Climate change is a big fucking iceberg

We need a better way to talk about this shit.

If you’re like me, I’ll bet you think about climate change the way you think about saving for retirement. It’s something you know you should be concerned with, maybe even do something about. But why bother when that 50 inch plasma TV is on sale? You eat at restaurants that “serve organic whenever possible” and you recycle…sometimes… So it’s all good, right?

Hell no. If you really start to dig in, it quickly becomes clear that climate change is the biggest issue on the planet. “Doing our part,” as it’s conventionally understood, doesn’t cut the mustard. Not even close.

This isn’t just some vague long term thing unfolding slowly in a vacuum for our grandchildren to deal with. It’s deeply connected to all of the hot button issues of TODAY, from human rights to refugee crises to wealth inequality to food to jobs and infrastructure.

The problem is, those individual struggles feel way more tangible and urgent to people than taking action on climate change. It’s not so easy to draw a straight line from the warming planet to, say, Syrian refugees in a single image, or a 30 second soundbite or a tweet—but those lines are there.

What’s worse, we’re in the middle of a Trumpocalypse. We’ve got a wannabe despot in the oval office, flanked by a cabinet full of fossil fuel industry lapdogs who are happy to roll with his assertion that climate change doesn’t even exist.

At least it finally feels like climate change is creeping back in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s a hot topic everywhere from Seth Myers to Sundance. There’s even cli-fi (climate fiction), an entire literary sub-genre spearheaded by authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood.

OK, so we’re talking. That’s good. People are spooked. But there’s a ton of noise, lots of different opinions about what the average person should do to help, or at least not make things worse.

I’m still trying to answer this question myself, and will be for a very long time. In the meantime I’m going to sharewhat I’m learning in a hopefully coherent and digestible way, along with some resources, further reading, and smart people we should be paying attention to. But let’s start with some basics.


There’s no debate. The climate is changing, and it’s our fault.

I’m not going to spend much time on this but just so we’re all on the same page… We’re going to ignore the climate change deniers, the pundits and politicians with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry who have successfully politicized the issue.

Instead let’s recognize that 97% of published scientists believe humans are helping to cook the planet. Most Americans also agree with that assessment.

(For extra credit, read this beautiful and frightening piece by author Margaret Atwood. “It’s not climate change. It’s everything change.” She talks about it way better than I ever could.)

Every single one of us is complicit.

It doesn’t matter how “green” you think you are. Almost everything we do involves fossil fuels. That’s coal, oil, and natural gas, releasing greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

It’s from the cars we drive. The planes we fly. The computers and smartphones and TVs we use. The shit we buy. The factories in China that make the shit we buy. The barges that bring the shit to our country. The trucks that drive the shit from the warehouses to the stores. The food we eat. Especially the animals we eat, organic or not. The farts they fart. The trucks driving livestock feed to the factories for animals to eat before they become meat. The other trucks transporting the meat to distribution centers, then to our grocery stores. The food that we waste that goes into landfills and releases methane into the atmosphere. And on and on and on.

You get the idea. Let’s move on.

It’s really hard to break it all down.

Trying to educate the instant-gratification-seeking, attention-overloaded public (myself included) about the science of climate change hasn’t been working, at least not for true mainstream acceptance and understanding.

Climate activists, scientists, and journalists keep throwing a bunch of numbers at us. Like 400 parts per million. Or 2˚ Celcius. And if you read into the implications, this shit is SCARY. But let’s be real, numbers and stats are just too abstract for most of us.

It starts to feel like this convoluted, faraway problem that smarter people will solve for us. Even though we in our privileged Western bubbles already see the effects through more severe hurricanes (hello Sandy) and floods (hello Katrina), and heatwaves (hello Paris), and droughts (hello California), we don’t really acknowledge the connection to climate change.

And so it’s this thing we should maybe sort of care/worry about, but hey, why not just leave it to the experts. Maybe go buy some eco-friendly paper towels or whatever.

Or, maybe we experience a low level feeling of existential dread, while continuing to ignore the issue. Or we get too wrapped up in that dread and suffer from climate trauma. Yeah it’s a thing. Then we just resign ourselves to our fate and go on with our lives.

Climate change has a communications problem.

First off, try your best to forget about the term “global warming.” It’s still being used all over the place, and it’s confusing. Climate change and global warming are two different ways of talking about the same issue. Because, yes, the average temperature of the planet is increasing, but the effects of a warming planet involve changing weather patterns and more severe storms, not just heatwaves and melting icecaps. With “global warming” still such a big part of the conversation, climate deniers STILL hijack the term and twist things around and argue against action because sometimes it’s colder. It’s a simple, erroneous rebuttal to something much more complicated than just “shit’s getting hot.”

Inextricably linked to this communications problem is (sorry for the marketing jargon) an audience segmentation problem. Even if we ignore the deniers and focus squarely on the people that believe in climate change and want to do something about it, we still have a wide range of people of different backgrounds, interests, habits, desires, and appetites for action.


OK, so how do we talk about this stuff?

This is the kind of thing that the smartest strategists at ad agencies and consultancies spend months figuring out for the Cokes and Nikes of the world, getting paid millions to help increase their sales by 1%. What if a sliver of that effort were put towards improving climate change communication?

“Why do you think ‘Make America Great Again’ worked? My theory is the repetition. A simple message, repeated again and again and again…. There’s an important lesson there for climate scientists. Somehow we’ve got to find an equally effective way of communicating the message again and again and again.” – Climate scientist Ben Santer

Ben is right, but it’s got to be the right message for the right person. There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all message about climate change. There are lots of theories and solutions, and I think there’s a rallying cry buried in there for each of them:

  • The Elon Musks of the world are pushing for things like electric cars, solar rooftops, carbon capture, and building a sustainable energy future. They hope technology will be the big thing, that the increasing cost efficiency and innovation of renewable technology will move the market away from fossil fuels despite any political roadblocks.
  • The hardcore environmentalist thinkers and anti-capitalists like Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben believe the very concept of economic growth is to blame. We all need to live much simpler and less consumption-driven lives starting right now, volunteer with climate action groups like 350.org, and fight the battles on the ground like at the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Some think our food system and consumption of meat needs to change drastically. From cows belching methane that traps heat in the atmosphere, to water and food being used to feed those cows instead of being provided directly to hungry people, there are lots of problems. Innovative veggie burgers and lab grown meat are just a few possible solutions here.
  • The policy wonks and systems thinkers look at our entire infrastructure and see vast opportunities for energy efficiency. Like updating the electrical grid, or improving public transportation.
  • Economists and finance people, and the super duper rich like Bill Gates and Al Gore believe sustainable investing, investing money in companies focused on renewable energy and the like, will spark the change we need. Another angle also gaining steam is divestment — or removing money from the market invested in fossil fuel companies. Even the Rockefeller family are getting into this game.
  • Even some sensible Republicans are starting to speak up, proposing a variation on the idea of a carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon to incentivize businesses towards reducing their emissions. This one has been floated by everyone from Elon Musk to Rex Tillerson, Mr. Exxon himself.

So here’s the thing. They’re all right. These are all amazing solutions that will transform the world in their own way. We probably need to do every one of them to actually solve this. But of course, they don’t all apply to everyone on the planet all at once. There’s no way you’d get EVERYONE to stop eating meat cold turkey, or buy a Tesla, or get every government to update their electricity grid overnight. This is where that whole audience segmentation thing comes in.

Who are we talking to then?

  • Tech nerds and startup types. (Show THEM the numbers.)
  • Treehuggers and the far left.
  • Rich people who care.
  • Lazy people who care, AKA everyone else. (I’m in this category.)

And for extra credit:

  • Homeowners.
  • Designers, creatives, and marketing types.
  • Foodies.

Will one of these groups provide the tipping point, and turn this into the global movement that jolts everyone into action? Maybe. To have any chance of getting there it needs to be the biggest news story ever. the biggest marketing campaign ever. the biggest everything ever. But we have to attack it from all angles. We have to find a better way to talk about climate change.

To be continued… I’ll be adding to this and expanding on some of these specific angles in future posts. And read on for a bunch of vital climate resources.

By the way if you’re reading this and work in climate science, environmental activism, or a related field, PLEASE chime in, comment, add more detail, correct me, troll me, tell me I’m crazy, whatever.


Resources

Books to read

  • How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee — This is the book that EVERYONE should have on their shelf. It cuts through a ton of the junk science and myths about what’s actually “green” or not, so you can pick your battles and get the most bang for your carbon buck in reducing your footprint. As the title suggests, it covers everything from a banana to boiling a pot of water, to an international flight to a war. Just be careful if you’re the O.C.D. type
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein — A super comprehensive and impassioned look at how the global march of capitalism fuels the climate crisis, and what activist movements around the world are doing about it. If you think you’re the type of person who would attend a protest or volunteer your time for a good cause, read this book, get scared shitless, then inspired for action.
  • Sustainable Energy, Without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay — An incredibly detailed and measured at the sustainable energy landscape without hyperbole or doom and gloom. If you’re the techy or engineery type who might be in a position to actually invent something, start a business, or make a real difference in the industry, this book is for you.

Climate news

Important thinkers and writers

Organizations actually worth giving money/time to

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