Back in in mid-2000s, I produced a single newspaper feature section that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before: A package of items addressing the debate over climate change, and not one of those items was structured as a “story.”
As a newsfeature writer, story was my enchilada. But whenever I talked to people who doubted the already overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropomorphic warming, the excuse was always the same: “The Media is biased. The stories are always slanted toward whatever the liberals want us to think.”
Since those were the people I wanted to engage, I put aside everything I thought I knew and started from scratch. Instead of another story about climate change, I built a package around the kinds of question I had collected from skeptics. What’s the proof? How bad would it be? What about sun spots? I presented my reporting in factual statements, some Pro, some Con.
With no story to anchor it, the presentation featured comparative charts, graphics, and supporting Q&A type material. If you wanted to draw your own conclusion on the competing arguments, here was the sourced information, in short summaries, presented side by side without comment.
And, of course, it had zero effect. The package received almost no response whatsoever. Maybe a letter to the editor from the previously converted praising the paper for running it. But from my intended audience? Nothing. The conservative climate deniers simply ignored it.
I think it made sense to try writing about the climate crisis this way 15 years ago. It was an honest effort, and for me, at least, the response exposed the shallow hypocrisy of the so-called “principled skeptics.” But today?
Forget it. We need a radically different approach to how we write about climate and the other existential crises that are rapidly steering global civilization toward its inevitable cascading failure.
Here’s how I propose to do that in my own tiny sphere.
Address the initiated, ignore the ignorant
In the 2018 documentary “Living in the Future’s Past,” former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis — a climate change convert who lost his seat for his troubles — makes a seemingly reasonable appeal. Stop talking about climate crisis like it’s a religion. Don’t treat climate deniers with condescension. Give them the data, he says, and ask them how their “faith tradition” calls on them to respond.
Good idea? Nope. Terrible idea. We don’t have time for that.
Inglis has been making that approach to his favored white Christian conservative “tribe” for the past decade, and it simply It hasn’t worked. The problem isn’t Inglis: It’s a white Southern “faith tradition” that’s now as devoted to the Fox News “culture war” as it is to its supposed religious principles. Good on you, Bob, for trying to help them. But the rest of us need to move on.
Here’s what that means: Those of us who have done the homework need to stop worrying about the unconverted and focus instead on others who come as far or farther. In terms of public writing, that means we need to stop writing like we’re a talking to a class of disinterested middle-schoolers and speak like the only people reading are at least as aware as we are.
The counter argument is “But won’t you be leaving people behind?” Well, sure. But here’s another truth: Two thirds of Americans now agree that humans are causing climate change. Who are the other third? The people even Bob Inglis’ can’t convert. And for the Americans who causally agree that climate is a problem but don’t really follow the news, they’re not the audience we need to be addressing, anyway.
Stipulate, link and advance
One of journalism’s Great Admonitions is “Don’t Do Inside Baseball.” In other words, write for the average reader, not the experts who appreciate wonky esoterica. But it’s also true that all journalists make assumptions about their audience’s general level of knowledge.
The status quo assumption is that Americans still need to be brought gently to the hard truths and complicated science of climate crisis. But that’s like starting over on Page 1 of a 300-page novel every time you pick it up. Every simple-minded recap detracts from talking about the truly important topics that emerge from the data. What can still be done? What hope remains? What tragic choices lie ahead? What can we do now — as individuals, as families, as organizations, businesses, churches, political movements — to prepare?
I think we’ve actually made significant progress in this regard. It’s good, for example, that we now see stories that stipulate the reality of climate crisis and move directly to examine immigration trends for evidence of climate refugees.
But now that we’ve established the link between climate change and immigration, just as we’ve established global warming’s links to severe weather and coral bleaching, it’s time to stipulate them as fact, too. Fox viewers disagree, but they’re factually misinformed on every significant topic. Ignore them. Swaths of the public don’t understand the evidence. So what? Catering to their ignorance just encourages doubt.
So stipulate knowledge of facts, hyperlink to sources without commenting on them, and advance the topic.
Catching up is their responsibility. Moving things forward is ours.
Stop selling, start organizing
Funny thing about human psychology. When you come around selling me something I don’t want, not only do I resent it, I see myself as holding all the power in our relationship. After all, you’re the one with the thing that must be sold, and I don’t have to buy it. That makes me feel strong, and if I’m strong, then you must be weak. Every time you come around, speaking respectfully and using all your clever tricks to convince me that something I don’t want is going to be good for me, I get a kick out of making your life difficult.
Now the flip side: If you notice me doing something new, you’ll take interest. And If I’m too busy to explain it to you, and never offer to include you in my plans, you’ll become concerned. Once you see a bunch of other people participating in the thing, you’ll get downright worried.
Humans are social animals. Not only do we want to belong to something, we hate being left out of anything important. So if you really want to see the climate deniers get agitated, start organizing private “climate resiliency” co-ops in your neighborhood, and don’t invite them.
I promise you this: The less attention we pay to their opinions, the more nervous they’ll become. And generally speaking, anxiety is the first step toward change.
What I find maddening is that most of the non-scientific writing on these topics that I encounter concludes by tacking on some upbeat “Gotta Give ‘Em Hope” message. There’s a practical reason for that: Hopeless, disengaged people are useless. Yes, the rational response to the data is fatalism, but rational fatalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I propose an alternative: Let’s begin talking about climate change in practical terms, stipulating that the likely outcomes are far less uplifting and optimistic than public figures like Al Gore and Jeff Bridges choose to present them. Leave it to the politicians and think tanks to propose legislation like the Green New Deal, which is as concerned with the politics within the Democratic caucus as it is with retooling our carbon-based infrastructure. Unless you’re a devoted party activist, your chances of influencing such large-scale proposals is minimal.
In the meantime, we could start working out practical things we can do within our narrow spheres of influence. Not just “reducing our carbon footprints,” but making ourselves, and perhaps our communities, more “climate resilient.” Maybe that’s learning to build community root cellars, or coming up with some sort of backup energy plan that goes beyond buying a $700 generator that runs on gasoline.
Maybe it’s learning to raise your own food. Maybe it’s figuring out the best places to relocate before the coming panics, and the steps required to get your family safely established in these less threatened locales before the trickle of refugees turns into a torrent.
Know your purpose
I’m not suggesting that we can save the world. We can’t. The world is going to change, sadly and violently, and we can’t really begin to imagine the extent of those changes.
Yet that’s exactly what we must attempt. And we’re more likely to be effective in that if we connect with like-minded people to share ideas and offer mutual support.
We must do so in an environment saturated by media that chatters on in cheery denial as our global civilization enters its twilight. We must do so in a polarized culture at war with itself. We must do so in an age where more of us have less, and fear drives the rise of strong men who propose all the wrong ideas.
But we must do it anyway. Because if there is to be a future, it must have ancestors.