What’s the best way to ensure that humanity gets the severity of our impending climate crisis and acts to forestall or prevent its full-scale onslaught?
The question is particularly pertinent given that the science is well founded and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is well informed – even while the oil and gas CEOs are defending their profits, the politicians are being politicians, the media are mediating the story and the public are all over the place.
Who are the best messengers to convey the real message?
Let’s begin with scientists, the people who have brought the current state of ambient CO2 in the troposphere to our attention.
Generalizing about science to the lay public is difficult. Many university and government research scientists are acutely aware of their limitations in this respect. There’s often an underlying expectation of a scientific baseline of knowledge, or at least awareness, that is presupposed to exist in lay audiences.
Very few scientists in the public realm have the ease of communication across disciplines, ages and cultures of a David Suzuki or a Stephen Hawking. In fact, there’s considerable evidence (consider how Suzuki’s reputation is dealt with in most National Post opinion pieces), that the more famous a scientist becomes in the mass media, the more ridicule he or she has to endure from right-wing scribes. Popularizing science is definitely not for the weak of heart.
Oil and gas chief executives also have a tough time in the public domain when they wax their climate change wares. The problem is that they have an obvious vested interest if they defend their sector. In the current context, all such arguments come off as defending the indefensible to a growing audience of skeptics.
There are a few notable exceptions, such as Suncor senior executives, who address the obvious with candour and honesty, starting with the acknowledgement that climate change is a fact and is occurring.
Politicians are credible to their true believers, but increasing polarity and disfunction do not augur well for changing political mandates to address climate change. In politicizing the issue, old political tropes (e.g. cut taxes, reduce government expenditures, fire bureaucrats) are often trotted out as belief systems, completely unrelated to the rational discourse of science.
In fact, I increasingly think that political beliefs and personal faith systems are conflating. Both rely heavily on magical thinking. Neither are ideally suited to cognition about climate.
So politics needs to learn to embrace science and long-term thinking about the consequences of political decisions.
The media are increasingly disrupted and print media (with a few noted exceptions) are nearly finished. Digital aggregators of opinion pieces (like Troy Media) are growing in importance but are not yet dominant.
The 280-character Twitter universe plays well to those who crave short reads. But I suspect the short-form universe is becoming unsatisfactory to a growing audience of detail aficionados.
Cable TV and radio continue their appeal to aging baby boomers.
Perhaps more important in influencing climate change awareness are the continuing quality providers: The Economist, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Their basic problem, however, is their small, elite readership.
And there’s always Facebook. But it’s increasingly discredited by millennials who see it as a boomer medium, unhip and uncaring about the privacy of user data.
Paradoxically, the most unique influencers might just be the oil and gas executives who tell it like it really is. Their words have shock value, contradict the old party line and are fresh in a unique way.
Also of important value are the science writers (e.g. Elizabeth Kolbert, Atul Gawande and Malcolm Gladwell) in publications like The New Yorker. These people add interest to science with their wit and facility with words.
Next up, and really always up, are the David Suzukis of the world. Tireless, still capable of projecting hope to younger generations and fearless warriors in the cause, they battle on against lies, fallacious thinking and rank stupidity. They probably take the most hits because they stimulate their enemies.
Politicians vex me the most. Seeking accommodation, they offer compromise over dealing with reality – buying old pipelines and oil railcars rather than promoting system change. Somehow they are missing a sea change. I wonder why?