Climate change is a difficult problem. I almost said intractable, but I’m an optimist. So, difficult will do. One of the reasons it’s so difficult is because of the way people talk about it and write about it. The messaging that surrounds it. And I’m not talking about all the misinformation and outright lies that fossil fuels and aviation (among others) put out there. I’m talking about the messaging that comes from concerned, sincere, well informed, people who want to fix the problem.
I’m not the first person to point this out. There have been plenty of stories written about “climate fatalism.” The idea is basically that when the climate activists present this as an apocalyptic moment, rather than spurring people to action, it makes them assume there is nothing that can be done. It’s too late. We might as well enjoy whatever time we have left. It’s an understandable, if unfortunate, reaction. It does nicely show the limits of hyperbole as an effective tool. So, there’s that.
Much less talked about, at least in the popular media, are the problems with the other two common appeals. One is the high-level moral appeal. We have a responsibility, nay an obligation, to future generations and stuff like that. That may be true, but it’s a poor rhetorical strategy. Moral statements, not matter how well supported and argued, are simply not motivating. Just look at all the studies that show that ethics professors are no more or less ethical than any other group of people. There are reasons why it’s important to theorize about morality, but those theories will never inspire action.
The other is what my daughter would call, “Save the turtles!” This can take some different forms. One is personification. We are “hurting” the earth. Another is calls to protect certain species or ecosystems. The thing that the “save the turtles” appeals have in common is they put the focus on nature or the environment rather than on us, people. This isn’t the worst strategy. Some people get really attached to nature. Presumably, the people who use this tactic are motivated by it. The problem is that there are lots of people who simply don’t care about the turtles or the rainforests or the bees. They certainly don’t care enough to disrupt their lives at all to help them. Again, we won’t get any action from most people.
The key to persuasion is tapping into what people already care about. That’s a whole lot easier than getting them to care about something new. So, to persuade people to take action on climate change, we need to make it local, present, and personal. Big ideas won’t do it anywhere near as effectively as everyday life. People hate traffic. Climate change caused a 24-hour traffic-jam on I-95 in Virginia. People care about their homes. Climate change caused wildfires and tornadoes that destroyed homes in Colorado and Kentucky. Right now, people are losing jobs because of climate change. Their kids are getting sick because of climate change. Even things like the fact that ski resorts can’t open because of climate change will be more persuasive than saying it’s bad for whales or telling us the world is ending.
The climate change messaging we’ve been using for the past thirty years just isn’t working. We need a change. We should look at what does work. Apple doesn’t create a global market for their phones by talking about future generations. Tik Tok didn’t take over the world with highfalutin ideas or ambitious concepts. Climate change is here, now, and it’s making our lives worse. Any other message is a waste of time.