How Global Warming Fell Off the National Agenda

Now that 'climate change' has become a bête noire, environmentalists need to broaden their strategy

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There’s been much hand-wringing — but perhaps not enough soul-searching — among environmentalists about how climate change got to be the political third rail. The New York Times ran a lengthy piece asking “Where Did Global Warming Go?” which raised more questions than it answered.

Here is some more explicit finger-pointing, along with a few proposals. I speak as an informed, and deeply concerned, citizen; as a grumpy environmentalist fatoosted by my tribe; and as a person who has had a lifelong career in “communications.” But mainly, I’m up at night worrying about global warming because I’m a mom who hopes someday to have grandchildren. And I don’t like the terrifying mess my kids will face. (By the way, “climate change” is yesterday’s weak phrase; it doesn’t begin to convey the intensity of trouble that is now upon us. I’m going with “climate chaos.”)

President Obama: He has taken no leadership in educating the public about global warming. The reasons are plentiful, and all political. Bottom line? He does not act as if he has a moral responsibility to tell Americans the truth about what is going on. But we can’t blame the President for everything.

(MORE: Is Obama Bad for the Environment?)

Major Media: When the media loses interest, so do its citizens. Joe Romm at Climate Progress has done a superb job of analyzing the decline of media coverage, as well as spotlighting inaccuracies. Newspapers seem to misplace their moral compasses from time to time, too.

Republicans: Coming as I do from a long line of diehard Republicans, and sympathetic as I am to many Republican causes, I know that there are plenty of Republicans who are mortified by the ignorance — feckless or reckless — on display by certain members of the GOP these days. Speak up, please! We can’t hear you! Take some ownership of the Clean Air Act, brought to us by President Nixon, and the amendment of 1990 to strengthen it, courtesy of President Bush.

Post Cap’em Depression: Okay, it is cheeky, but that’s the way I think of the blanket of despondency that settled over many of our most influential environmentalists after hope of a Cap and Trade deal to curtail carbon emissions was lost in 2009. There didn’t seem to be a back-up plan. If you take a longer view, even though Cap and Trade didn’t make it, the ball got moved way down the field in terms of awareness that something should be done about global warming. Then, it got left on the ground.

Memos to Ourselves: Enviros spend too much time talking to one another. Much of the public discussion about climate chaos is jargon-laden. Mere mortals are not included in the conversation — unless it is about polar bears. But guess what? Americans are growing bored with the plight of polar bears, about whose futures they once seemed to care more about than the futures of their own children. Reach out beyond environmentalist circles.

More Messengers: Deniers have the funding of the Koch brothers. Surely there’s a responsible gazillionaire (or a consortium) who can organize a fierce, impassioned and persistent campaign to educate Americans about the danger of global warming. I know: Al Gore brought us the Reality Campaign. Many went to the site to watch, but they didn’t need to be convinced. Bill McKibben, resorting to exhausting measures, is reaching the converted, too. This doesn’t undercut what he or Gore do in the slightest—hopefully they’ll win converts.

(MORE: Who’s Bankrolling The Climate-Change Deniers?)

But the field is wide open for simple, pervasive messaging that no one can miss — on billboards, online, on phone apps, on TV, where we can tell people what is happening, just like we did with smoking, drunk driving, wearing seat belts, and getting the lead out of gasoline. We need messengers from unlikely sources: our nation’s favorite football coach; the owner of that big box chain; our favorite cartoon character; university presidents from MIT to CalTech; the pastor of a mega-church; the head of the PTA; a charismatic weatherwoman.

Bring Home the Message: Environmentalists could do more to bring home the message about climate chaos by using the concerns that galvanize people: children, work, religion, health. Weather, for instance, hits home. But just like you can’t say which cigarette gave you lung cancer, you can’t say which storm was triggered by global warming. So what? There’s still plenty of room to message on weather, which everyone agrees has gotten weird.

Democrats have been weak on rebutting the false argument that regulations cost jobs. Instead, they keep talking about the costs of pollution on human health. People don’t want to choose between asthma attacks and jobs with health insurance. Where’s the big messaging on how we can have both — clean air AND jobs? Where’s the message on how regulations create jobs? We’ve had evidence of that for the last forty years.

Reframe Global Warming as an Air Pollution Problem: Polls show over and over again that Americans support air pollution controls. In the short term, regulating mercury emissions is the single most important thing we can do to cut down on carbon emissions. Several key rules have been in consideration for months, including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and the Cross State Regulations. We need national support for those rulings, because mercury is a truly terrible poison that damages our children’s (and fetuses’) lungs, hearts and brains.

We know exactly why climate chaos has fallen off the national agenda. We’ve let it happen. And by “we” I mean everyone from environmentalists to doctors to scientists to teachers to politicians, to parents. There’s no one else to blame. We care about this issue. But we’ll be more ardent, and more focused, when the message is more urgent: we should fight global warming because our lives depend on it.

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