Environmental Groups Sing Off-Key: Climate Change Problem Lost in Translation

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Bill HurleyWhen University of Texas professor and historian H.W. Brands was asked how educated and apparently moral Southerners could support slavery, he answered by saying many of his Austin students believe the same level of denial is evident today among those who ignore the Global Warming issue.

How could such a mass of scientific agreement over the last 50 years dwarf the opposition, and yet still be the subject of debate? Perhaps green groups are not spreading the message well?

2013-04-22-Scientists-vs-public

2009 Pew Research Center surveyed of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and general public.

It’s not for lack of trying, that’s for sure.

I get a lot of mailers from green groups. They arrive from the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Association, the Environmental Defense League, the Ocean Conservancy, or the League of Conservation Voters. I must have been flagged as a “green” sympathizer somewhere along the line. They are correct – I am one. The basic philosophies and science behind environmental stewardship are well understood by me. Yet most go in the trash.

Since the 1970s, I’ve been an avid believer in the Endangered Species Act. Like the majority of environmental efforts, however, the green side hasn’t presented a strong case to the public. Whether the problem is media malfeasance or green group ineptness, I’ll leave to future historians.

Fact is, most people still think environmentalism is about saving cute animals and hike/bike trails, often at the cost of jobs and the economy.

Primary among the issues is that of climate change. Most average Americans think there’s still a legitimate scientific debate, which there really hasn’t been since the turn of the century.

But the messaging has lacked strength and there are many unbelievers. This is why I was so glad to see the Sierra Club meeting at the Witte Museum last week, convening a community conversation led by attorney Darby Riley, titled, ‘Challenges of Climate Change: Communicating, Organizing, Adapting’. I couldn’t miss it – and I didn’t.

Communicating, organizing, adapting. The start of Riley's presentation at the Witte Museum meeting room. Photo by Bill Hurley.

Communicating, organizing, adapting. The start of Riley’s presentation at the Witte Museum meeting room. Photo by Bill Hurley.

About 50 people met in the usual Sierra Club meeting room at the Witte. Click here for the Sierra Club meeting schedule.

Mobi Warren, climate change coordinator for the club, introduced Riley, who delivered a presentation he plans to take on the road in the hopes of getting a groundswell of people interested and active in this “urgent” crisis. Personally, I couldn’t agree more for the need.

“We’re experiencing the impacts (of climate change) now,” Riley told the audience, eluding to the bigger storms, floods and droughts. Witness the 20 million people recently displaced in Pakistan. Big picture: There has been a 20% increase in storms in the past century. Locally, as Riley noted, just go west a bit: “Medina Lake is hurting.”

[Click here to see a photo essay/blog showing the poor state of Medina Lake.]

Riley showed evidence of rising sea levels, melting glaciers and fear of “Positive Feedback Loops,” which would melt northern permafrost locales, thereby releasing more methane into the atmosphere (and an even greater release of greenhouse gas).

True, it sounds like “doom and gloom” and probably due to that, the broadcast media (as Riley noted) have reduced coverage from 147 climate change stories in 2007 to only 14 in 2011. But there are environmental success stories which do give hope. Note the ozone hole problem, which has been repairing itself since the Reagan administration fix and the former president’s participation in the Montreal Protocol.

Source: NASA’s Ozone Hole Watch Web Site, Sept. 24, 2006.

Source: NASA’s Ozone Hole Watch Web Site, Sept. 24, 2006.

 

The Acid Rain problem was curtailed also in 1990 by use of a cap & trade law and the Clean Air Act passed with the help of Pres. George H.W. Bush.

But there’s little doubt anymore that climate change is occurring. Some adaptation is needed immediately. That’s fortunately being done in many places – even locally. Transportation, communication, power and high-water barriers are going to be impacted and are, in some instances, being addressed.

However, the community has to be aware of the why. In a democracy like ours, public awareness is key. But are we “preaching to the choir” again?

As Riley noted to the 50 or so in attendance at the Sierra Club, “This is the choir.”  My personal experience with these preachers are that the majority don’t sing well and, if the public does listen to us at all, we sound off-key. Based on my experience with right leaning but well-educated and well-meaning people – most are close to me, in family or in friendship  – they are as clueless about the big-picture as you can get (as were Southern slavery sympathizers of the 19th century).

To the average person, the global warming/climate change issue boils down to the green side (environmentalists) against the brown side (deniers).  The green side most often sounds off by:

  • Introduction of dry scientific explanations and studies (from NASA, the UN or the AAAS).
  • Appeals to “Save the Earth” (…truly “Save Human Civilization as we know it” is more accurate.)
  • Promoting conservation and other green solutions without convincingly explaining the ‘why’ or the “how we got here” first.

I strongly believe that most of these strategies are either over people’s heads, under people’s heads, or outright condescending. The brown side asks some basic questions (listed below), which most experts either give long-winded answers to or don’t answer at all because these questions seem naïve. But they must be answered every time because not doing so leaves the impression there’s still a debate.

What I usually hear

How I respond

“Aren’t average temperature increases natural and happened before to the planet?” When it happened before, humanity consisted of wandering tribes or hadn’t yet arrived on the planet. Today’s travel and communication infrastructure are the question. As to some particular weather incident, consider if your favorite quarterback throws an interception once in a while, no problem. But every quarter? Frequency and percentages are the whole point.
“CO2 is plant food. Why restrict that?” Water is essential too. Too much and you drown! As above, it’s the percentage (parts per million) that the problem.
“Doesn’t the cold weather disprove Global Warming?” It’s not weather change, it’s “climate change.” In Texas for example, the “climate” is hot and dry, but it rains here – that’s the weather. Long ago, when the climate was different, Texas was totally under water.
“Was the name changed from Global Warming to Climate Change to further a green agenda?” During the George W. Bush administration, this renaming was an attempt to be clearer about the effects of Global Warming (the cause) by referring to the resulting impacts/change instead.
“Mankind is too small to influence something as massive as earth.” The fact is that the first billion people existed on earth at the turn into the 20th century. We left that century with seven times that number using 35 times the earthly resources. Do the math. This is the entire environmental dilemma in a nutshell.

 

Please understand that I’m just describing the “problem” and not suggesting solutions (that’s another story entirely). It is famously said among engineers that “a problem well stated is already half solved”.  But “greens” usually shy from mention of population for fear of backlash about their proposed solutions. I maintain that not describing the problem has worse results because “how we got here” is instrumental in understanding the problem.

CoverSheetStudyCCRecently, a study by the  George Mason University center for Climate Change Communication – a study that President Barack Obama tweeted about last week – showed that only six in ten Americans say “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”

The same study went on to explain that this number has hard swings up and down over time, depending on the weather that year. What does this tell you? It tells me that even these 58% are not firm in that belief and will sway away when the deniers give their two cents and/or when the weather changes.

Riley was first asking for volunteers to participate in his traveling presentation and secondly, he was asking us how to improve his presentation. I suggest that his studies and charts help but don’t solidly address “understanding the problem” – the big picture.

I think we’re still singing off-key. Unless we first answer specifically what the other side, naïve or not, are saying – we aren’t allowing the moderate majority to clearly see the situation.  No amount of studies is going to help, until you get beyond some common-sense questions.

Just as the “well educated”, that couldn’t see the immorality of slavery, didn’t first need convincing of cheap ways to pick cotton – neither when we explain “how we got here” do we need possible solutions. At least not until everyone understands the central issue, which is: Too many people using too many natural resources, unsustainably.

[Download Riley’s hand out about climate change here: Page One, Page Two.]

Resources/Organizations

The Rifkin Report – CPS Energy Imagine San Antonio – transportation
Mission Verde Sustainability Plan – city of San Antonio
Build San Antonio Green
BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) sustainable local business networks
Clean Technology Forum
City of Leon Valley – El Verde 2020 Plan
Sierra Club
350.org Democratic and Republican Party Organizations
Lester Brown, Plan B 4.0
Alliance for Climate Protection/The Climate Project

 

Bill Hurley is a full-time freelance journalist and part-time software programmer (who until recently, was exactly the reverse). He has served on the Friends of Government Canyon (PR chair), the Green Spaces Alliance board, the Bexar Audubon Society board, and the Land Heritage Institute as treasurer.

 

Related Stories:

Environmental Costs Missing From Eagle Ford Shale Reports

Eagle Ford Consortium: Managing South Texas Growth

A Wary Rancher’s Wellspring: Oil and Water

Natural Gas and Climate Instability: A Response to the Eagle Ford Shale Forum

Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust

Eagle Ford Heyday: Economic Boom Obscures Long-Term Issues

 

4 thoughts on “Environmental Groups Sing Off-Key: Climate Change Problem Lost in Translation

  1. Scientists who study climate, also known as climatologists, are now unanimous in their belief that “greenhouse gases” are causing climate change right now. The scientist who was the one holdout for a long time (who was employed by the Koch brothers) has now sided with the rest of them, making it unanimous. I take my science info from scientists, not from Rush Limbaugh.

  2. Again? Wow! I am amazed how many articles there are on the topic of climate change or global warming or whatever palatable title governments and public relations people are giving it these days.

    It doesn’t matter!

    It will only get worse before it gets better thanks to all those new countries that have become rich over the last century. The BRICS countries just got started and the problem won’t end with them. We have to look at it in another context.

    The context of survival works and we should move towards the eventual terraforming (yes terraforming) of our planet to make it more suitable. Until then, let’s just adapt to survive like we always have. Thanks!

  3. Check this out! It’s an awesome way to keep lakes nice and healthy (First Link) and clean out waste water (Second Link) naturally (albeit artificially). Maybe we can apply what we know through watching nature to limit or slow down the effects of global warming. Who knows?

    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2005/03/24/2003247533

    http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/scientists-uncover-remote-lake-untouched-pollution-7-500-190246166.html

  4. Thanks for the thought provoking post. It’s a different take than the research I’ve read that says climate change denial is not about the science, it’s about values. After all, educated people have the same access to the science as everyone else. However, people filter information with their values and work backwards towards the science. Knowing this we have to come to terms with the fact that apocalyptic warnings actually hurt our message. In most cases solutions based on the listener’s values (not ours) must be agreed upon common ground before the listener perceives you as legitimate. The research shows that simply telling someone the facts over and over again only hardens their belief if you don’t approach them based on their values first. Additionally, research has shown that people who endorse free-market economic principles become less hostile when they are presented with policy responses that do not seem to be as threatening to their worldview.

    Once again thanks for the post and here’s the research I’ve referenced.

    http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/11/16/globalwarming_messaging/
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1981907
    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n10/full/nclimate1547.html?WT.ec_id=NCLIMATE-201210

    I’d love to discuss this with you some time. If you care to you can contact me by my email.

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