Thursday, October 18, 2007

Changing the Mental Climate

Undoing Global Warming  (Part II)

When I went to high school in the seventies, cigarettes were the most heavily advertised consumer product in the country. Then everyone smoked: in restaurants, bars, parties, in pediatrician's offices.  For hours after you hung out with other people, you could press your nose against your skin and there was the stale stink of human interaction.  Now, hardly anyone smokes.  What happened and what successful strategies from that fight can we use to help us fight climate disruption? 

The change with smoking first started when the Surgeon General began publishing reports about the dangers of this addiction.  Following this deluge of scientific information came the lawsuits.  During these cases, the tobacco executives were shamed as all the strategies and lies they'd used were revealed in court.  Memos were shown with the executives' names on them.  The memos explained how to muddy the public's understanding of nicotine addiction and lung cancer, and how to attract new users, especially children.

Yes, the companies lost a LOT of money in the settlements, but those memos hurt even more.  They were read on the news and reprinted in newspapers across the nation.  Before then, people in a store looking at a pack of cigarettes thought about the cheap price and the cool taste of the smoke in their mouths. However, after those memos, cigarettes began to look different.  Now people imagined stuffing their hard-earned dollars into the pockets of those arrogant execs who had manipulated them.  They pictured gasping for their lives in a hospital bed.  They imagined through taxes paying for millions of uninsured people to die in such excruciating pain. 

The psychological term for this is called cueing.  Through those memos, people were getting cued to remember their anger at the tobacco companies every time they saw a cigarette ad, a hospital or an ashtray.  The public understanding that started with the Surgeon General's warning was made uncomfortably vivid.  Stories hold power.  The narrative about smoking changed from being a fashionable habit that cool people did.  Instead it became a self-destructive addiction that funded the greedy lies of Big Tobacco.  And people started quitting smoking in droves. 

With the change in the narrative, the tobacco companies lost their hold on the American mind and anti-smoking laws were rapidly passed in cities and states across the country.  High taxes were levied on each box of cigarettes, cigarette advertising was tightly restricted and smoking in public buildings began to be legislated against

This shift in narrative is what we have to do for a different kind of smoking, the kind our tailpipes, chimneys and power plants do.  We have to make driving a gas-guzzling car, building an inefficient power plant, and leaving your lights on seem immoral, socially-destructive and all around stupid.  Conversely, we have to make it seem fiscally responsible, patriotic, planet-respecting, obedient of God's wishes, protective of our children's future and all around sexy to be highly efficient and mindful in our carbon emissions.

From Science to Lawsuits

So much of what happened to Big Tobacco seems set up to happen to the fossil fuel industries.  The IPCC and NASA and many other science organizations have issued their version of the Surgeon General's reports.  In their dry scientific way, they have screamed it from the rooftops.  Now the lawyers are stepping in to back them up.  There are a whole bunch of legal suits concerning climate change hitting the courts now, dealing with everything from:

* the Inuit suing the US for defrosting the very ground the culture rests on

* California suing the six biggest car companies for hurting the state's past and future earnings in everything from agriculture to tourism,

* 12 states suing the EPA for not regulating CO2 emissions.  This last case is the most exciting for it has reached the Supreme Court and the decision could reverberate across the nation in a variety of legal and financial ways.

The first few test cases about carbon emissions have set great precedents.  For instance, Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General sued a utility company because the emissions of its power plants impacted New York's air quality and health.  Those power plants were hundreds of miles away in Virginia.  Still, the case wasn't thrown out of court, but settled through the utility company sharply decreasing its emissions and paying over one billion dollars in damages. 

A billion dollars is no small amount of money for anyone to pay, but my hopes for the upcoming climate cases aren't so much for huge settlements as for some really seedy revelations getting trumpeted by the mass media.  For instance, it would be great if everyone knew about the 19 million dollars that MobilExxon's ex-CEO, Lee Raymond, paid out to confuse Americans' understanding of the science of climate disruption.  He used these millions to A) fund the science of climate skeptics, B) set up fake non-profits to disseminate this research widely and C) contribute to Republican politicians who obediently thundered about climate change being a hoax.  I'm betting a few of those in-house memos discussing these disinformation strategies would be juicy reading, rife with arrogance, greed and marketing data.  If excerpts of these memos were read while video clips were shown of Raymond getting into his stretch limo with all his corporate lawyers, the narrative about Big Fossil Fuel companies would change.  The story would shift from fossil fuels being a necessary industry that allows us to drive in our big safe SUVs in the all-American pursuit of happiness.  Instead we would have a narrative of big-oil fat cats deliberately misleading Americans so the future of our children is threatened.  Raymond's cynical disregard for the truth and the wellbeing of this planet would cue the public to feel rage every time they see a gas station or the heating bill.  Looking at a gas pump, instead of thinking of the cheap price of one gallon of gas, people should begin to imagine monster hurricanes and increased asthma and food prices soaring from massive droughts.  Turning on the air conditioner, they should think of species extinctions and New Orleans under water and smirking fossil-fuel execs. 

Given this sort of a narrative, I think a lot more people might begin to invest their money in renewables, insulate every inch of their house and vote only for politicians who are for getting us away from such an environmentally devastating, inefficient and old type of technology.

With any luck these court cases could create such bad PR no one would accept a job with MobilExxon (the same as they wouldn't accept one at RJ Reynolds) for fear their moms will take their photos off the wall and their spouses divorce them.

With these memos, the fossil fuel industry might lose their hold on the American mind.  Enabling a lot of legal and financial changes to rapidly follow.

1 comment:

Seanna said...

Thanks for writing this.