06 May 2012

Communicating Climate Change - Where's the (Com)Passion?

I have a folder in my email program called Communicating CC. I have this fantasy that one day I'll do my PhD on the best way to communicate the science and impacts of climate change to the public, and my research will save the world! (I thought my master's research on sustainable development learning was going to save the world, too, but alas, no one was interested in that topic either.)
Anyway, I save any message that is even remotely related to how to get people to understand climate change. And between one of those items and a conversation I had this week with someone who works in the fossil fuel industry, I think I've figured something out.
Greenpeace recently asked me (and a million others) to ask Shell not to drill for oil in the Arctic. It struck me that their rationale was orders of magnitude less urgent than the actual situation:
"Today, a Finnish icebreaker is heading to Alaska to help Shell drill for oil. Everyone has a limit - for me it's the Arctic. That's why I'm here in Helsinki to stop it before it gets there. And that's why I need your help. Take action now and stop Shell with me. The Arctic is one of the last untouched natural areas on the planet, home of polar bears, narwhals, and other unique wildlife. Due to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is melting at an accelerating rate, opening up the Arctic to companies in search of more oil. It is wrong in so many ways. What would happen when an oil spill happens, I’m afraid to even think of it."
What if this committed activist had said, "The Arctic is sitting on massive amounts of frozen methane, a greenhouse gas that is 100 times more potent that carbon dioxide. If we allow more drilling and burning of fossil fuels, the Arctic will warm even more, releasing the methane and causing catastrophic climate chaos — including agricultural disasters and loss of food security around the world — and we'll all be guilty of the worst crime ever against humanity and the rest of Nature for having allowed it to happen."
I don't know. Doesn't that come closer to telling the terrifying truth? And even if some people read that and throw the covers over their heads, many more will wake up and demand action ... "You mean it's not just about polar bears and a few little oil spills affecting narwhals up north?" At least, that's what I believe.
(By the way, the automated response I got from Greenpeace actually made me laugh: "You’re amazing. As Shell is trying to expand into the Arctic, you’ve let them know that’s unacceptable. It will make a difference for the polar bears, Arctic terns and other amazing animals that depend on the Arctic." Hey, Greenpeace! I'm doing this to save my own ass, okay? And my niece's and stepsons' asses, okay? If I save them, the Arctic terns will be saved too. Okay? Bless 'em, they're lovely birds. And it's really cool that theirs is the longest regular migration by any known animal. But I don't think that's why people are going to go up against Shell to fight Arctic drilling and global warming.)
Then I found myself talking with someone who works in Calgary, Canada's seat of the fossil fuel industry. He was all excited about efficiency standards in American cars, and how "Saudi America" will soon be energy independent because there's so much fuel here (in North America) that we haven't tapped yet. He was standing there with his wife and young daughter. How could I inform him (as if he doesn't know) that American fossil fuels are just as destructive to the climate system as those from the Middle East? How could I tell him that automotive fuel standards are too little, too late? How could I explain that fracking for "all sorts of natural gas" is going to be disastrous?
I came away both relieved that I hadn't started a fight, especially with his daughter standing there, and ashamed that I didn't have the guts to speak up.
It seems that the world will not be saved because too many of us (Greenpeace and I included) are too nice (aka, too wussie) to speak up and tell the truth in public to defend the children and their future from those who knowingly or unwittingly are putting profit before life.
Grandfather of biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson, recently told an interviewer:
"We have to do everything we possibly can. I like to tell this the way a former Southern Baptist would tell it, in the original accent. Then you’ll see what I’m trying to say when I say we have to use every weapon at our disposal, all the time, everything from science to activism to political influence, etc. So this is Billy Sunday, a pioneer in Southern evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the ’20s: 'I hate sin. I hate sin so much I’m going to fight it till my arms won’t move no more. When my arms don’t move no more, I’m gonna bite it. And when all my teeth are gone, I’m gonna gum it.' Now you get the picture. We all have to do that. When there’s nothing else at hand, gum it."
So let's not be afraid to wear down our climate activist teeth, my friends!!! If need be, we'll just gum the problem till we solve it! In the meantime, let's communicate the potential (and probable, if we don't change our track) impacts of the climate change emergency in ways that people will actually hear and take seriously. With all honour to the remarkable Arctic tern.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?