Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to Argue

(Undoing Climate Change - Part I)

It's finally happened.  According to a 2006 Pew Research poll, most Americans are convinced global warming is something to be worried about. And how much they're worried is increasing rapidly.  An MIT report found that climate change is now the most important environmental issue for Americans, dramatically up from its sixth place position three years ago. Even if you hadn't observed any opinion change in talking to neighbors, you might have noted a few other facts: that two climate-change movies came out this year ("An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Great Warming"), and that newspaper articles on the subject no longer automatically interview the climate skeptics, and that even the Bush Whitehouse and MobilExxon have finally admitted that humans are warming the planet.  Perhaps it was Hurricane Katrina that blew away much of America's remaining doubt.

Because of this shift in attitude, the battle for us environmentalists has shifted also. How we discuss the subject must be updated.  For me, up until this summer, when I talked about climate disruption with non-activists, I went on the assumption that most people weren't convinced it was happening or that it would be all that bad.  Thus I tended to give a scary list of facts showing that the planet was heating up.  I would follow this up with even scarier facts demonstrating what these changes unchecked might mean in the future.  However, in the last year or two as public opinion went through its tidal shift, I began to notice a change in how people listened to this information.  Instead of looking at me with narrowed disbelieving eyes, they began to slightly avert their gaze with a closed-down expression.  Assuming this reaction was the last remnant of a desire to turn away from the truth, I hammered away harder. 

Then one day in August, my sister with her eyes averted and her face fixed, asked me not to mention the subject again around her.  It was giving her nightmares, she said, making her stomach hurt.  The expression I'd taken as stubborn skepticism was actually an attempt to mask her growing fear.  Asking around I found out my sister's reaction was common.  I had been terrifying my audience without offering them any practical solutions, any ways to fight climate change.  Rather than creating new environmentalist allies, I was fostering a powerful urge in the listeners to avoid this subject in the future, to flip past newspaper articles, change TV channels and step away from any cocktail conversation.  By solely emphasizing the size of the looming planetary disaster, I was making people figuratively want to block their ears and loudly hum.  And the ones who are most likely to do this are the ones who like my sister are not natural activists but who still feel deep distress over what is being destroyed.  These exact same people would, if treated carefully, be the ones who would fight alongside me.

So I'm offering up my mistake and the research I did following it in hopes of helping you avoid a similar misstep.  Now that most Americans understand the problem exists and that it's worth avoiding, it's time for us activists to learn how to most effectively persuade others to take action on the issue.  Luckily the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others are way ahead of me.  Years ago they banded together to hire the Frameworks Institute to figure out how best to discuss climate change, how to `frame' the problem to most encourage people to stop it.  Frameworks assembled a blue-ribbon panel of social and cognitive psychologists including George Lakoff (author of "Don't Think of an Elephant"). 

The panel first surveyed the media to learn how environmentalists tended to talk about climate disruption.  They found most used one of two techniques.  The first technique was what I had done, bombarding the listener with horrifying facts about the natural disasters lurking just around the corner.  Using focus groups, Frameworks found this style was particularly unhelpful in motivating people to action.  The list of impending natural disasters makes the listeners associate the problem with the weather, which isn't thought of as something you can effectively lobby against.  You can't vote hurricanes out of office.  Droughts aren't something you can boycott away.  Instead people adapt to the weather, by bringing an umbrella or a parka or fleeing the area.  Thought about this way, the potential devastation of climate change isn't going to fill people with a can-do attitude, getting them out in thousands to march yelling in the streets.  Nope, instead they're going to make whiney noises high in their throats and search desperately for ways to protect at least their families, perhaps by storing several tons of food in the basement or moving away from the beachfront. 

Frameworks found the second way environmentalists tend to frame the climate-change debate is as an economic threat.  "It will cost 50 billion dollars in insurance claims," or "It will destroy thousands of miles of expensive ocean-front properties," etc.  Considered this way, the damage we are doing to our planet gets weighed solely on a scale of monetary transactions and on the other side of that scale goes all the vast gobs of cash the current fossil-fuel system creates.  Most listeners then assume the climate disasters are something to be endured in order to stoke the engines of progress and Wall Street. 

Having thus learned how not to discuss the problem, Frameworks experimented in focus groups and national surveys with dozens of different ways to broach the subject, searching for what would most energize normal citizens.  Here are the basic Cliff Notes to what they learned:

1. First off always repeat that global warming is human-made.  If the point is accepted that humans have created the problem, then it follows that we can unmake it.  The situation seems smaller and more manageable.  Getting people to accept that the warming is our fault will do more to get people fighting climate change than almost anything else we can do.

2. Mention solutions first off.  Many people don't believe there are reasonable ways to fight climate disruption.  Their stomachs knot with helplessness.  Decrease their tension as well as their future carbon emissions by naming some simple actions with which to fight the situation.  And don't just suggest compact fluorescent bulbs because even a child will know the problem is bigger than that.  Make the solutions seem doable but not a 20-second fix.  Talk about the long-term political and engineering solutions, as well as some carbon-cutting techniques anyone can implement today in their own home.

3. We all know how successful the Republicans are at framing issues:  Death Tax, Healthy Forests, Clear Skies, etc. Once we accept the Republican vocabulary then we find the moral ground cut out from under us.  How can we argue against healthy forests?  We have to use vocabulary to control the climate argument in some of the same ways. Describe carbon-emission cuts as the kind of long-term, innovative thinking that's smart for business and good stewardship for the Earth.  Frameworks suggests the vocabulary we should use.  We have to demand our leaders take "responsibility," show "long-term planning," spur "innovation," apply good "management," show "stewardship," and apply "problem-solving ingenuity."  Describing carbon-cutting laws in this way puts those who argue for climate inaction on very weak ground.  Frameworks found that when non-activists heard the issue framed this way, they felt most empowered to demand action.  We should all memorize that vocab, then write a few Letters-to-the-Editor.  Letters-to-the-Editor are very powerful.  Politicians and business leaders read them.  Many readers jump to that page even before the comics.  Writing a few letters like that might be the most effective thing we can do to ensure a relatively peaceful future climate for the next generation.

4. Don't get all partisan and angry. Sound reasonable and don't overstate things.  Otherwise we risk sounding like the stereotype Bill O'Reilly paints of crazed environmentalists who want to wipe business off the face of the Earth.  The more reasonable we sound, the more likely listeners are to really consider our points.

Using these techniques we should emphasize how decreasing carbon emissions would jumpstart American ingenuity into the new energy technologies of the future, strengthening our economy by creating many more jobs and keeping billions of dollars in the US rather than pouring them into the coffers of unstable Middle-Eastern regimes connected with terrorism.  Since the rest of the world long ago clued in to the dangers of climate change, by acting decisively to cut our emissions we can dramatically increase international goodwill toward the United States.  Good will is something we are sorely wanting these days.  We have to explain that undoing global warming is the responsible and moral action we need to do to protect the future of our planet and our children.  Framed this way, as not doom and gloom, but as a smart and moral action that's good for business, our arguments will be much more persuasive.

We've already come a long way.  Scientists and us activists have already won the huge fight of getting most people to admit climate disruption is happening and that it's bad news.  Now we have to quickly and effectively convince the majority of the population there are practical and smart ways to stop what we've created. The faster we can do this, the fewer people we will lose to loud humming.  The more species we can save from rising seawater, etc. 

The easier it will be to clean up our mess.

Note: This is Part 1 of at least a four-part series on solving climate change.  My next post will describe the political and social fixes that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions.  Luckily, a lot of these fixes are already in the works in our government and society.  The third part of the series will mention the changes you could make in your own life to start fighting climate change.  In the fourth part I'll talk about how to cut carbs out of the Earth's diet in a way that takes pounds of your own waistline. 

Please, in comments about this, tell me of climate-disruption solutions you've thought of or heard of.  We have to start disseminating these ideas.

Anyone want to use the Frameworks suggestions to write up a few Letters-to-the-Editors in the comments section that other readers can copy and send to newspapers?

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