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Death to doomerism, keep hope alive!
This is the decade. And despite what the New York Times would have you believe, we have time to make a difference, and people really do care.
I try not to get bogged down in problems, but there is one big problem around the climate crisis that I actually can’t bring myself to ignore. It’s the New York Times.
Ok, it’s not just the New York Times. But I read this story the other day, and with respect to David Gelles, it was such a doomscroll that it felt like climate reporting from the 90s and frankly, was so fatalistic that it bordered on climate denial. From the 7th and 8th paragraphs, or as we say in the news business, “above the fold.”
And yet even as storms, fires and floods become increasingly frequent, climate change lives on the periphery for most voters. In a nation focused on inflation, political scandals and celebrity feuds, just 8 percent of Americans identified global warming as the most important issue facing the country, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
As climate disasters become more commonplace, they may be losing their shock value. A 2019 study concluded that people learn to accept extreme weather as normal in as little as two years.
The story went on to quote two people who either don’t care about or are uninformed about climate change, and everyone else was either a climate scientist or some other kind of expert, as opposed to an effort to find people who do care about it, are concerned about and are trying to live differently as a result of the extreme weather events that are a direct result of global warming. I assure you, there are many. In fact, that’s even in the story! It’s just in the penultimate two paragraphs:
A survey of adults this spring found a majority are now concerned about climate change and support federal action to combat global warming and promote clean energy, according to a recent survey by Yale.
Even in Florida, a state that has grown more conservative in recent years, a growing number of residents believe humans are causing climate change, including a record number of Republicans, according to a survey by Florida Atlantic University.
So first of all, this is a choice. It’s called framing. If you’ve heard me rant about this before, skip ahead. Or not, because a big part of effective communication is saying the same thing over and over and over again, so let’s go.
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Framing is the view through which a story is presented. There is never not a view. There is always a choice about how to present information, and the choice is unbelievably powerful because it sets the agenda for the story and for the response to the story, and that agenda unquestionably influences people’s behavior in the long term. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t spend so much time and money seizing the means of communication.
In this case, the NYT chose to highlight a survey from 2019 about weather events (before a series of ever-worsening weather events and a lot more awareness of those events), and a poll about Americans’ top concerns in a political context.
The framing suggested this means Americans don’t care or have given up on trying to stop global warming. Now. First of all, more recent polling completely belies the idea that people have gotten used to extreme weather events, which is in the same story, but down where most people won’t bother to read once they’ve got the gist (the gist being: we’re effed because no one cares).
Second, let’s look at that poll about Americans’ top concerns.
Climate change comes in at 8%, as the story says. People’s immediate concerns—do they have enough money, will they be allowed to vote, and will they be able to get help if they get sick—top climate change in this poll. To be honest, I don’t fault people for that. But here’s another way to frame this data that’s actually quite startling and powerful. After these three issues, which are arguably at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, freedom, health), climate change is the next biggest issue.
In this poll, climate change is tied with immigration, on which elections constantly seem to turn—oh, look, here’s the New York Times again, from May!
So, immigration, which in part helped decide the presidential election in 2016, is tied with climate change on the list of Americans’ top priorities.
Given that, a pretty easy and quite accurate way to frame the results of this poll would be:
Climate change is one of Americans’ top 5 concerns.
You know what you could also say, that would, according to the literal words on the page, be accurate?
Americans rank climate change above crime, gun policy, abortion, and education in their list of most important issues in the country.
Framing is a choice. The choice influences how people react. Multiple frames can be equally accurate, which is why care in framing is so important.
Yeah, but who cares, right?
Then there’s this:
In spite of the growing alarm among climate scientists, there are few signs of the kind of widespread societal change that would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously heating the planet.
This actually just pisses me off.
On the one hand like the framing of the poll above, this is technically accurate. There is not “widespread societal change,” that’s true. Americans have not retooled their lives en masse to consume less, waste less food, pollute less, install solar, and so on and so forth. But a lot of them have done a lot. And it is simply and wildly inaccurate to say there are “few signs” of such change.
First of all, there’s this.
As Al Gore also said onstage at Fortune Brainstorm Tech, and as Goldman Sachs points out here, the IRA alone is likely to generate $1.2 trillion in subsidies and tax credits for renewable energy and other decarbonization projects, which will in turn lead to more like $3 trillion in total investment (and lead to about a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions).
And that doesn’t even include the CHIPS Act (baseline $67 billion for climate-related research and development), and the infrastructure bill ($50 billion for climate resilience and adaptation and about another $150 billion for clean-energy investment, charging infrastructure, pollution cleanup, and clean water initiatives). The Biden Administration has performed superbly with respect to climate initiatives, especially considering that Republicans have grown increasingly hostile to climate action.
Does anyone care? Well.
More than 4,000 companies, representing a third of global market cap, have set net zero targets.
Gen Z and Millennials represent 43% of the US population (49% globally) and three-quarters of Gen Z shoppers say sustainability is more important than name brands.
Similarly, 75% of Millennials will change their buying habits and even pay more in order to make sustainable choices.
90% of Millennials are interested in sustainable investing; in 2015, $5 billion was invested in ESG funds, but in 2020, that number was $51.1 billion.
73% of Gen Z’s surveyed by McKinsey said they’re concerned about the environmental impact of what we eat, as more and more young people eat less meat or go vegan.
In California in the first quarter of 2023, electric cars were 21% of all sales; EVs, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid cars now account for 11% of all vehicles sold.
As of 2021, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there was a 71% increase in searches for sustainable goods globally, over the prior five years.
It’s not hard to find a couple of people who either aren’t worried about or are confused by global warming or weather attribution, but I’d warrant it’s harder and harder to swing a (stuffed, not real!) cat without hitting somebody who actually does give a sh*t. To fail to quote anyone who’s worried and changing their habits as a result is, much like the framing of polling, a choice.
I could go on and on, but the short summary here is: don’t believe that crap. We have this decade to take dramatic action to get to net zero and, as Al Gore noted, the most recent IPCC report by the UN makes it clear that once we hit net zero and stop emitting incremental GHGs, warming will stop.
And not only will warming stop, but the planet will heal. Greenhouse gases will fall out of the atmosphere and be sequestered and human-caused weather disasters will recede, and millions of people, if not more, will survive, and millions or billions of others will live happier, healthier, more prosperous lives.
This is unequivocally possible. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Stay in the pool. Let’s get this done.
Speaking of which, this week on the podcast, I was so happy to talk to Jenny Gottstein, the creator of Beat That Heat!, a climate action game show that you can play online or in person (or both) with friends, co-workers, family, or as a fundraiser. We had a wonderful conversation about how, for the climate curious, fear and shame are the worst motivators, and fun and play can have huge impact on both attitudes and actions.
People like Jenny are doing the work, and millions of people in this country and around the world want to be part of the transition to a better future. Those are the stories I want to tell.
Please have a listen and tell your friends and see you next week!