I recently wrote an article for VICE about how 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are blowing what may be our last opportunity to forestall catastrophic climate change, and it got me thinking about our struggles with climate change communication.
The perennial explanation for why the political class and the media avoid prioritizing climate change is that it’s unsexy. MSNBC host Chris Hayes — who probably pays more attention to the issue than any other major cable news host — called it a “palpable ratings killer” in July. And politicians are aware that most voters don’t consider climate change a top tier issue even if most of them are concerned about it.
This poses a major predicament: even if you’re a journalist or a politician with deep convictions about tackling climate change, it seems risky to home in on the issue too aggressively. If journalists give up too many viewers and politicians jeopardize too many votes by fixating on the issue, they may lose their ability to address the issue at all.
I’m sympathetic to this concern, but I don’t quite buy it. First and foremost because we have a moral imperative to figure out a solution to this challenge, and secondly because there are good reasons to think that climate change can be made into a highly compelling story.
The first point is simple: Politicians, journalists and any other sector involved in informing and mobilizing people to address climate change have to take risks in making it a top tier issue because there is no other option. We are currently on course to making the planet uninhabitable — if we don’t take risks now, civilization as we know it will end. And the longer we take to get around to dealing with the issue, the hard it will be to manage it.
Secondly, I am highly skeptical of the idea that climate change is inherently too boring or abstract to capture the interest of the public. In the 2000s journalist Ezra Klein rose to fame by illustrating that no policy issue — health care, social security, tax policy — is intrinsically beyond the comprehension or interest of the average citizen. By using a highly conversational, non-jargony, context-focused style of writing and analysis, he garnered the kind of readership for wonky policy reportage that was up until that point typically associated with gossipy White House coverage. That’s a lesson I absorbed while at Vox (which he co-founded): it’s incumbent on the writer to make any subject approachable.
I don’t know what exact hacks are needed to make climate change a more salient story in the national conversation, but there is a ton to work with. Climate change touches on every element of human survival — food, water, shelter, health, mobility. It threatens so many things people hold dear — the security of their children, their property, the outdoors, wildlife. It’s deeply political, posing a greater threat to the most vulnerable among us. And in American cultural life we’re already seeing that people do have a perverse kind of fascination with societal collapse: I suspect the superabundance of apocalyptic, zombie and dystopian films and shows we’re seeing these days reflects an ambient anxiety about our impending ecological catastrophe. There are so many ways to make the issue tangible and transform popular consciousness, we just need to experiment.
As for how politicians and policy players can mobilize voters — my article in VICE touches on a possible solution. Check out the article!
The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.