How climate change communication came to signify nothing
My first inkling that my 2007 book, “Break Through,” was not going to be well received by the climate commentariat came as I was flying to New York to kick off my book tour. That morning, my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, had published a scathing review in its Sunday edition, accusing me of climate denial. As we hit cruising altitude, the in-flight movie came on. It turned out to be an allegorical comedy about global warming called “Evan Almighty,” featuring Steve Carell as a TV weatherman turned newly elected congressman and John Goodman as a corrupt congressional leader bent on destroying the Earth for profit.
In the movie—a modern take on the Noah’s Ark fable—Carell’s character meets God, played by Morgan Freeman, who instructs him to build an ark to save creation. This time around, the flood would come as the result of the failure of a dam that Goodman’s character had sponsored.
Much hilarity ensues. Carell’s hair grows uncontrollably into an unruly mane. A menagerie of cute animals begin following him everywhere, including through the halls of Congress. And Carell begins building his ark, much to the chagrin of Goodman, who had been counting on Carell’s sponsorship of a bill that would open up the land on which he was building the ark for development.
In the penultimate scene, just before the raging flood carries the ark away, Goodman visits Carell and attempts to convince him to abandon his project—and his catastrophism. “You know, voters don’t respond to the gloom and doom stuff. They like a more positive message,” he lectures. “But you want to stop progress to save the Earth. Go for it. Good luck getting a tree to come to the polls.”
My chin just about hit my tray table. There, in cartoonish form, was the argument of my book, dripping contemptuously from John Goodman’s villainous congressman.
I don’t know whether the movie’s writers or producers were familiar with the 2004 essay, the “Death of Environmentalism,” where I first articulated the view that climate politics would be far more effective if oriented around the social and economic benefits of building a clean energy economy instead of apocalyptic scaremongering. But by the fall of 2007, and especially after the cultural phenomenon that was Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which would win the former vice president the Nobel Prize a few days after I landed in New York, many environmentalists were familiar with my argument. Gore and his PowerPoint, in the view of most, had proven that a proper, appropriately catastrophic climate education was all the American public needed to be convinced to take far-reaching action. “Happy talk” about green jobs and a clean economy was a sideshow at best.
The very existence of “Evan Almighty,” of course, contradicted this claim. If what the public needed was straight talk about climate change, why make an allegorical movie to repurpose the Book of Genesis as a comedic morality tale about the environment? Nor was the film particularly unusual in its missionary efforts. For decades, the environmental movement has worked assiduously to get climate-related themes and messaging into popular media. “Evan Almighty” wasn’t just a movie. It was a multi-level marketing effort, promoted jointly by Universal Studios, corporate partners like GE and Toyota, and well-known environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund.
The computer-animated animals and biblical flood of “Evan Almighty” and Gore’s wonky PowerPoint in “An Inconvenient Truth” were, in fact, two sides of the same coin—the latter being, at its core, little more than a heavily scientized version of the former. Gore even describes his presentation, early on, as a “nature walk through the Book of Revelation.”
Chat GPT HAS ENTERED THE CONVERSATION:
In common environmentalist discussion, “climate emergency” refers to the urgent and pressing problem of global climate change. Environmentalists use this term to emphasize the severity of the current situation and the need for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, curb the impacts of climate change, and protect the natural environment.
The climate emergency is characterized by rising temperatures, increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, melting of glaciers and sea level rise, and disruptions to ecosystems and biodiversity. Environmentalists view these changes as posing significant risks to human health, food security, and the stability of societies around the world.
The term “climate emergency” is often used in contrast to the idea of a “climate crisis” or “climate change,” which are seen as less severe or less pressing expressions of the same underlying problem. The use of the term “emergency” reflects the urgency with which environmentalists believe action is needed to address the issue, and is intended to call for immediate and decisive action from governments, businesses, and individuals around the world.
The dry narration of “An Inconvenient Truth” and the hokey comedic tropes of “Evan Almighty” reflect a strategic communications dissonance that has attended the climate issue since it first appeared on the political scene in the late 1980s. Climate science communicators insist that the only way to achieve far-reaching action to address the issue is to confront the public with an unvarnished presentation of the terrifying facts about climate change while, at the same time, attempting to find ever more clever ways to sell the apocalypse to the public.
Even the words we use to name the issue have continually evolved at the behest of communications experts and activists seeking to find a magic formula to get the public to care more. Through the mid-2000s, the problem was universally referred to as “global warming.” But focus group research concluded that global warming sounded desirable to too many people. So the nomenclature shifted to “climate change.” But other researchers found that climate change sounded too slow moving—more geological phenomenon than looming catastrophe. So some tried out “global heating.” Others preferred “climate disruption” or “climate breakdown.” One enterprising crew of cognitive linguists recommended “heat-trapping blanket.”
Some years later, The Guardian announced that it was revising its style guide to recommend terms such as “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” and “global heating” in lieu of “climate change” and “global warming.” Many other news outlets followed suit. The Guardian didn’t mince words about why it was making these changes. “The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example,” said Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner, “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”
Simultaneously claiming that one’s communications are a no-spin zone while spinning like crazy is, of course, not remotely unique to environmental communicators. What’s more unusual, though, is to serially repeat marketing tactics that have demonstrably failed. There is no evidence to date that the ever-shifting tapestry of terminology that environmentalists wield when discussing climate change has shifted public perception of the issue to any meaningful degree. Public opinion has remained relatively consistent for decades. People care about the issue, but not that much. They want government action, but not if it costs them money.
Having failed to mobilize the sort of response to climate change they believe necessary, environmentalists have been quick to blame nefarious forces. Enter “climate denial.” Originally, the term referred to people who denied a relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. But even in the early years after climate change became a matter of public debate, few public opponents of climate action ever actually made this claim.
And so “climate denier” slowly expanded to encompass a range of views that activists simply disagreed with. First came people who acknowledged that the climate was warming but didn’t believe it was warming as rapidly as environmentalists claimed. Then came those who believed that humans would not have significant problems adapting to climate change. Next were people who were skeptical of wind and solar energy or who advocated for nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. Finally, even those who supported far-reaching actions to address climate change through preferred green technologies but didn’t believe that it was necessary or practical to do so over the course of a single decade—as the climate movement increasingly demanded—were dubbed deniers. In recent years, climate activists have branded Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and even James Hanson—the NASA scientist who first brought the climate issue to broad public attention—as climate deniers.
The ever-expanding definition of climate denial was accompanied by an ever-expanding definition of what climate science has clearly established. Activist researchers published papers with titles like, “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature” and “Greater than 99% consensus on human-caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature,” in which they claimed that 97% or 99% of climate scientists agreed that climate change was occurring and was caused by humans. On the face of it, these papers documented a scientific consensus that was well established and not terribly controversial. The relationship between greenhouse gases and warming has been understood for over a century. Empirical observations have confirmed the strong relationship between rising concentrations of greenhouse gases from human activity and global temperatures for decades. Public scientific assessments of climate science such as from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have long documented the scientific consensus on the subject.
But researchers were quick to connect that idea to further claims for which there was no scientific consensus at all. These included claims that rapid action was necessary to avoid catastrophe, that practical solutions were at hand that would allow for rapid reduction in greenhouse gases, that the costs of slow or no action were far higher than the costs of action, that public acceptance of the scientific consensus about climate change was a necessary precondition for government action to reduce emissions, and that disinformation from fossil fuel interests was the main reason the public was not sufficiently supportive of climate action.
None of these claims followed from the consensus that the researchers had ostensibly documented. All of them are, in fact, deeply uncertain and often contested in the relevant scholarly literatures. But the claims were quickly repurposed by politicians and activists, and in the popular media, to support the argument that most scientists agreed that strong action was necessary, that irreversible and dangerous climate change would occur if warming were not halted rapidly, and that the failure of governments to act was primarily due to disinformation and resistance from fossil fuel interests.
These misrepresentations of the scientific consensus, like the ever-changing terminology, didn’t have any appreciable effect upon public sentiment or willingness to embrace far-reaching and often costly policies to address the problem. Unlike attitudes toward race, gender, and sexual orientation, for instance, which reflect a long-term generational shift toward greater equity and inclusion, public attitudes about climate change have seen little change over the last generation. What expanding claims about the scientific consensus did offer, though, was a ready-made explanation for the failure of apocalyptic climate messaging: the deniers did it.
The conviction that wordplay might transform environmental politics has not been limited to descriptions of climate change. Some years ago, renewable energy advocates decided that describing wind and solar energy as “intermittent” made them sound unreliable. Henceforth, those sources of energy should instead be described as “variable.” Anyone using the old terminology was suspected of being an opponent of renewable energy. Suggesting that calm days and overcast skies might create problems for electrical services that need to be available all the time was out of bounds.
In reality, wind and solar were as popular with the public before the new terminology as they are now. And, of course, it’s still true that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. The new terminology changed neither the weather nor anyone’s mind. But it did, for a time, serve as a useful political signifier—a way to tell who was on Team Renewable and who wasn’t.
After a while, though, the new term was so broadly adopted that many skeptics of renewable energy began using it too. There was no reason, after all, that “variable” couldn’t be deployed in exactly the same way as “intermittent.” In the context of renewable energy, it means the same thing—so much so that some renewables proponents now complain about the use of the new term. The liberal pundit and solar enthusiast Noah Smith, for instance, recently characterized the new terminology as a ploy by “anti-solar people… to make solar seem unreliable.”
For somewhat different reasons, many climate advocates have lately taken to using the term “fossil gas” instead of natural gas, insisting that natural gas sounds too, well, natural. There isn’t really any evidence that people don’t understand that natural gas is a fossil fuel. Nor that calling it fossil gas is likely to change anyone’s mind about whether they want to swap out their stove or furnace for an induction burner or heat pump.
But for many, the new term served a less obvious purpose: to elide the reality that much of the reduction in carbon emissions in the United States and many other places in recent years has been driven by the switch from coal to lower-emitting natural gas, not by green-approved policies or technologies.
As with the constant invention of new terminology to describe a well-known problem, the continual effort to fine-tune a vocabulary to virtue signal which technological solutions are green approved is an implicit alternative to reconsidering how to solve the problem. Rather than consider complementary technologies—whether nuclear energy, carbon capture, hydropower, or geothermal energy—that might actually solve the intermittency problem, green communicators simply changed their nomenclature hoping the problem would go away. And rather than acknowledging that natural gas has driven enormous emissions reductions and strategizing how to capitalize on that to speed the end of coal, advocates invented a new name for it in order to pretend those benefits didn’t exist.
A more pragmatic movement—more serious about reducing emissions than validating its ideological commitments—would see in these challenges opportunities for learning, creativity, and change. Instead, the climate communicators come out with an endless stream of jargon to change the subject.
Fixing the politics, not the words
These linguistic gymnastics promise that the foundational problems that plague the environmental project might be fixed with better words. But they can’t be.
Most people believe that global warming is real and that the government should do something about it. They overwhelmingly approve of renewable energy. And they will quite happily switch to induction stoves and heat pumps once they’re convinced that the new technology is comparable in price and performance to the old.
But they are not going to sign up to radically reorganize the global energy economy in order to change the weather. They understand that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. And they won’t be panicked into foregoing the benefits of cheap and reliable heating, cooking, or electricity by green moralizing about fossil fuels or scare-tactics about the health risks of a gas stove.
That is as it should be. Public resistance to the utopian demands of the environmental movement is both understandable and appropriate. What the highly professionalized cadre of green marketeers, climate communicators, movement journalists, and online influencers are really trying to overcome is not the fossil fuel industry, but rather, public resistance to the climate movement’s impossible agenda.
In “Evan Almighty,” Goodman’s character is cast as a deeply corrupt figure who defends pandering to public ignorance instead of delivering hard scientific truths that the public must hear in order to save the planet. In reality, environmental advocates pander to public misperceptions, nostalgias, and naturalistic fallacies in service of defending green ideological commitments and achieving green political objectives.
The new words and clever communications strategies aren’t actually in service of building a new world, but rather, keeping faith in an old religion. At the bottom of the climate debate, and the way that it’s been framed by the environmental movement, are foundational ideological claims that long predate concern about global warming: that humans have fallen from nature and that catastrophe will ensue unless we change course; that all legitimate human needs can be met by harmonizing with natural flows of energy—through the sun, the wind, and the soil; and that all resistance to green demands is born either of ignorance or corruption. That so much of the green discourse finds its way into repurposings of biblical narratives and science fiction should not surprise. It is not of this world.
Against green claims about the climate “crisis,” what the balance of evidence—if not the mainstream consensus—points to is that climate change is a chronic problem that human societies will need to manage, not an emergency that trumps all or most other human concerns. Economic development is a necessary precondition for environmental progress in modern societies. Getting emissions to zero will take many decades and won’t be achieved entirely, or even necessarily predominantly, with wind and solar energy. For these reasons, fossil fuels, depending on the trajectory of technological change and the context in which they are being used, are likely to be with us for a long time. But not forever.
None of these realities are inconsistent with climate action. For decades, there has been strong evidence that a less apocalyptic and polarizing politics, paired with a meliorist view of environmental progress and a more ecumenical approach to the technological solutions, offers far more fulsome and sustainable (in the political sense) possibilities. And yet, the movement abides, committed to its catastrophism, naturalistic fallacies, and millenarian fantasies.
A decade and a half after my book flopped with environmentalists, it is clearer than ever that climate advocacy—insofar as its actual purpose is to mitigate climate change—will succeed when it takes John Goodman’s sage advice seriously. Cut the doom and gloom. Offer people a positive vision of a future they want to be a part of. Save the planet by recommitting to progress and economic development. And most of all: People, not trees, go to the polls. Their desires and concerns need to be accounted for.