping out wild oyster beds in the Pacific Northwest. With melting sea ice and permafrost, some coastal Alaskan villages are scrambling to relocate inland. As Arctic ice retreats, methane is pouring into the atmosphere.

As respected science writer Michelle Nijhuis put it in a recent blog post, “There’s a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat.” (See related posting.)

Still, Nijhuis writes, environmental communicators may too often employ the “Lorax narrative,” a reference to the Dr. Seuss book, in which a greedy industrialist usurps Earth’s resources and an environmental catastrophe ensues while the rest of us happily shop away.

One potential consequence of such a storytelling approach is that it may well provoke strong negative emotions and counterproductive behaviors. As researcher and consultant Susanne Moser described in the book Creating a Climate for Change, just learning about the facts of climate change can cause “anger, defiance, a desire to blame someone, powerlessness, despair, a sense of exhaustion or annoyance at having to hear the litany one more time.” That’s particularly true when a message about climate change includes an appeal to fear or guilt.

This advertisement, for example, mixes guilt and fear.

Climate information can also be difficult to swallow if the audience perceives it as boring or inaccessible. Understanding the science requires specialized knowledge, and the details of policy proposals — from the UNFCCC process to cap-and-trade — can seem arcane.

A ‘Hotdog’ For Climate News?

If climate news is a “pill,” then a “hotdog” may represent a more appealing — but still factual — way of providing that information. Ideally, such a “hotdog” breaks past an audience’s pre-conceived ideas. Instead of offering people a familiar litany, it surprises or even delights them.

So what does a “hotdog” actually look like? One good example is “The Fracking Song,” a music video produced by New York University students for ProPublica. The song explains hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drilling for natural gas, in just two and a half minutes. It’s surprising, witty, beautiful, and catchy.

It’s also good journalism. The song offers a reasoned look at the issue while succinctly explaining the history of fracking. It is, of course, no substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting on the issue that ProPublica and some other “new media” can provide. But the song can draw readers into that reporting — it’s garnered more than 200,000 views on YouTube.

Another potential approach to communicating with an audience about climate change involves humor, epitomized in this clip from “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart explains that presidents have promised better energy policies since the Nixon era, to little avail.

Other good examples of “hotdogs” on the topic of climate change? They’re out there, for sure, so why not share them?

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Richard Koci Hernandez, an assistant professor of journalism at Berkeley, who suggested the idea of the hot-dog approach to students working on a specialized journalism project this past summer.)

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A More Appetizing Hotdog Approach to Climate Communication?

  1. Latimer Alder says:

    ‘Acidic seawater’ is wiping out wild oyster beds.

    Really?? Actually acidic? pH<7.0? I can see no reference to this in the article you link to. Nor does it refer to 'wild oyster beds'. But to a hatchery.

    I think you do not need to make climate change reporting more palatable. You need to make it more truthful. Lying to me is not a way to persuade me that you are right.

    • Sara Peach says:

      Latimer Alder – You’re right that the oceans aren’t literally acidic (thank goodness!). My reference was to the fact that surface water pH is falling – so far by 0.1 pH units since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which works out to a 30 percent increase in acidity. Much more info is available here: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/Ocean+Acidification

      And if you look back at paragraph five of the referenced article, you’ll see information about wild oysters.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Deadman says:

    There’s no denying what greenhouse emissions have already done to the atmosphere and to the oceans, after all, and it’s not pretty.

    Really? Until you can prove that greenhouse emissions have done any damage to the atmosphere and to the oceans, I, for one, do deny any supposed catastrophe.

    • John says:

      The word ‘damage’ is not used in the sentence you quote. And ‘greenhouse emissions’ is not exact; better would have been to say ‘greenhouse gas emissions.’ Still the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on the atmosphere and climate have been known since the Svente Arrhenius published his analysis 100 years ago. And by-products of fossil fuel burning (e.g., sulfur dioxides) have documented ‘damage’ to forest and lake ecosystems in Europe and North America. The damage to ocean ecosystems is, as yet, subtle, since the oceans are so good at absorbing much of anthropogenic CO2.

  3. Deadman says:

    Try this for a “global warming” song.

  4. harrywr2 says:

    “Acidic seawater is wiping out wild oyster beds in the Pacific Northwest”

    I always suspect claims that a major local industry is dying off when there has been little to know cover in the local press. Just a ‘reality check’.

    So I found some recent local coverage -
    http://www.theolympian.com/2011/12/09/1908058/state-shellfish-industry-gets.html
    “The initiative calls for a streamlined, faster-paced permitting process for new and expanded shellfish farms……Lubchenco also announced that NOAA will contribute $200,000 to state efforts to restore the native Olympia oyster, which was the original species to inhabit marine waters from Alaska to Baja, Calif., but was nearly wiped out by overharvest and pollution.

    Yes…some mention of Ocean Acidification…but it would appear the shellfish farms are expanding…so the idea that the oyster beds are being ‘wiped out’ seems a bit of an overstatement.

  5. Steven Schuman says:

    Ms Peach,
    It’s hard to take your article seriously. Your claims about climate change are just silly. I see one reference to some erosion, another to acidification. Just how many measurements of the ocean were taken around the world at the beginning of the industrial revelotuion. How do you know the melting of artic ice is caused by man, since it’s happened many times before in recorded history? It’s like the people of the Maldives begging for money for climate adaptation while building eleven new airports and ocen levels according to the University of Colorado decreasing this year. Do you really think the form of communiction is the problem, or is it insulting people’s intelligence.

    • Sara Peach says:

      I’m afraid that if my statements are silly, then so are the statements of every U.S. scientific organization with expertise on this subject. Each of these organizations has concluded that the planet is warming and people are substantially responsible. Until these organizations change their tune, I’ll continue to report the consensus.

      • Steven Schuman says:

        Ms. Peach,
        Thank you for your response. Your argument is the usual appeal to authority. This of course avoids looking at specifics. When warmists tell me hurricanes are getting worse, I check with the records on global tropical cyclone activity and lo and behold they’re at a near 30 year low. I could go on and on. Give us some specifics on how CAGW is affecting the planet now that hold up to the least scrutiney and I will be more than glad to take you seriously. Until then you will be trying to correct a problem that doesn’t exist. Good luck with that.

        • Sara Peach says:

          If you’re looking for specifics on ways that greenhouse emissions are affecting the climate system, I suggest you start with a recent report by the National Research Council, “Advancing the Science of Climate Change.” The report is downloadable from here: http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Americas-Climate-Choices/12781

          • Steven Schuman says:

            Ms. Peach,
            Thanks once again for your reply. We seem to be at cross purposes. I was looking for evidence or the “the fingerprint” of climate change. This would include trends in sea level, rainfall, droughts etc. What I find when I look at these things are the following. Sea level rise has been decelerating and fell this year. Ocean temperatures as taken by the Argo bouy sytem show steady to declining temperatures. There’s been no atmospheric warming for the past ten years or so. There’s been no change in the thermo-haline cycle. The 50 million climate change refugees by 2010 as predicted by the United Nations Environmental Programme never appeared. I’ll stop here.
            All this is a rather moot point as the Durban climate conference kicked the can about eight years down the road. I’d like to think sceptics had something to do with this, but in fact the lack of an agreement was do to the merits of the argument. Given the choice of some possible catastrophe from climate change in the future versus the immeadiate, certain catastrophe of decarbonization, the choice was easy. If we’re both around in ten years, let’s get together and see how things worked out. Regards.

          • Kirt Griffin says:

            I went to the referenced report and for $30 I could maybe get a list of ways less than a degree of climate change is affecting our world. I am sure I would see more intense storms (caused by solar activity, not CO2 Piers Corbyn using solar info predicted all of last years North east winter storms well in advance), rising sea level (supposedly caused by glacial melting but actually the result of a warming of the ocean, which, it appears, may not continue) and perhaps glaciers melting (some are advancing while some are retreating which is not primarily a function of air temp but of the amount of snow that fell on them 100 years ago or more.) Polar bears in danger of extinction( while their populations are growing) Enclosed in parentheses is what one would call science. The rest is observations attributed to a cause without a shred of evidence. That something is happening is not proof of anything. One must understand how the world functions, not just write about it.

  6. Sara Peach says:

    Steven Schuman and Kirt Griffin: The report I mentioned above provides detailed information on present-day effects of greenhouse emissions. It is downloadable for free; you do not have to pay $30. To name just a few effects, the report describes 1) warming average temperatures, with the most pronounced warming during the past three decades; 2) more frequent intense rainfall; 3) a decrease in North Hemisphere snow cover; 4) warmer nights; 5) warming oceans; 6) more mild and less frequent cold snaps; and 7) earlier thaws and later freezing in rivers and lakes. You perhaps overlooked the present-day effects that I mentioned in my original post: the acidification of the oceans, permafrost melting, and methane releases as Arctic ice retreats.

  7. Sundance says:

    If your audience has the same IQ as a dog this tactic will work. If not it won’t. It is a waste of time to continue to focus on the idea that somehow the climate change story can gain more traction by making the message more palatable. Carry on though with the cluelessness in the Ivied Halls. :-)