The blog is sympathetic to anything which aids communication which raises awareness of climate change and combats the work of the climate denialists – particularly given how so many of them will be part of the Trump administration.
But sometimes the blog wonders if some progressives are not their own worst enemies. Earlier this month Alex Evans – a climate activist and former advisor to the UN and the British Government – published a book (The Myth Gap) which seeks to explain why much progressive climate change communication has failed and what can be done about it. The blog became aware of it, fittingly, from the The Economist’s religion blog Erasmus. By the way the historical Erasmus is one of the blog’s great heroes. When everybody else was busy trying to send their opponents to the stake Erasmus was the voice of reason and moderation – indeed so much so that it is a bit surprising he didn’t get sent to the stake himself.
The book’s argument, as outlined in the Erasmus blog and also an article Evans published in his own blog, is that climate change activists – particularly at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit spent too much time “boring people to death with pie charts, acronyms and statistics.” The blog doesn’t know if Kevin Rudd was in the vanguard of this but, if he was, it explains a lot about why the Summit failed.
According to the Erasmus columnist: “By the time world leaders had gathered in France (for the more successful Paris conference) ….environmentalists had begun to grasp the message that they could only touch people’s hearts by telling stories.” The Erasmus article talks about Evans arguing for the need to use “the methods of religious prophets of old, the marketing gurus of the 20th century and the science-fiction writers gazing into the future.” Duh!!
In an article in Resurgence Evans talks about his book: “Not so long ago, our society was rich in these kinds of stories, and we called them myths. Today, though, we have a myth gap. Religious observance is declining steadily. So is trust in leaders and institutions of all kinds. Almost unnoticed, we have slowly lost the old stories that used to bring us together and help us to make sense of the world. In their place, new ‘anti-myths’ are flourishing – that we are what we buy, for instance, or that the world is heading rapidly towards environmental collapse and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
“To navigate our way through the turbulent rapids on the river ahead of us….. we need a new generation of twenty-first century myths that can explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who ‘we’ are.”(The blog has not included, out of consideration for its readers, some following sections of the article about fulfilling lives and happiness and hasn’t read the book just in case the Resurgence article is typical of the Evans’ kumbaya prose style).
Evans continues: “The other two roles that our twenty-first century myths need to play are deeper still, and have to do with helping us process the profound emotional and psychological dimensions of climate change. First, our myths need to help us work through our grief for what is happening all around us, both to the natural world and to the human victims of climate change – and help us to face up to our collective guilt for the fact that this is a human-caused disaster, in which some of us are much more guilty than others.
“We need myths, then, that speak of redemption: an idea that goes beyond repentance and forgiveness, and more fundamentally extends towards how we can atone for what we’ve done and start to make things right again.
“Second, we need myths that give us hope for the future by moving beyond the arid jargon of ‘sustainable development’ and instead tell us stories of restoration: how we can repair the damage we’ve done to the climate, help to mend the ecosystems we’ve broken, and right the wrongs done to other human beings by climate change.”
Well indeed, or even, “up to a point Lord Copper”. But what offends the blog is that Evans argument is really only a mystical version of what all good communicators already know – the keys to successful arguments are framing and narrative (however sick we all are of the misuse of the latter term).
The essential problem is that the climate denialists have been better at framing and narrative which have seeded doubt. And they have got more sophisticated. Now every denialists doesn’t deny outright but starts their comments with the words: “I am not a scientist but…” How they have done it is not new – it’s basically a re-run of the old tobacco industry playbook. Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt described the process in detail and provides ample sourcing for almost every framing statement Australian denialists use. Indeed, whenever the Liberal, National and One Nation party members dutifully mount lines derived from Exxon Mobil and US denialists the blog almost wishes they could come up with something original or distinctively Australian. To give Tony Abbott credit, however trite and misleading his response to climate change questions was, at least he was creative in quoting Dorothea Mackellar in his burst of denialism rather than a line written by some US denialist flack.
Nevertheless, things might be on the up in terms of climate change communication in Australia. With assistance from George Mason University’s Centre for Climate Change Communication, led by the blog’s former colleague, Ed Maibach, Monash University is working towards a similar centre (the blog will provide more details about what and how when the centre is further developed). Whether they will resort to redemptive and restorative myth and narrative is probably doubtful. Instead one assumes they will focus on good framing and convincing stories recognising the barriers to being heard all leavened by compelling anecdotes underpinned by evidence – exactly what Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have taught effective communicators to do.