Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Spin, Flat-Earth Thinking, Marketing – How Do We Frame Climate Change So Everyone Gets It

By Paul K. Haeder

Is it all about spin? Marketing? Or how to out-Cicero (debate) the lesser of the articulate? Or who can lawyer up quicker? Or which media soapbox is louder than Murdoch’s Fox? Or is it just an act of faith? Leap of faith? Are humans even hardwired to understand climate change? What percentage of people is capable of systems and abstract thinking? Is it a matter of a country dumb-downing education? Is it allegiance to job and consumption that puts on blinders? Bringing in standardized testing and tossing out critical thinking skills? Is denying science an American pastime? Has there been a conspiracy against teaching natural history, evolution, cosmology? Is it a matter of context and narrative framing? Symbolism? What is so odd about conservatives believing in conservation? Do we need mandates for it to work? A Marshall Plan for us, the world? Will the free market solve it all for us in one fell swoop? Are we destined for collapse? Is die-off inevitable? Are we the drivers of the Sixth Mass Extinction? What sort of communitarian spirit will it take to shift the paradigm from a money economy to a resource-based economy? If China or Russia gets to the oil-natural gas-lithium-iridium-what have you first, then we our SOS, so why not drill and plunder before the other guys get it?

What better questions to ask now, in the Summer of 2009, when Wall Street is still getting away with murder; GM and car companies have been given a bailout and get-out-of-jail card with no mandate to retool for a green transportation system; and the world still insists on building coal-fired plants and believes in a fairy tale called Clean Coal Comes to Town.

Every single person working this climate change-mass extinction-paradigm shift-energy search-ice melt-ocean acidification-urban/rural planning conundrum “game” needs to continue to ask himself or herself why it is that we have to continue to repeat the same points about climate change? Why is it that a large swath of Americans just don’t get it? And, if indeed, we have passed any point of mitigation or climatic salvation.

This narrow passage of the Waxman-Markey energy bill – a cap-and-trade giveaway – shows us that those 219 for’s and 212 against’s illustrates to us generally that this piece of legislation’s fate is shaky, and humanity’s is as uncertain

This current climate change debate is fueled by three voices, with a fourth one barely audible, or at least rarely getting any media play or flow into our collective consciousness. This cap and trade deal will precipitate right-wing critics not only against the legislation – “crap and tax,” they call it. But right-wingers will continue to assault climate change’s reality. That’s one voice. The other voice is the bill’s supporters who are fueled by hope and the idea that massive green programs will stave off destruction of a magnitude that will tip earth’s life support systems. Climate change denialists Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe will get the limelight in the compliant media; they’re the wrong folk to criticize the bill. The third voice is in the scientific and environmental activist communities. The individuals like leading climate scientist James Hansen and groups like Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research see Waxman-Markey as a toothless measure that will actually spur nuke and coal power. It’s a “finance sector friendly” giveaway that’s anathema to real climate change help. They see a 90 to 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions as the key to (or at least one wedge of) climate change mitigation. They’re shooting for 350 parts per million by 2020, and we’re at 388 ppm now!

Now the fourth voice, which is so “out there in the wilderness”(not really), and so marginalized and radicalized by the media and the politicians, are those saying we have already thrown the baby out with the bathwater. British scientist James Lovelock, father of Gaia Theory and inventor of the instrument allowing for the atmospheric measurements of CFC's, is that fourth voice, along with hundreds of scientists working in the fields of oceanography, glaciology and earth and meteorological sciences. “Most of the ‘green’ stuff is verging on a gigantic scam," Lovelock told the New Scientist shortly before the release of his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. "Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It's not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it'll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.”

We’ll get into his views in upcoming blogs, to be sure, and I’ll work precisely with his theories associated with five major feedback loops that are telling of climate change/global warming’s intensity, which this fourth voice states has been under-measured and under-predicted even by the IPCC’s computer modeling sources. We’ll get into paleontologist Peter Ward's Under a Green Sky. And look at what Jackie Savitz -- Oceana's senior director of pollution campaigns and co-author of the report,” Acid Test: Can we save our oceans from CO2?” -- has to say about massive ocean transformation happening over just a 250 year period. We’ll see why Oceana – the fourth voice in climate change debates – warns the oceans in 40 years will be more acidic than anything experienced in the past 20 million years. Ward is a fourth voice that rarely gets airtime in mainstream media; his The Medea Hypothesis purports five hydrogen sulfide extinction events, including the Great Dying 250 million years ago when 96 percent of all planetary life went extinct, propelled mass extinctions. He sees our killing of the ocean as a driver of a possible future of hydrogen sulfide release. Not too many forms of life exist long breathing hydrogen sulfide.

So what do we do then, those of us working to prepare for climate change and lobbying to build a series of under girders to support global human species as well as those non-human species still struggling to sustain themselves? We need to look at how climate change has been put through the meat grinder of consciousness, marketing, media hype and filtering, and how climate change discourse is always to economic measures forced into the national consciousness by corporations and a government that in the words of Thomas Frank has been systematically undermined financially and intellectually through a 30-year campaign to destroy confidence in government agencies -- The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. We need to look at how climate change has been framed, taught and debated in a society that is steeped in resource imperialism and conspicuous consumption.

George Lakoff called frames and framing the key to the Republican grip on politics and policy and the American heartstrings for 30 years. It’s as simple as calling –reframing -- an inheritance tax on multi-millionaires whose kin probably double-dipped and made huge pots of money scamming the tax codes as a death tax. He is currently looking at the values inherent in the ones who see the systems and positive and negative feedback loops inherent in what causes global warming and environment degradation – so-called progressive thinkers – and those who see earth as a huge god-created machine that is too wide and far to have any talk of sensitive ecosystems and far too vast for anthropomorphic influences on the atmosphere – so-called conservatives.

“The right wing has spent billions of dollars over decades on a widespread system of think tanks, language experts, training institutes for speakers, grassroots organizing, buying media, computer communications, and the daily booking of speakers in the media across the country. They have worked long-term at a deep level. They have gotten their deepest values into the brains of tens of millions of Americans,” Lakoff said.

Fundamentally, it’s clear that humans have to have a major shift in how we view nature – we are part of it, not separate from it. This has been talked about by Rachel Carson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and countless others in the sustainability and deep ecology movements. Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis makes a clear point of showing how humans have a deep connection and instinctive bond with other living systems.

What prompts this specific blog today is the very nature of human thinking, and a Gallup Poll that has just recently weighed in on Americans’ climate change respectability and knowledge has to get us all thinking. The Poll results show that 41 percent of Americans believe the media are over exaggerating the facts and problems associated with climate change. This is a high number, and it’s the highest percentage of skepticism in a decade. Look at this one year change – Republicans moved from 59% to 66% total who are skeptical about the media’s coverage of climate change; independents moved from 33% to 44%; the rate among Democrats remained close to 20%.

Exaggerated? The mainstream media? Maybe flippant and lacking in truly realistic and truthful negative scenarios, but the mainstream media get low points for the amount of coverage and kind of coverage when it come to climate change and ecosystems collapse. This same Gallup Poll shows older American less concerned about global warming than younger Americans. Only six in ten are concerned about global warming.

Eric Pooley, a Washington journalist currently writing a book about the politics and economics of climate change, says it’s the press’s fault for obfuscating the seriousness of climate change, what we should be describing as global warming. "To the extent that people still think of climate change as something abstract and going to happen in the future, it's very powerful if reporters can point to things that are already happening" as a consequence of global warming.

A former editor of Fortune magazine and reporter and editor at Time, Pooley writes,

“To the extent that people still think of climate change as something abstract and going to happen in the future, it's very powerful if reporters can point to things that are already happening" as a consequence of global warming. The Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard examined media coverage of the economics of climate change this past winter. Pooley believes, after his extensive research, that climate change in general is "still woefully underreported" by the press.

Is it so difficult for editors and reporters to link climate change to natural disasters where the science is conclusive? Americans need that immediacy and that sense of home and place being effected directly by climate change to accept the larger framework of global warming.

The ice shelves melting is too distant and abstract for Americans. With the Western states experiencing wetter winters, drier springs and hotter summers, and as wildfires decimate California, so many of the experts are making the connection between wildfires and climate change, yet the media filter the message, spinning away the truth or stymieing any serious coverage. In fact, the media create a manufactured objectivity, or contrived balance. Get a thousand geology, forestry and climate experts as well as ecosystems biologists to say that a shifting jet stream, lesser snowpack and an earlier start to spring and longer fall help to fuel wildfires, and the media will hobble along and find one or two quasi-credentialed naysayers, giving that individual equal time to the huge contingent of those tying global warming to human impacts on earth’s systems.

What’s worse is when these tin star writers like the Washington Post’s George Will writes about his personal skepticism of global warming, and then is proven incorrect by a thousand fact checkers, the newspaper of record fails to write a retraction or clarification. His Feb. 2009 Op-ed, “Dark Green Doomsayers,” is flippant, wrong, out of context, and an example of short-sighted thinking and little grasp of basic systems science.

George Will figures to get huge traction from his missives, and the media unfortunately report on the celebrity writer while obviating the experts who have been in the field studying ice cores, tundra, coral reefs, glaciers, hydrological systems, clouds, botany, agronomy, and myriad other areas tied to earth sciences and systems tied to our human and geological “biology.”

This climate change dissonance can also be tied to scientific illiteracy on a hugely silly and dangerous scale. Take for example a two-year- old, $27 million, 70,000-square-foot "creationist Disneyland" in Ohio as an analogue to the stupidity and anti-science witch hunt we’re seeing in some circles of conservative Christianity. More than 715,000 visitors have shuffled through this place, where T-Rex is a vegetarian and Homo Sapiens saddle and bridle dinosaurs, living side-by-side in a Garden of Eden that makes smart Christians, scientists, educators laugh and cry.

Speculation about Sarah Palin’s tanking as Alaska’s governor can’t be overshadowed by her retrograde thinking on climate change ­-- she doesn't think humans are responsible for global warming. Moreover, she doesn’t believe in protecting and preserving the natural world because she sees the “end of days will soon be upon us.” Palin loves this wacko place.

Phil Jardine, a palaeobiologist graduate student from the University of Birmingham, had some fun on the tour of the Creationist Museum, but he admitted that that he was disturbed by the museum's “cartoonish” portrayal of scientists and teachers. "I feel very sorry for teachers when the children who come here start guessing if what they're being taught is wrong," Jardine said.

Why I am harping about this silly museum is because it ties into symbolism, media attention and this validation of idiocy we are seeing more and more in the American mode of thinking. While Creationism is a flaccid theory not supported by most mainstream Christian churches, Creationism and so-called Intelligent Design are topics I have to face with college students in my English classes, students going into medicine, engineering and other sciences. Many want to be pharmacists yet laugh at evolution, even at the microbiological level. HIV and AIDS resistance must be guided by the hand of God, and these people are going to be dispensing medicines?

Lisa Park of the University of Akron actually cried as she walked through the museum’s hallway full of flashing images of war, famine and natural disasters – the dark side of humanity the museum’s curators blame largely on a belief in evolution. "I think it's very bad science and even worse theology -- and the theology is far more offensive to me," said Park, a professor of paleontology who is an elder in the Presbyterian Church. "I think there's a lot of focus on fear, and I don't think that's a very Christian message... I find it a malicious manipulation of the public."

We are in a sort of “crucible” as Henry Miller showed us in his play about Massachusetts where extreme paranoia and religious xenophobia kill spirit, knowledge and a village’s fabric. The psychology of denial and this Palin “end times are near” mentality, and the public acceptance and defense of this stupidity in a person who not only was being preened to be in the vice president’s office, but potentially in the Oval Office, are being studied by the key association dealing with all things psychological. The American Psychological Association is working to grapple with climate change – to understand the lack of connection the American human brain makes to the anthropomorphic-driven tipping points created by fossil fuel burning, tree cutting and chemical pollution. In many ways the psychology association’s research is centered around Lakoff’s framing position.

Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick is showing that American attitudes about climate change over a decade are flavored by simple editing of TV news coverage. His new experiment, conducted in May, illustrates what he says is a public misperception about global warming. The scientific consensus is that humans are part of the cause of global warming; the default position by 99.99 percent of scientists s is global warming is happening and will continue to happen. “By editing CNN and PBS news stories so that some saw a skeptic included in the report, others saw a story in which the skeptic was edited out and another group saw no video, Krosnick found that adding 45 seconds of a skeptic to one news story caused 11% of Americans to shift their opinions about the scientific consensus. Rather than 58% believing a perceived scientific agreement, inclusion of the skeptic caused the perceived amount of agreement to drop to 47%.”

The American Psychological Association is considering launching a national initiative targeting behavior changes, including developing media messaging that will help eventually get people to reduce their carbon footprint and pay more attention to ways they can conserve.

But the APA also wants to understand the role social agencies and psychology will play in a world where cities will face energy brownouts, blackouts, Diaspora, and just hotter summers. Kids with no things to do. Disenfranchised male youth running the streets with hotter days and nights? These spell concern for psychologists and policy makers and governmental leaders and communities in general.

Craig Anderson, PhD, just recently presented research showing how a hotter planet could lead to more violence. These studies showing how warmer temperatures increase irritability and aggressive behavior have been around for decades. Anderson ramified data from the last 50 years – hospital and police statistics -- showing that murders and assaults go up in the summer months. Anderson, like many others, know that global warming will create a dramatic shift in the availability of resources in certain areas. "If temperatures keep rising, we can expect to see increased violence on the list of negative social consequences of global warming," Anderson said.

While this blog covers various social, psychological and spiritual implications of global warming, we will be sure to enlist experts in various fields to help us understand how we make this culture change within the various environments we call home, work, recreation, and place. How does a company like Autodesk enlist real change by reducing paper usage, lowering energy intensity, developing a network of sustainability experts who have marching orders to help shift this culture of planned and perceived obsolescence and hyper-mobility into one where community is centered where they work, not where the corporate headquarters are sited.

We need think tank sort of action now to bring these players together; sustainability is not just a matter of resource management and smart grids and retrofitting to so-called greener technology and products. It’s more than cradle-to-cradle action. More than biomimicry. It’s more than Transition Cities popping up her and there. And more than media and psychological spin. Corporations, institutions, and governments need to take that Natural Step into eco-community thinking. We need leaders to enlist cultural experts, artists, writers, planners, strategic thinkers, rabble rousers, performance artists, educators, and myriad of other social science and soft science experts, as well as the cadre of software wonks and technologists and design engineers.

Without the framing, though, we are doomed to failure. It’s incumbent upon corporations and governments to FUND education, to actually risk going into the red so future generations, versed, primed and tooled in a world with global warming as the overarching influence, can find solutions.

Finally, for those in the business world: Corporate interests are constantly putting forth arguments based on cost-benefit analysis. But the very mathematics of cost-benefit analysis is anti-ecological; the equations themselves are destructive of the earth.

The basic math uses subtraction: the benefits minus the costs summed over time indefinitely. Now those "benefits" and "costs" are seen in monetary terms, as if all values involving the future of the earth were monetary.

As any economist knows, future money is worth less than present money. How much less? The equation has a factor that tells you how much: e (2.781828...) to the power minus-d times t, where t is time and d is the discount rate. Now e to a negative power gets very small very fast. Just how fast depends on the exact discount rate (that is, interest rate), but any reasonable one is a disaster. The equation says that, in a fairly short time, any monetary benefits compared to costs will tend to zero. That says there are no long-term benefits to saving the earth!

Cost-benefit analysis is just the wrong paradigm for thinking about global warming.

Those are among the big ideas that have to be understood by the public. Language is needed, imagery is needed -- whatever will communicate the significance of the truth. (Lakoff)

And so we come right back to a solution that is non-science based but sorely needed for climate change action – we have to make huge lifestyle adjustments. Now, fast, dramatically. Again, this blog today talks about perception, people’s political stripes, and other conduits that have created a culture of deniers or disbelievers or those that fear community action against a corporate world.

But in the end, no matter how far and wide this discussion goes, it might just come down to one thing: It’s now looking like people’s worldview rudders their action, their belief system and their knowledge criteria determining the level of acceptable risk behavior. Are you influenced by an egalitarian mode of thinking, where wealth, power, and opportunity are broadly distributed? Or are you in the hierarchist group that is predisposed to a society that is linear in its structure, with leaders on top and followers below?

One group – egalitarians -- is accepting of massive changes to society and lifestyle to move humanity away from the greater risk; the other – hierarchists -- believes that a few elite leaders and thinkers have the answers for the masses, that the masses are disorganized, messy thinkers and contrarian and envious of those elites who have all the power and money and governance. This discussion is far from over.

Resources to fuel discussion and where the foundation for this blog emanated from --










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