On the cover of Rolling Stone this month he says there’s “new hope” for the climate.  But I thought the latest IPCC report said things are more dire than ever. Why would you go with such a cheery, “We’ve about got this thing licked!” message given what everyone else is saying?  More importantly, what do you do when hope and truth are in conflict? 

al gore worst climate communicator ever?

SAY WHAT?  Yes, I know you have to give people “hope,” but what if that gets in the way of the truth?



In 2007 I was on a panel discussion at the LA Times Book Festival with Bill McKibben.  At one point he cheerfully said, “I think we’ve rounded the corner on climate.”  I did a double take.  He cited two big events from the previous year: Gore’s movie and Hurricane Katrina which he felt shocked the public as they got a glimpse at what a climate disaster looks like.

I tried to take issue with him, but it was too soon. It would take another 2 years until Climategate showed how inept the climate science community was with public relations, and 3 years to the summer of 2010 when the last piece of climate legislation would collapse, finally showing how wrong he was on the rounding of any corners.

Now we have the latest IPCC report sounding their most dire warning to date. Just last week I got a bounce-back “AWAY FROM MY EMAIL” message from a major environmental scientist whose outgoing message went on to say, “The IPCC Fifth Assessment reports an observed (likely) doubling in the rate of sea level rise in the last twenty years. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing at over 3% per year over the last decade—that compares with an increase of “only” 1% per year in the 1990’s.  We need to get to work with a lot more fervor.”



So which is it? This prominent scientist says we need more fervor. But blasting out the headline of “New Hope” sends the opposite message (and yes, it is possible to have both, technically, but we’re not talking about substance here, we’re talking tone/style—the tone of “new hope” says we’re winning).

Yes, hope is inspiring to those who are already working on the cause—just hearing “there is hope” gives them hope (we dealt with this exact dynamic 12 years ago with our Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project). But to the average Rolling Stone reader (who does not work every day on climate), it’s a very simple headline that implies, “We’re finally on top of this climate thing,” causing the reader to say “thank goodness, now I can worry about other things.”

Gore’s headline should have been, “We Need New Fervor for the Climate.” And if his answer is, “The editors made that headline up,” then he should have made sure they didn’t. In today’s short attention-spanned world, headlines are about 90% of your communication effort (the text is just a bunch of stuff to justify the headline, meant only for people with a lot of time on their hands).

It was two years ago right now that Australian coral reef ecologist Roger Bradbury published his rather stern and pessimistic OpEd in the NY Times titled, “A World Without Coral Reefs.” He didn’t feel we had rounded anything for coral reefs other than the drain in which they are circling on their way downward. He summed up his thoughts on the environmental community in saying, “conservationists apparently value hope over truth.”

Apparently the same deal for Gore (or at least whoever shapes his messaging).