by Alaska Rising Tide
If the climate movement is to succeed, we must take control of the narrative surrounding climate change. We must not only wrest it from the many tentacles of the fossil fuel industry, but we must also expand it beyond the realm of science. Facts alone do not motivate people to action.
Humans are motivated by stories. Our identities, our cultures, and the alterations that we make to the physical world all result from stories. The monumental challenges that we currently face tell us that we have been led astray. If we are to avert the worst, we must question the stories that undergird the atrocities of everyday life. We must articulate something other than what is on offer from those in power.
Maintaining power requires control over the stories that motivate the masses. These stories can be thought of as control myths. “JOBS” for example is a one-word control myth. Try substituting the word PROFIT every time you hear JOBS, and see how the story changes.
Control mythology often benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of everything else. Climate denial is one of the all-time most destructive control myths. There are many reasons the fossil fuel industry has invested billions in right wing think tanks, media outlets, and compliant politicians to maintain the climate denial narrative. It is essential not only to their wealth, privilege, and power; but also to the ideology of limitless growth. To limit carbon emissions, we must limit fossil fuel use. This is unacceptable in the current Zeitgeist.
The political debate about climate change is dominated by denial and silence, but does denial actually hold sway over the majority of Americans? Not according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The project has identified six different segments of the American population based on beliefs about climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive. 45% of the population falls into the first two categories, only 21 % falls into the last two. Research also indicates that 2012 saw a rapid increase in belief in the reality of climate change.
So the majority of people are not in denial. What then is preventing action? Believing the prevailing story of democracy, the environmental movement, like many others, has pinned its hopes on the Democratic Party. What it has failed to recognize is that Democrats are the other party of limitless growth. While denial is a central pillar of the Republican platform, the Democrats’ policy of climate silence has been no better. The Climate movement must not, and it will not, wait around for climate change to become an election issue. We are remembering that winning an election and creating profound social change are two entirely different things. The good news is that to succeed at the latter, we actually need to mobilize fewer people than we would to win a presidential election. And better news; we already have the numbers on our side.
To succeed we must take control of the narrative surrounding climate change. We must break the silence and end the denial. We must also move beyond merely citing facts to creating a new narrative grounded in moral principles.
Climate Change is a Moral Issue
As Oregon State University philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore says, “it is wrong to wreck the world.” We must generate a moral and ethical debate equivalent to the scientific one. The moral syllogism is that if wrecking the world is wrong, and climate change is an existential threat to our world, then people will take action to slow climate change. Morality is what elicits emotional response and sparks political engagement with an issue. So far the climate movement has been relying heavily on the scientific premise, while neglecting the moral one.
It is conventional wisdom that environmental issues resonate with people on the left more so than those on the right. UC Berkeley Sociologist Rob Willer suggests that this may be due to the way these issues are framed, and to a difference in moral priorities. Researchers have identified five domains of morality; harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Lefties are grounded in the harm/care end of morality, while those on the right are moved by purity and sanctity. Environmental issues tend to be framed as issues of harm and care, and therefore resonate more with the Left. Willer found that by using purity and sanctity to frame the same issues, the partisan divide was nearly eliminated.
As we engage in the project of getting people emotionally invested in climate change, it is worth noting that there is one oft-appealed-to emotion that may be counterproductive: fear. Rob Willer has studied how dire warnings about climate change can lead to disengagement and increased levels of denial. Others have written about how well fear works as an organizing tool- for the Right.
If we put our minds to it, we can craft moral arguments that will move every one of the six segments of the American public identified by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. This will be a big step toward articulating the narrative of a just and enduring future that our hearts tell us is possible.