The Power of Messaging in the Fight Against Climate Change

Rhetoric colors so much of the public perception around the issue.

This year is well-poised to be the hottest on record, and as the impacts of climate change are starting to get more felt, the anxiety setting in from its grave consequences is only getting stronger. It doesn’t matter where you live, what your background is, or what level of economic wherewithal your region has–the battle we’re waging against climate change is a global one, and it’s by recognizing the necessity of all to band together and fight it that we’re aught to make the most profound impact.

What’s weird about the recent narrative of imminent ecological collapse is that the scientific community has been beating its drums for quite some time, but were ignored by those who hold power under the premise that the urgency of their predictions demands an overhaul of our global economy that most were not yet ready to embrace. Under crushing levels of wealth inequality, those who built their fortunes on the mindless exploitation of Earth’s hidden treasures would have to yield their advantage for a more forward-looking approach–the issue is as with most reform efforts, short-term gain is prioritized above prosperity for the long haul. As such, unless there’s mass mobilization to see these issues get taken care of, the prospects of that ever changing remain very slim.

Climate change’s main defining trait is that as profound as its impact is going to be for the globe, the absence of any immediately-felt boons from pursuing a tactful policy in response presents a challenge both for the electorate whose job is to drive that momentum forward, and the climate activism community whose fuel is even more unsustainable than current modes of energy production. Simply put, because the movement’s strides in shifting the discourse can be best described as a stalemate, churn is a real issue within its premises.

Scientists don’t fare that much better either–climate and energy Vox reporter David Roberts openly expressed his discontent with the scientific community’s lack of an effective rhetoric, one that is often built on false hope rather than accepting a rough, but nonetheless sobering reality of what’s to come. “It is not the job of those of us in the business of observation and analysis to make the public feel or do things. That’s what activists do. We owe the public our best judgment of the situation, even if it might make them sad,” Roberts says. “It looks like we have already locked in levels of climate change that scientists predict will be devastating. I don’t like it, I don’t “accept” it, but I see it, and I reject the notion that I should be silent about it for PR purposes.”

It appears as though the main issue with mobilizing around climate change is one of badly-calibrated expectations–the scientific community seems to have adopted a script of reserved optimism which they think is best, and activists on the other hand have embodied eco-anxiety so well, that it became their fiercest foe.

The remedy for this — at least for someone whose main job is to convince readers of their theses on the regular — is to adopt which ails their souls the least. If fear becomes a handicap in what is otherwise a laudable endeavor, it’s best to substitute it for optimism every now and then–conversely, if you can only muster speaking about climate catastrophe in sugar-coated and fluffy terms, it’s better to emphasize the urgency of your work when the situation demands it. Doing so will allow enough social capital to coalesce around climate change as an issue, hopefully driving change forward as governments once-reluctant to fight it finally cave.

To that end, not only do electorates around the world have to vote out anyone who denies the threat of climate change, but the United States with its agenda-setting power has to step in and lead by example on the global stage. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to undermine environmental policy, and after the drop-out of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee from the presidential race — who ran on climate as the key issue — the only candidate remaining with a strong vision for climate policy is Bernie Sanders.

As the field for Democratic presidential hopefuls starts to clear, it’s become more apparent than ever that rallying behind someone who understands the intersection of climate change with every facet of modern life has to bring about the most fruitful outcome. Sanders gets this better than most–he sees climate change as another vector of inequality, wherein the rich will try to distance themselves as far away as possible from calamity, leaving the rest of us to put down the fires they helped start, both figurative and literal. With the advent of industry, exploitation has merely migrated from plots of lands to big factories–it isn’t until the class-repressive measures of the current status quo are dismantled, that we’ll ever stand a chance of fending off further disaster.

While the rift between poor and rich remains as wide, the incentives to abandon an exploitative mindset, and thus push for climate policy forward, are likely to remain unappealing. In the meantime, our current tools will have to do, and their most powerful remains Democracy. Yes, it is under constant assault, and the far-right has clearly moved itself on the side of climate denialism, but soon enough and at some point, the stars will have to align for something to happen–whether it’s to our peril or benefit, is up to us.

The era of diffusing responsibility is gone–individuals can only do so much on their own, before their efforts are virtually nullified by lackluster climate policy. If climate change is to be addressed, initiative won’t have to only come from members of society to stomach short-term pain for long-term gain, but also from governments who seem to lack all impetus to move on this problem with sharper focus. Australia’s natural ecosystem is in ruins, the Amazon is heading towards collapse, coral reefs will shortly be a thing of the past, ocean acidification is a huge problem, and the only recourse to them all will have to be an effort firstmost driven by knowledge, motivated by the will to save as much of this beautiful planet for our successors as possible.