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Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn't enough, what can be done?
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(Photo: Mark Dixon/Flickr)

(Photo: Mark Dixon/Flickr)

Biblical prophets, burdened with the vocation of imploring people to quit their wicked ways or suffer God's divine wrath, haven't always had it easy. Jonah, for example, was thrown overboard into a raging sea, then swallowed by a whale. Jeremiah was ridiculed, beaten, and imprisoned in a cistern, where he nearly died of starvation. John the Baptist was beheaded.

In a sense, those hollering from the streets and across the Web about climate change are up against a similar challenge: They must convince society and its rulers that a global catastrophe is inevitable unless we put a stop to our destructive behavior. The question, though, is how best to convert the unbelievers who neither acknowledge their iniquitous deeds nor accept that the end is nigh.

THE PAST MONTH OR so has been encouraging for those concerned about the environment: the United Nations hosted a summit meeting on global warming, in which President Obama stated that climate change—not terrorism, inequality, or disease—will become the primary issue that defines the contours of this century; Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein released a new book titled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced plans to withdraw their investments in fossil fuels; and on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart rebuked a handful of Republicans who serve on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee for their apparent "willful misunderstanding" of the data that reveals a planet in crisis.

Buzzwords such as "green," "clean energy," and "sustainability," Ewen argued, have lost much of their meaning due to overuse and abuse.

And then there was the People's Climate March. On September 21, individuals in over 150 countries from Indonesia to Germany to Turkey to Tanzania walked in solidarity to demand action. Organizers deemed it the largest climate change protest in history. In New York City, a crowd of over 300,000 turned up, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

To promote the march, event organizers ran a month-long advertising campaign throughout New York City's subway system. One of the two posters selected from hundreds of entries to represent the campaign depicts the Statue of Liberty submerged up to her armpits in water. Along the horizon, where an ominous ocean meets an overcast sky, big white letters declare: "The Next One Won't Be Biblical." The poster is bleak, a clear allusion to the flood in Genesis that only Noah, his family, and several pairs of lucky animals survived, while the unrighteous perished.

"We wanted to make something that was powerful enough and scary enough to get people to look at it," says Akira Ohiso, who, together with his wife and design partner, Ellie, created the apocalyptic graphic.

"When I share the image on social media, I've had cousins of mine who are still quite religious say things like, 'Oh, please, that's such hyperbole,'" Ellie says. "And then I'm like, 'OK, yes, it's hyperbole. So let's talk about exactly how high the water has to get on Lady Liberty before you start having a discussion about what's really happening.'"

ON THE DAY OF the march in New York, I arrived about an hour early. All along Central Park West, where the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade also happens to commence, protestors were busy preparing their banners and buttons and drums and face paint among the rows of metal barricades and porta-potties. Everyone seemed calm, yet ready to make some noise.

"Capitalism is killing the planet," a man on the sidewalk holding a stack of pamphlets told me as I walked past toward Columbus Circle.

As the start time drew near, I spoke with a 69-year-old former coal miner from Kentucky, who, for over 40 years, had seen mountains stripped and lakes polluted. He was worried about the world his grandchildren would inherit. "I'm about done here," he said of his time left on Earth, emphasizing the unfairness of leaving behind a mess for future generations to clean up.

I smelled the distinct smell of incense burning. I overheard a woman who had just had her picture taken ask the photographer, "Do I look like a hippie?" I saw signs that read, "Windmills Not Weapons," "Climate Change Is a Health Crisis," "This Is What Love Looks Like," and, in red all caps, "NOW." In the vicinity that day were union members, student groups, Hare Krishnas, parents with children, individuals who struggled with mental illness, and just about every anti-fracking group ever assembled.

Eventually, things got going as the great mass of bodies began flowing south like a lazy river.

I stood off to the side next to a thin, middle-aged man with glasses. He told me he was there because he thought the march was important and wanted to be counted, though he wasn't sure that the kind of change that needs to happen will happen until people are willing to suffer and live with less. But, then again, he wasn't sure. "If I had the answers," he told me, "I wouldn't be standing here on the sidewalk."

WHAT TODAY'S ADVOCATES HAVE that the ancient prophets didn't, however, is modern science—and the science seems pretty clear. One report found that out of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies that take a position on climate change, 97 percent conclude that humans are to blame. Last year, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its own study stating that global warming is "unequivocal."

Last April, though, Gallup reported that a quarter of Americans remain skeptical that human-caused global warming is real. That percentage has more than doubled since 2001. Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center show that while most people believe in climate change, they don't consider it as big of a threat as ISIS or North Korea's nuclear program. The most "Reader Recommended" comment out of over 400 comments left on a Wall Street Journalarticle about the People's Climate March reads, "The march of the living dead ... they are all living and all brain dead." Another points out the hypocrisy of all the activists who traveled to New York by burning a ton of fossil fuel.

ABOUT A WEEK AFTER the march, I attended a panel discussion at the Queens Museum in Queens, New York, titled "Climate Wars: Propaganda, Debate, and the Propaganda of Debate." On the humble stage, in front of about two dozen people, sat a historian of media studies, a professor of meteorology, and the president of a public relations firm based in Vancouver, Canada. All were men; all wore blazers.

The main issue of discussion was not the veracity of climate change, but the art of persuasion. The media studies historian, Stuart Ewen, who wrote the book PR! A Social History of Spin, said that since we, as a society, are becoming more and more separated from the natural environment that sustains us, it's becoming easier and easier for giant corporations to fill the growing space between with half truths. Buzzwords such as "green," "clean energy," and "sustainability," Ewen argued, have lost much of their meaning due to overuse and abuse.

The meteorologist, Michael Mann, who teaches at Penn State University, said it's amazing that we're still having this debate. Furthermore, he thinks the clichéd image of a polar bear balancing on a tiny piece of ice floating in the arctic, though accurate, isn't helpful because it makes the issue of climate change seem too exotic and remote.

The PR president, James Hoggan, who specializes in crisis management, said the way to clean up the public square is to converse with our opponents in good faith, free from any desire to punish or humiliate.

All three appeared to agree that the failure to, as Ewen put it, transform a public problem into a private urgency relates to a failure to provide a better narrative. But it's also more complicated than that. How do people conditioned by marketers and movies to think individually begin to think collectively? If capitalism is the culprit, what's the alternative economic model? How does one plan for a world beyond her own lifetime when earning barely enough income to pay this month's rent?

At one point during the discussion, Ewen said: "This isn't going to be a short-term project." Everyone in attendance seemed to agree.