How not to talk about Climate Change

By Mark Barden, 2/11/2012

Michael Moore was on Piers Morgan’s CNN show on Wednesday critiquing the coverage of Sandy. At one point he looked tearfully at Piers and said something along the lines of “Piers, we’re killing the planet.”

And whether or not that’s true, from the very practical stand-point of getting something done about climate change, it is a very dangerous statement to make right now for the very simple reason that, as human beings we are not hard-wired to care about “the planet.” It’s too abstract. We are hard-wired to care about ourselves first and foremost. The messaging needs to be much better than that.

Fight or flight was the most important kind of decision the cave dweller made when staring at the mammoth, and that survival instinct is still with us all. And for the 66% of Americans who are in survival mode most days, living on less than $30,000 a year (as Richard Florida points out) the idea of saving the planet is an absurd luxury. And the pols know that which is why they weren’t talking about it at all last week.

And yet, 38 people have died in Sandy’s wake, many people have lost everything and will struggle to get back on their feet. Addressing climate change just moved from luxury to necessity for a whole lot more people. And with a whole lot more people the chance of making change happen becomes very real.

So let’s stop talking about some abstract notion of ‘the planet’ and start talking about people. Let’s not talk about the risks in the future, and let’s talk about the risks for next hurricane season, because the ice over Greenland has gone for good and the high pressure that formed there as a result, and sucked Sandy back on shore, is a meteorological phenomenon that will be with us again next year.

Climate change as a brand needs to be a “brand of opposition” for a while and use the startling pictures like this one to remind people what this abstract notion of climate change looks like and how it affects them now.

And then once we’ve all got the point flip into being a “brand of proposition” that has very specific and concrete ideas for how to tackle the issues, like this very reasonable Professor of Engineering from Stanford University seems to have.

The time is now. Truly visionary business leaders are thinking about what their own companies can do to get ahead of (and profit from) some of the climate issues we face today. This piece on Paul Polman, dubbed “Captain Planet” by HBR is as startling to read as anything I’ve come across of late in the brilliance and bravery of its forward thinking. And it makes me want to go buy only Unilever products from now on (as well as get to work with them on a project that contributes to this initiative . . .)

Anyway, Michael Moore is wrong about the planet. We can harm it, but we can’t kill it. She’ll be fine. It’s us we should be worried about.




thumbnail image MISHELLA /

7 Responses to “How not to talk about Climate Change”

  1. Gabrianga of Australia says:

    I seem to remember Dr Pachauri Chairman of the United Nations IPCC stating publicly that natural disasters were NOT linked to “climate change” yet you seem to suggest otherwise.

    I also am old enough to remember when “climate change” was accepted as a natural occurrence and not just another avenue for a few to make a s.. load of money.

    Just follow the money” still sounds much more
    reasonable advice than the suggestion that if we don’t all buy an electric car Armageddon is just around the corner.

  2. Annabelle says:

    “The ice over Greenland is gone for good” – what rubbish. The Greenland icesheet is 2-3 km thick and covers 80% of Greenland. Even under the worst case scenario of climate change, it would take thousands of years for it to melt completely.

    How ironic that this gross factual error is in an article on How Not To Talk About Climate Change!

  3. C H Ingoldby says:

    ”the ice over Greenland has gone for good and the high pressure that formed there as a result, and sucked Sandy back on shore, is a meteorological phenomenon that will be with us again next year.”

    You base your entire argument on basic factual errors. The ice is there, it has nothing whatsoever to do with high pressure systems and they didn’t ‘suck’ Sandy anywhere.

    Hurricane Sandy is a part of what is called ‘weather’. To look at one single hurricane and declare that is is proof of ‘climate change’ is asinine. Perhaps a better way to ‘talk about’ climate change is to start by looking at the actual facts and evidence, not just making up nonsense.

  4. Mark Barden says:

    Thank for your comments. even the snippy ones.

    Gabrianga: you are correct, of course, that no direct correlation can be made between Sandy and climate change. causality in big complex weather systems like this one will always be elusive. but, yes, I do believe there is a connection, because I choose to believe what scientists are saying they see in the data. This piece, written long before Sandy, states the case simply. follow the links for data.
    And yes, ‘follow the money’ is always a good notion in free markets. There will always be some who try to profit off climate change, and I’m OK with that. I want to see a lot of alternative energy billionaires in our future. But I don’t think we can consume our way to a positive outcome on this one, though. Your ‘follow the money’ edict leads me to oil company lobbyists that fund disinformation campaigns as much as to entrepreneurs who see an opportunity.

  5. Mark Barden says:

    CH Ingoldby:

    You are correct. My language is not precise enough. The ice over Greenland is not ‘gone for good’, but climate scientists are very concerned about loss in the Greenland ice sheet due to climate change (which is a fact, whether we debate the contribution of man-made change or not) and it’s impact in changing the direction an severity of storms, as Radley Horton, a research scientist at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, states in this article quoted below.

    I was quoting a CNN Meterologist inaccurately, but I think the point of ice loss in the Arctic affecting Hurricanes in the North East is clearly a concern now. Are you a scientist?

    “Most hurricanes, as they get as far north as a place like New York, especially late in the season — September, October — [the] standard pattern is for that strong jet stream to push those storms to the east. What we saw with this storm was that it moved to the west. It’s a very unusual track and I would say it’s a big research question whether we might see in general more stormy weather and storms taking a track like that as sea ice melts.”

    On melting sea ice and rising ocean levels

    “The melting of sea ice in the Arctic has very little effect directly on ocean levels — because you can think of it really as, ice that’s sort of already floating on water. As it melts, it doesn’t directly affect sea levels. But there’s emerging research suggesting that as the Arctic Sea ice melts, it warms the atmosphere around it. So we need to look at these major ice sheets nearby, especially the Greenland ice sheet, and ask the question of whether the Greenland ice sheet is experiencing warmer air — changes to maybe more rainfall events instead of snow in some parts, and also warmer waters as that Arctic ice melts, as that eroding [of] some of the bases of these ice sheets on Greenland, in ways that make it easier for the land-based ice on Greenland to move to the water. Because if your ice that’s on land moves to the water, then you do see an impact in sea level rise. That’s emerging research, but I think it’s potentially a hazard that could contribute to sea level rise in the future.”

    If you’d like to see a visual of what the reduction in ice over Greenland looks like, here’s one.

  6. Mark Barden says:

    Final comment for climate-change skeptics:

    I have no innate desire to believe in man-made climate change. I’d prefer it wasn’t the case at all. It would give this parent something less to worry about, and so life a little easier. But that seems to me to be just wishful thinking. The evidence is clearly mounting and time running out. Even this Koch Brothers funded study (below) found the evidence pretty hard to deny.

    So seriously, what gives? Why the resistance to the science? How much data do you need to change your opinion about this? And ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong and the large majority of climate scientists are right?” Surely we’d be better offer to committing to doing something about this now.