Proponents and critics of taking action on climate change are each frustrated by the process of stalemated debate. Proponents are convinced of the scientific evidence and cannot understand the delays, denial, and skepticism that prevent urgent action. Critics feel the science is not conclusive, that concern is overblown, and that the proposed mitigation measures are unnecessary and economically harmful.
What I call the “Eco-Illogical” Cycle reveals a repeating historical pattern of dealing with environmental problems including dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), tetraethyl lead (TEL) used in leaded gasoline, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Understanding this repeating pattern will give participants insight into the process and perhaps assist the political process of environmental reform. In the case of climate change, the use of fossil fuels is so pervasive and useful to the vast majority of the world’s population that it is an order of magnitude harder to deal with than all previous environmental problems. It’s not just corporations that are at fault, but all consumers of fossil fuels, especially middle class citizens in the wealthier parts of the world.
The Eco-Illogical Cycle is similar to the “hydro-illogical cycle” published by the National Drought Mitigation Center.1 Figure 1 outlines the process. Greenpeace first identified major components of this concept in a 1997 article entitled, “DuPont: A Case Study in 3D Corporate Strategy.”2 It goes without saying that affected industries will use every tool at their disposal, including corrupting science and politics and engaging in ideological warfare, to protect their products from regulation. Therefore, I won’t elaborate on those elements here.
While the Greenpeace model is useful, it omits the crucial question of what actually triggers the process of environmental regulation. That is the $64,000 question when it comes to climate change. What will it take? Therefore I will focus on the historical elements that determine major action on environmental problems, which I refer to as the smoking gun and emotional trigger.
Climate Change in Historical Context
Climate change currently appears to be at the late denial and delay stage. The IPCC has presented overwhelming scientific evidence that fossil fuel emissions are causing climate change and warming the atmosphere. However, this is not enough for many people to be inclined to support actions that they fear would threaten their lifestyle. Politically, climate change appears to be at the same stage today as the ozone hole issue in the mid-1970s. Between 1972 and 1974, chemists F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina first discovered that CFCs could destroy the Earth’s ozone layer and published their findings in the British journal Nature. The National Academy of Sciences and Congress both mounted investigations, and CFCs in aerosol cans were soon banned as shown by their declining production in Figure 2, starting around 1975.
The key point of comparison is that after ozone depletion was discovered, some action was taken and CFCs began to decline. Similarly, due to strong evidence for climate change presented by the IPCC and others, nations have attempted to address the problem through vehicles such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Climate Summit, and the recent agreements between the US and China. Nevertheless, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
Despite Rowland and Molina’s work, there was still no conclusive proof that CFCs were destroying stratospheric ozone. Thus CFC sales began to increase again as industry discovered new uses for the chemical in products such as blowing foam, as well as expanding its use as an electronics cleaning agent and aerosol propellant. The Reagan administration’s hostility to environmental regulation also played a major role, since manufacturers no longer felt constrained by environmental concerns. This extensive backtracking and ten years of lost progress on CFCs is comparable to what we see today with climate change: some countries continue to increase their emissions, and global emissions continue to rise at accelerating rates in some years. Why was action slow in coming despite the extensive scientific evidence? What the ozone issue lacked in the 1970s—and what climate change lacks today—is a “smoking gun.”
The Smoking Gun and Emotional Trigger
Only when there was incontrovertible proof did major action take place in any of the historical cases, even though scientific evidence was very strong before that. It seems that science alone is not enough, especially when you have an organized effort to sabotage science itself as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have shown in their book Merchants of Doubt. Furthermore, it is possible, that even with a smoking gun, an emotional component is still needed to motivate the majority of people. This I call the emotional trigger.
Although Rowland and Molina explained the phenomenon in 1974, the British Antarctic Survey didn’t report the Antarctic ozone hole until 1984, providing incontrovertible evidence of ozone depletion. But even this smoking gun may not have been enough. It was NASA’s shocking photos of the Antarctic ozone hole that served as the emotional trigger. It led to the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, in which many of the world’s developed nations quickly agreed to halve CFC production by 1999.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published her classic Silent Spring. The smoking gun in the case of DDT was the causal link, provided by Joseph Hickey at the University of Wisconsin, to thinning eggshells. By 1972, the nesting population of peregrine falcons and bald eagles had been reduced by 90 percent in the contiguous United States. Both species were on the verge of extinction, and ospreys were severely endangered. Robins frequently had 100 percent mortality in areas sprayed with DDT. By demonstrating how DDT endangered the symbolically important bald eagle, as well as birds in general, Silent Spring served as an emotional trigger. Environmental groups also publicized the fact that DDT was fat soluble and was measured in unsafe doses in female mammary tissues. Thus toxic breast milk was another powerful emotional issue.
Tetraethyl lead has a similar narrative arc. GM pseudoscientist Robert Kehoe claimed that lead appeared naturally in the human body and that the high lead levels in the blood of his test subjects were normal and healthy. In the mid1960s, Clair Patterson, a Caltech geochemist, analyzed the 1,600-year-old bones of pre-Columbian humans and proved that high background lead levels in industrial lands were man-made, thus conclusively refuting Kehoe. The emotional trigger of brain damage to children finally convinced the EPA to start banning TEL in 1973.
Smoking Gun for Climate Change?
In the cases of DDT, CFCs, and TEL substitutes were readily available, and the impact on the economy was fairly minimal. Replacing fossil fuels, on the other hand, would be a huge disruptive transition economically, politically, and socially. Because climate is so variable, and no single event can be blamed on climate change, proof so far has come from statistical data and evidence over time. Since vague trends and complicated statistics rarely create a sense of urgency amongst the general public, climate change has not yet reached the crisis stage.
Numerous recent events may, in hindsight, one day be seen as smoking guns for anthropogenic climate change. These may include the 35,000 deaths in Europe from the record heat wave in the summer of 2003 or the significant increase in extreme weather events around the world. Six of the last twelve months have been the warmest on record.3 The shrinkage of Arctic sea ice is another convincing trend, which according to the Naval Postgraduate School could be ice-free as early as the summer of 2016,4 creating the long-sought Northwest Passage 84 years earlier than predicted. The ongoing death of coral reefs worldwide is another trend as well as species extinction at 150–200 times the normal rate.5 Scientist Guy McPherson of the University of Arizona lists 40 positive feedback loops that could even lead to human extinction.5 By themselves or even cumulatively, these phenomena do not offer conclusive proof to the public, and therein lies the problem.
It is my contention, based on historical evidence presented here, that proponents of an immediate and major response to climate change, based on science alone, are being unrealistic. In no historical case did major action take place prior to the incontrovertible evidence of a smoking gun and an emotional trigger to motivate the public. A partial response took place prior to this time in every case, but as with climate change today, such measures were only half-hearted. The opposition to change is also much larger in this case than with all prior cases as the fossil fuel industry is even more influential than chemical companies.
Therefore, if an incontrovertible smoking gun is necessary in the case of climate change it will have to be of much greater magnitude than in any prior case. A major Antarctic and Greenland ice melt flooding hundreds of coastal cities might be convincing. Perhaps the complete destruction of coral reefs worldwide due to ocean warming and acidification would motivate action? The B-grade movie The Day After Tomorrow portrayed a convincing smoking gun: the stopping or reversal of the Gulf Stream and subsequent freezing of the northern hemisphere. This might be the only case where the impact of climate change would affect those that have most caused it: the US and Europe. Life often imitates art, in this case bad art. Perhaps a continent-wide fire such as the entire Amazon burning will provide the trigger? But do we need to wait for a planetary scale catastrophe to motivate action?
In the past examples, it was the emotional trigger that motivated the population. Edward Bernays, in his pioneering and sinister work Engineering of Consent, contended that humans are not rational and can be emotionally manipulated to serve the elite. Perhaps emotions can be put to more positive uses than Bernays’ propaganda? Many activists and scientists believe that if the public were not confused about the science, political change would be possible. But such a view is misguided.
Since data alone is unconvincing, a better strategy is to use emotional messages, hopefully bypassing the smoking gun of a planetary catastrophe. Susanne C. Moser and Lisa Dilling have sketched out such a strategy in their book Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change. Some lessons have been learned. The Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research contends that fear is not an effective tactic and may actually backfire.6 Instead of using fear, many climate change communications studies suggest that making climate change personally relevant and salient to everyday life would do more for public concern and engagement than appealing to fear.7
Another potentially effective rhetorical strategy is the pleas from those countries that will be submerged by rising sea levels. An example is the spoken-word poetry of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, 26, from the Marshall Islands who brought the delegates at the recent UN climate summit in New York to tears.8 Naderev ‘Yeb’ Sano, the Filipino delegate to the UN climate summit, publicly broke down in tears as a result of superstorm Haiyan’s impact on his nation.9 Perhaps “compassion fatigue” will not take place if the listeners themselves could be affected?
The disappearance of polar bears in the Arctic due to lack of sea ice is a good case to publicize, since charismatic megafauna are always appealing especially to children. Emotional appeals from people in countries parched by drought or places with massive flooding could also be good strategies. The World Wildlife Fund uses Climate Change Witnesses to tell their personal stories for more impact.10
We have the technology to live without fossil fuels, but we don’t have the political will. Whether we put a price on carbon, subsidize renewables, or use command and control approaches doesn’t matter. We have options. Peter Barnes’s “Cap and Dividend” concept is my favorite, charging carbon fees and refunding some or all of the money to citizens. Based on history, major action on climate change will only happen after the smoking gun and emotional triggers take place, unless we can accelerate the process. In order to avoid a planetary catastrophe, I am urging that activists use emotional appeals to make the best case possible for action.