Communicating Global Warming

Mill and power plant, West Linn, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Given the success of the polluting industries in feeding the public with disinformation on global warming, we need to think about how to communicate global warming better than we have done so far. For that one needs to examine how to communicate complex problems such as global warming; there should be a framework for environmental communication; we need to engage with the issue of “economics-vs.-environment”; all of this needs to be linked to democracy; and finally, we need to  communicate positive environmental change. To do all this, we need a framework for developing more effective political communication. We also need to counterbalances global warming deniers like Charles Koch who have moved us towards The Disinformation Age.

Many have lamented that many environmental groups continue to reproduce communication that does not work well. To fix this, one might like to argue that the following article is not about inventing a new proposal for building a better world. Instead, it presents a simple model that citizens, organizations, and communication scholars can use to think and act differently about a set of problems that current approaches are failing to solve. One might like to propose five steps:

1) Develop communication processes that encourages cooperation;

2) Better enable diverse groups in different societies;

3) Build stronger networks with common agendas;

4) Gain support in elections and policy processes; and

5) Receive uptake from political parties and governments.

Beyond that, one might also like to suggest linking the environment to economics. By doing so environmental communication can overcome what is presented as the economy-vs.-environment cleavage that is used by lobbyists to defame environmental groups and proposals on sustainability. In particular, one might argue against one of neoliberalism’s favorites, namely the hallucination of endless growth. One might like to realize that anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist. To enhance the environmental argument, one might like to take three steps:

1) Evaluate common but unproductive communication that blocks thinking about change;

2) Develop ideas and narratives that intersect the categories of economic, political, and environmental problems; and

3) Design communication processes that help organize and engage diverse publics to demand more effective solutions.

Virtually the entire project of environmental communication is dedicated to battling what might be described as Exxon Mobil, BP, etc.’s corporate lobbying. Shell alone has spent over $100 million during the decade of 2010-2020 lobbying the European Union. Wherever these corporations go, practically the same thing occurs; sometimes even worse is reproduced. If this continues, we will indeed see The Uninhabitable Earth as CO2 levels have reached more than 400 parts per million with 350 ppm generally regarded as the safe upper limit. These are abstract numbers pointing into the future. Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, most everyday communication is designed to keep us in the moment, forced on the what is happening now. The same applies to much of the corporate mass media, tabloid newspapers, and tabloid-TV. On the issue of global warming, we need to avoid what Smythe once called the Communications Blindspot.

Despite this, the overarching question guiding the rest of this article is: What kinds of communication, combined with what forms of organized political power, will enable shared vision of political and economic transformation to develop?Again, four steps are vital:

Idea Production where one might name Greta Thunberg as an example;

Packaging Ideas: this goes beyond how to frame a message. One might think of the fact that ideas are more likely to flow when expressed and shared through assemblage of pictures, memes, intersection category logics, trusted sources, and diverse media formats and platforms;

Networking Ideas: the current networks opposing environmental action are much more formally organized, better resourced, and have better access to media platforms.

Political Uptake: Thunberg’s success and her millions of fellow future citizens with a strike of some 1.4 million children in 112 countries in August 2018.

One might think of this in the awareness that the so-called neoliberal free-market regime has become far more politically dominant than the environmental movement. Consequently, and as Jameson once said, it is easier to imaginean end to the world than an end to capitalism. Yet, the WWF that has partnered with Coca Cola, a corporation that takes out ground water on a massive scale depriving local and often poor communities of a much-needed resource. Coca Cola also produces millions of plastic bottles every day. This indicates that the powerful WWF seems to engage in Greenwashing.

However, there are also the pitfalls of sustainable development advocating that fixing problems is no longer a viable option given what we face. The looming of The Uninhabitable Earth demands a total rethinking of our economy. This is an urgent demand given that at present Germany consumes resources at a pace that would require 3.1 planets to support its over-consumptive lifestyle behind world leaders Australia at 5.4 planets, US at 4.8, and Switzerland, South Korea, and Russia all at 3.3. The problem is that we do not have so many earths – just one. And the search for another earth in space to be occupied after we have destroyed our earth is, so far, rather fruitless.

This demands that we end the underlying predatory economic logic which can be summed up in one word: neoliberalism. So far, this pathological ill-logic will continue as long as growth trumpets sustainability to the point that in these times, economic stagnation offers the best prospects for environmental repair. When the temporary economic stagnation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021 was seen as our savior, the madness of neoliberalism raised its head. One might mention Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans and the idea of herd immunity, which seems to be letting weak members of the herd die off so that the strong would survive and markets would thrive. The strong-vs.-weak is a Nietzsche-like idea linked to social-Darwinism. We as human beings had relinquished such ideas to the dustbin of history, but the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have revived certain absurdities.

Such waves of manufactured confusion still spill over into the mainstream press in most democracies. Today we see this at times in accidental misinformation but more so in deliberate disinformation and conspiracy fantasies. We also see this in Neoliberalism and its many myths like the free market. However, neoliberalism and its disciples have been highly successful in engineering an uptake of neoliberal ideas which are well packaged and networked. Still, we can learn five lessons from the success of the ideology of neoliberalism:

1) The coordinated production of alternative ideas;

2) Packaging ideas for change featuring a simple popular narrative;

3) Networking the spread of ideas;

4) Political uptake and institutional embedding of ideas and values; and

5) Taking advantage of political opportunities

One might close with until various stakeholders change the production, packaging, networking, and uptake of ideas about how to live better with nature, we will continue to suffer communication and politics that focus on the multiplying outputs of dysfunctional economics. My final words are reimagining what is means to prosper and thrive are liberating activities.

In the end, the concept of production, packaging, networking, and up-taking of ideas is a well thought out and worthwhile proposal to counterbalance the overwhelming power of the opponents of environmental action. Yet we cannot avoid talking about the elephant in the room. Actually, there are two elephants. One is the monetary power of corporations to set up right-wing think tanks, finance dubious research that camouflages what we are facing under global warming, and the lobbying of politicians, etc.

The second elephant is the dominance of the global corporate mass media. Just like Shell and BP, etc. these are corporations themselves. What both – resource corporations and media corporations – have in common is the profit motive often camouflaged as shareholder value. As a consequence, the dominance of corporate media and their power to shape public discourse, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. Set against this is the idea that a well-thought-out communications guide assists us in going beyond re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. If we fail to achieve this, our common future may very well be The Uninhabitable Earth.

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