Saturday, December 05, 2009

Selling Climate Change

[Late yesterday I killed this post, along with the previous one, because comment moderation got to be too much of a chore. The fellow depicted here has a lot of cousins, and they all have internet access. Then quite a few people wrote to me to ask me to bring it back. As a compromise, I am bringing back just this post.]

As some of you might have guessed by now, the topic of climate change is very important to me. I believe that all sorts of people should be made aware of climate change in ways that will make it very important to them as well. By "all sorts" I mean not just the intelligent, educated people with an ability to understand what a "climate model" is, but the sort of people you can see exhibited here.

I spent a year working in advertising, and have gained some understanding of what sort of ammunition it takes to make such people absorb and respond to a message. Significantly, it does not involve making them think; for those unaccustomed to thought, it is uncomfortable, and making them uncomfortable tends to anger them.

Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is likely and would be a catastrophe.

Let's deconstruct this message on behalf of the person you see seated here. Starting at the end, there is this big scary Greek word. Tune that out: "cat... here, kitty-kitty!" Let's also cross out all the words he doesn't care about: "scientists," "average," "global" and "Celsius." These are all noise words. What we are left with is "It will be 6 degrees warmer." If he were wearing a sweatshirt, he might be prompted to think about taking it off, but as he is already down to just the boxers and the wife-beater, we shouldn't wish him to disrobe any further. If he succeeds in processing "by the end of the century," he would translate it as "not any time soon." If the word "likely" makes it through his cognitive filter, it would come out as "maybe." The message, as received, thus reads: "Maybe it will get a bit warmer long after I am dead. Well, whoop-tee-doo! What else is on TV?"

You may ask yourself, What difference does it make what this individual thinks? Well, it does and it doesn't. It doesn't because he has zero political or economic power or influence. It does because those who run the country in which he resides find it convenient to pretend that his opinion matters, to dumb down public discourse so as to frustrate the smart, educated people to the point of not wanting to participate, because dumb people are easier to exploit than smart people. If we want to influence public policy and try to prevent climate catastrophe (to the extent that it is still preventable) we need to have this fellow squarely on our side. This is not impossible by any means, but it is a dead certainty that scientific mumbo-jumbo won't make a convert of him.

The word "climate" is a bit of a non-starter already. He likes "climate control," and what we are telling him is that he might have to get a bigger air conditioner... by the end of the century. That's just great. But the real howler is the persistent use of the word "average." Imagine him poking his head out of his double-wide trailer home to surmise the weather, and, turning to his Spandex-clad, morbidly obese wife, exclaiming "Sweet Jesus, what an AVERAGE day! Take out your teeth, woman! Let's celebrate!" Are you beginning to get the picture?

Here is a mapping I would like to contribute to the question of how to sell climate change to the general public.

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo
1. Washington County
2. Jefferson County
3. Franklin County
4. All the way over in Madison County
5. Fabulous places you have only heard about but might want to visit when you win the lottery, like Orlando (not funny-sounding ones like Bangladesh: "Bang what?")
Screwed-up weather
Increased precipitation
Flood! Your double-wide will get washed into the ravine!
Average temperature increase
Heat waves! You'll be running you AC flat out and still sweating like a pig!
Atmospheric CO2 concentration
Burning stuff is screwing up the weather; everybody must stop burning so much stuff before it gets any worse.
Polar ice cap melt
Beaches, bridges and docks washed away. Interstate highway under water. Can't drive anywhere!

Unlike the problem of stopping climate change, I see this communication problem as solvable. The issue, as I see it, is that nobody has really tried to solve it. The reasons for this are many and varied, but none of them is particularly good.

If combating climate change requires everyone to understand climate science, then the battle has already been lost. As our dumb luck would have it, that is not necessarily the case.


Anonymous said...

I don't think a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo is needed in order to understand that a change in temperature is a big problem. People have had fevers, and more generally they know their own body is sensitive to temperature. Nothing mysterious in suggesting that all living things and the environments that sustain living things are also sensitive to temperature changes. More generally, since people know that crops depend on the climate, it's not too hard to understand how a change can cause disaster in established patterns.

In summary, I don't think the problem is in understanding but in wanting to hear the message. The message is clear, but the ears are plugged! Probably the effect of conditioning, nonsense about the afterlife, the classic "it can't happen here" and so on.

I do think the message should be short and to the point, but there is no need for a cartoon version of something that the overwhelming majority of people can understand.

skillplanner said...

funny stuff!

jdl75 said...

To me the key point to "sell" AGW is the dollowing :

1) CO2 is 37% higher than before the industrial revolution (or around 30%)

2) It increases steadily and we know this CO2 is anthropic through the isotopes, knowing it comes from oil coal burning etc

3) 30% is quite a big number, you cannot say "the earth and atmosphere is too big for humans to have the scale to mess up with it"

4) The exact effect of these 30% might not be perfectly well known, however it's 30%, man ...

Or something like that

Something like that

jdl75 said...

Maybe also below image can help :

"Caption: Global water and air volume. Conceptual computer artwork of the total volume of water on Earth (left) and of air in the Earth's atmosphere (right) shown as spheres (blue and pink). The spheres show how finite water and air supplies are. The water sphere measures 1390 kilometres across and has a volume of 1.4 billion cubic kilometres. This includes all the water in the oceans, seas, ice caps, lakes and rivers as well as ground water, and that in the atmosphere. The air sphere measures 1999 kilometres across and weighs 5140 trillion tonnes. As the atmosphere extends from Earth it becomes less dense. Half of the air lies within the first 5 kilometres of the atmosphere."

To give a sense of the kind of "thin skin" environment we live in, thin skin characteristic which, although not necessarily obvious as first sight, is also a characteristic in fact shared my most Americans depicted.

Charley said...

No, Anonymous, I think Dmitry has nailed it: we're gonna hafta talk wayyyy down to these people.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Mr Orlov,

Once upon a time I commented at a socio-political-economic discussion forum on this very topic. The people at the forum were prognathic alleged humans with no intellectual signs of homo sapiens membership, so I had to water down the message.

To persuade them of the problem of mankind belching, crapping and pissing pollutants into an ecosystem, I asked them to think of this: they (individually) and 3 others were sent on a 1.5 hours journey to a fabled Mexican restaurant in a small car like a Mini Cooper. The car is a closed system -- windows do not open, no sun/moon roof, no ventilation system. On the 1.5 hrs drive back home, all 4 passengers are farting like kettle drums and congas in a 1940s Tarzan movie.

I challenge the reader to imagine the closed system of the tiny car not reflecting the copious amounts of methane the 4 occupants are releasing... to imagine how, in any conceivable way, the air in that tiny car is not changed.

Anonymous said...

Of course! If we want to sell climate change, we have to make it so that everyone can understand how they will be directly affected by the changes taking place, AND how their small contribution could, potentially, make things better.

Al Gore gets a lot of flak for his Inconvenient Truth, but he did more to "enlighted" people like the one pictured with your post than anyone else has been able to do. Further, he suggested easy things we all could do, easily, that might make a difference.

DeVaul said...

Hi Dimitry,

I am glad you brought this article back because it made me laugh harder than I have laughed in years, especially the link to the "People of Walmart", which I had no idea even existed.

Satire is good for the soul and is often the only way to get a message through to someone, or in the case of a thoroughly evil person, to bring them down to size.

I hope you will not become dreary and filled with despair like others. I know we cannot prevent the collapse of our empire or tell the sun to stop heating up or down, but at least we can help each other through the crisis with the gift of laughter.


badnewswade said...

It does depress me that all the people who want change seem to be pathalogically incapable of communicating with ordinary people. It isn't just the people's own fault for being ignorant.

Of course the propaganda of industry and big business doesn't help much either, but learning how to communicate ideas effectively without talking down to others should be the top priority of anyone who wants people to change their behaviour. That should be self evident.

Anonymous said...

This is great Dimtry--you see the F.USA in ways that no one here can. Are you serious about cutting out your humor in future posts ? Ha ha!

Anonymous said...

Funny stuff Dmitry, and serious too. But I think you're falling into the same groove Kunstler spends so much time in: contempt for your "inferiors", the uneducated masses. We with our middle-class educations ought to show some informed humility--the man in the picture simply popped out of a working class womb, and that was his misfortune, not his fault. He may be unpleasant or boring to hang out with, but we should aim our barbs higher, at the class structure and mass media and bad schooling that made him that way. My own relatives are more like him than like me. So when people at the university where I work ask me how I turned out so smart and artsy, I reply "Through a combination of my own laudable efforts and SHEER CHANCE."

Anonymous said...

Dmitry - Is there any way you could publish the negative comments you received on this posting? While I know much of this 1st hand (my elderly MidWestern parents are prisoners of Fox Cable News and AM radio) I'll bet many of your regular readers have NO idea what we are all up against.

Cheers - Kev

Anonymous said...


You underestimate how poorly educated the American public really is. You'll get nowhere with the "average Joe" using words like "isotopes." Half of the public doesn't know that electrons are smaller than atoms:

In America, many would consider themselves clever for saying "Why do they call it the THEORY of evolution, huh?"

The problem with getting the public to understand the seriousness of the world's situation is that understanding the situation requires a basic grasp of many separate things that most people sleep through or never expose themselves to: geology, thermodynamics, economics, several areas of biology, etc. Even highly educated people will look at you funny when you start talking about rare earth metals in China or say that we are presently in the midst of a mass extinction event.

There won't be general agreement that reality is important until the trucks stop bringing the food to the stores and the riots begin. At that point we can point out that we told them so and savor our Pyrrhic victory.

tickmeister said...

An excellent first step toward convincing the masses would be to can Al Gore as a spokesman. He has always seemed to me to be the intellectual equivalent of the dude on the couch.