Environmentalists (and scientists) have followed no clear overall plan in trying to motivate the general public about global warming. Here’s at least a simple “model” worth considering before dumping more millions of dollars into failed media.


If an issue is urgent, it needs literal-minded communication that gets right to the point — “Your building is on fire, get out!”. But if an issue is non-urgent (like climate change consequences that are 20 years off) then it needs non-literal communication — which means using humor, emotion and stories — anything to arouse the disinterested audience.


Last fall I attended an all-day workshop in D.C. that was essentially to address the question of, “Why has the environmental community blown it on the issue of climate change?” Throughout the fall I was engaged in numerous discussions on this topic. Andy Revkin of the NY Times, in particular, has done a heroic job on his blog, Dot Earth, of leading discussions on why the public has lost interest.

Behind the scenes, I’ve been a part of a group email of journalists and pollsters. In December I mentioned in the discussion that I am deeply impressed with the work done by the U.S.C. Hollywood, Health and Society project (they do tactful “indirect” messaging on largely non-urgent health issues). My explanation of their impressive project to the group resulted in Dave Roberts last week posting a very nice in-depth interview with the Director of the project, Sandra Buffington.

Further discussion ensued, particularly on Revkin’s blog, but eventually, as the email discourses were getting drawn out, I finally lost my patience and blasted out most of what follows. Three members of the group separately asked me to post this material publicly (I think they just enjoy seeing me collect more enemies). So I’m doing it here, and I think I want to share this because it is at least “A Model” for how some of the basic dynamics of this mass communication stuff works. It arises from the second chapter (“Don’t Be So Literal Minded”) of my book, and puts it into the terms of “urgent” and “literal.”

See if this makes any sense.


1) For urgent issues, literal-minded communication is fine and even essential. If your house is on fire, you don’t want the fireman telling you a joke or story, nor should he have to deal with the frustration of working his message into a joke or story.

2) But non-urgent issues require less literal-minded communication. If your house COULD catch fire one day, given how busy you are, you’re more likely to listen to and retain a well-crafted, humorous STORY about the subject than having some guy just blurting out the facts that you haven’t asked for.


I have complained about the communications ineptitude of environmentalists since 2002 when I was first exposed to it in the field of ocean conservation. There is a widespread problem of false prophets and the blind leading the blind (warning: I may be one of the worst!). But mostly, there tends to be a complete absence of any simple, practical conceptual models of how the work is being done. The one exception I can think of is the brilliant article by Nicholas Kristof about failed NGO campaigns in Africa, but even that only dealt with a single variable — the power of specifics.

Literally millions and millions of dollars spent on one campaign after another with no overall plan of how it works or even discussion of whether the public wants to hear this stuff or not. Just a whole lotta people grabbing what they think is “a good idea” and going for it. No wonder it all ended up as a counter-productive cacophony when it comes to climate.


The model I propose above is why the environmental movement has been a failure in communicating global warming. It is not yet an urgent issue. In the summer of 2005, given all the hurricanes that year, the “Inconvenient Truth” production team genuinely THOUGHT that global warming had arrived and the urgency was present. They made an enormously literal-minded movie that simply blurted out the message with the subtitle, “The Most Terrifying Movie You’ll Ever See!”. It turned out to be the wrong approach for the time as the hurricane season went away and hasn’t come back for five years now. The issue of global warming has become FIRMLY non-urgent in the public’s eye, yet environmentalists persist in trying to communicate it in direct, literal ways.

Polls by people like Jon Krosnick showed that “An Inconvenient Truth,” did nothing to change the public’s support for climate legislation. Because of it’s literal minded approach, it mostly played directly to the already-committed/converted enviro crowd. Yet as Anthony Leiserowitz has pointed out, the less literal-minded “Day After Tomorrow” which told an exciting (albeit stoopid) STORY (unlike the Gore movie, which did not have a fun, engaging story) was more effective in getting the public to at least accept the notion of human-induced climate change. Had there been thousands of people dying across the land in 2006 due to global warming, the brainless action movie would have been irresponsible while the Gore movie heroic.


That’s what it’s about. Which is why I produced a comedy about global warming in 2008. The issue was “non-urgent” (and I’m sorry if in your mind you feel it’s urgent, the public simply is not yet convinced), so I went with a non-literal approach, using comedy to draw in the audience before turning serious about the issue. But in the end, I had to endure a tidal wave of snubs from both the science (I got the ONLY rotten review of my career, coming from Nature magazine) and environmentalism (the movie was rejected from all 6 environmental film festivals to which we submitted — some of which claimed to be desperate for “an entertaining movie about global warming,” while it got rave reviews from the  film community in Variety and Cinemasource as well as praise last week in our 5 screenings in Norway).

Which is why I have had complete admiration for what they are doing with the Hollywood, Health and Society program since first hearing about it five years ago from Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Center Director. They are smart. And it fits directly into this model — it is enormously non-literal, taking advantage of storytelling to quietly, indirectly slip in their messages about on-going (NON-URGENT) health issues, rather than blurting messages out directly.


Until global warming is visibly urgent, the literal-minded beating of people over the head will not only not work, it is even counter-productive. For now, there is a need for creativity and even risk taking. I kept my mouth shut a couple of months ago when the UK group made their crazy “No Pressure” PSA and American environmentalists melted down with horror and indignation. The group behind that PSA gets what I’m saying. American environmentalists do not.

Which again is why the environmental community should just cease and desist on this stuff. Look at the quote in Leslie Kaufman’s NY Times article in October about the small town energy revolution taking place in states like Kansas. It’s spelled out clearly when she quotes Nancy Jackson, head of the Climate and Energy Project, as she says, “Don’t mention global warming. And don’t mention Al Gore.” When people say that it means the environmental movement has created an “unlikeable voice,” straight out of the fourth chapter of my book titled, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable.” And it can’t be fixed easily. Best thing? Just walk away from it. Let these non-politicized groups take over. Your brand is shot.

Enough with the crying polar bears, and worse, with this horribly conceived PSA (below) I was forwarded last week — having children read your message for you. They are making a Fox News fan out of me. Quit assuming the public is a bunch of morons. Intellectually they may be, but intuitively they are not (but a lot of the people behind this sort of messaging are).

When Fox News is more savvy about communicating environmental issues than environmentalists, you know we have a problem. Whoever made this PSA should be picketed by environmentalists. You are damaging a very serious issue with this sort of approach. The Fox pundits are right in asking — what child says, “Take a powder” — an expression from the 1980’s. Some middle-aged writer says it, that’s who. Honestly.