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Saturday, July 21, 2012

People, not polar bears

That was the title of a session, purportedly on climate change, that I attended at the Netroots Nation 2012 conference for progressive bloggers in Providence several weeks ago.

While the session did contain some good info--in particular one segment that talked about how polling in California had found that African-Americans and Hispanics were more concerned about environmental issues than whites--the general thrust seemed to be more about the need to frame global warming as a social justice issue.  I.e., if only you wine-and-cheese enviros would quit romanticizing about the environment, and join the great social justice movement, then everyone would pay attention to "your" issue.

That bugged me.  It seemed patronizing, and it also seemed to largely miss the point.  I was thinking about it today, and it struck me that it's like titling a session on coal mine safety "Miners, not canaries."

I'm sure some of us in the--what, pro-climate-science community?--have warm feelings about charismatic animals like polar bears, but for many of us, the issue is not so much the poor bears themselves, and what is going to happen to them, but the fact that they are, in essence, the canaries in the global coal mine.  If something is going drastically wrong with their ecology, and threatening their existence, it's a sign that things are out of joint with the global climate system on which the lives of billions of people depend.  Rapid warming in the Arctic is one of the first signs of global warming predicted by climate models, and it is what we are seeing today. As I've mentioned elsewhere, rapid Arctic warming also appears to be causing unexpected changes in the jet stream and in weather all around the Northern Hemisphere.

To be sure, the harshest impacts of global warming will likely be felt by poor people, and it's resulting from actions by industries run by industrial plutocrats, but that doesn't mean it's just a social justice issue.  It's bigger than that.  The canaries are dying, and it's time for all of us to get out of the coal mine.  Now.


  1. Since I wasn't there I can't speak to how much the panelists wanted "social justice" to be a primary focus. However, if the title is indicative, I am in total agreement. Climate activism has gone in the direction of a no doubt well meaning but erroneous strategy, to emphasize science and physics over human interest. Hence the almost total rejection of pollution as an issue.

    No doubt this is because scientists and activists honestly believed that when presented with the facts they would be motivated to change pollicy and personal behavior. Obviously, that has turned out not to be the case.

    See this article in the Times today:

    "Research also suggests public health is an effective frame: few people care passionately about polar bears, but if you argue that closing coal-burning plants will reduce problems like asthma, you’re more likely to find a receptive audience, says the American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet."

  2. Corporate greed is all financed by the Corporate ability to pollute the commons for personal profit. I cannot do that, nor can you, unless you have some skin in the game. Corporations are people now, I call them Corpro/People, and having accepted that ruling they have a new avenue to make their $$$ VOTE! However they lobby to ignore the fiduciary people law of not polluting your neighbors property for profits. Even the President could not escape ramifications of getting caught throwing a paper cup out the car window yet we all expel toxins out the tailpipe with abandon, because the “right” people get rich. The ability to pollute the commons for personal wealth is the fundamental foundation of Western capitalism and clearly a failed paradigm and transition to another is clearly traumatic. But then, so is Ecocide. Stop profits from polluting!

  3. Every single discussion about messaging (on any issue) has to be framed around audiences. Different audiences respond to different messages.

    I get quite annoyed by people who think THEIR framing is the best one. It's not. It might be the best one for one particular audience, but not for everyone.

    So, social justice framing is powerful for some audiences, while 'save money and get out from under the thumb of big energy companies' is powerful for others.

    As individuals and small groups, we can frame messages for different audiences, but it is harder for govts and mega-activists because their messages are broadcast so widely.

    Polar bears don't seem to hit my personal hot buttons (maybe cos I'm in the Southern Hemisphere) but the prospect of 100 million Bangladeshis displaced gets my attention (maybe because Australia will be asked to re-house a few million!)

    For Australians, coral reefs may be more canary-like than Polar Bears, but they're saying the same thing - time to get out of the mine.