Global warming: worst activist campaign ever

Epic Fail poster

Global warming communications. Not a success by any measure. Unless you define being bottom of the agenda as success. Image: styro via Flickr.

We’re sorry, Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense and all you other environmental groups.

We agree that climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge we face as a society, dwarfing healthcare, the deficit, foreign wars, anchor babies, Sarah Palin’s apology and even the economy.

But your global warming campaign must surely be one of the worst activist campaigns ever.

First, you have the facts on your side, according to the academy of science of every major nation on Earth.

Then, you’ve had twenty years to educate the public on the issue.  You’ve spent millions of dollars on ads, websites and direct mail. And you’ve hired bazillions of Reed College students to push petitions at Vegetarian Fests from Portland, OR to Portland, ME.

And what have you gotten? Bupkes.

Down in the polls, dead in Congress

These days, fewer Americans than ever care about climate change. Or even believe that it’s happening. Or understand that it’s a bad thing and not some way to turn Alaska into our own domestic banana plantation. Or agree that it’s mostly caused by humans burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees and not 1) part of some natural ten-thousand year cycle or 2) caused by solar flares or 3) a portent that Jesus will come by the end of the first quarter to rapture up all the good people.

And even though your guys on the Hill made so many deals with the devil that the Evil One forgot his pitchfork in the men’s room in the Hart Building near Joe Lieberman’s office, the terrible cap-and-trade bill that so many big green groups backed went down in flames last summer.

Sure, Rahm Emmanuel hung you out to dry and Obama was saving his political capital for healthcare. But c’mon guys, you had Democrats running both houses of Congress and a liberal Dem in the White House.

The only better lineup in Washington would be if Al Gore was king and Bill Nye the Science Guy was secretary of energy.

Let’s face it. If climate change were a product, it would’ve been pulled from the shelves during the Clinton Administration. If the green movement were a company, it would have gone bankrupt and its assets acquired by Procter and Gamble to market eco-Tide to Prius-drivers in Portland. Oregon or Maine, it doesn’t matter.

Today, there are almost as many books on Amazon arguing that climate change is a hoax or a blessing or an act of God as there are books based on actual science.

Mommy, the bullies stole my energy bill

Now, you might complain that Exxon, Massey Energy and Koch Industries have poured massive amounts of cash into the American Enterprise Institute and skeptic loudmouths like Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about climate change on Fox News.

Just like that whole cigarettes-don’t-really-cause-cancer thing in the sixties.

And you’d be correct.

But is this really much of an excuse anymore? Is having well-funded enemies who try to discredit you really all that unusual in the marketplace of ideas?

Political candidates always have to defeat at least one rival in an election race — and populist David quite often beats the better-funded Goliath. Not always and not even most of the time. But enough to show that it can be done.

Even ordinary consumer products like Tide have to go up against the competition. Again, it’s not always the Richie Rich that wins. And don’t get us started on how underdogs triumph in sports. Go watch a boxing movie.

Sometimes it’s the little scrappy guy who wins. You need to be the Come-back Kid.

So, maybe it’s time to get smarter about your climate change outreach?

Marketing gurus to the rescue

We know that just like us, you love to “take a page from the world of business.” You’ve been trying a re-branding for a long time, first from global warming to climate change and now to “global climate disruption.”


Why not take the advice of somebody who knows something about re-branding, like marketing guru Seth Godin:

Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places.

How can “global warming” be bad?

I’m not being facetious. If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

Seth also thinks you need to make greenhouse pollution, well, more visible. Sure, Americans get more than half our electricity from coal. But when we turn on the lights, it’s not like a bunch of coal dust gets in our eyes.

And to your credit, while you’ve made the mistake in the past of pushing too much science, at some point you figured out that you have to get emotional too. So, you pumped out lots of doomsday images of Manhattan underwater.

But that went too far and people started to think  you’d been hitting the Wild Irish Rose a bit too hard.

It ain’t easy to get it just right. But we’re asking you to try something different.

Time to grow a pair

For example, you could try to hit your enemies harder. Follow the example of investigative reporter Ross Gelbspan at the DeSmogBlog. He calls out the fat cats who bankroll climate lies. Time to take off the gloves.

Also, why are you mainstream enviro types such fraidy-cats when it comes to peak oil and economic crisis?

If you think oil depletion and the Great Recession are too much of a downer, then you’re definitely not the hombres to talk about melting icecaps.

With half our friends out of work or scraping for jobs hither and yon while worrying about the mortgage, nobody we know believes anymore all that stuff about the Green Jobs Economy making us all richer and cleaner, ushering in a new era of easy prosperity.

Green Economic Growth? Green Globalizaton? Green disposable household products? Pleez.

Don’t get us wrong. We love seeing Van Jones’s guys put up solar panels. And we’re still angry at Glenn Beck for evicting Van from the White House. We even think solar’s got a great future. But shaking two centuries of coal and oil addiction is going to cause the economy a few DTs. Everyone knows that.

So maybe you’d be more believable and have more success with a splash of realism in your Green Economy punch?

Why not team up with the peak oil people, as Bill McKibben has done?

And don’t worry, peak oil is not just for doomers and survivalists anymore. The International Energy Agency said last year that peak oil happened in 2006. And you can trust those guys, because they wear suits to work. They carry briefcases too.

We’d hate to think that your funders lack the cojones to let you admit that the transition to a more resilient society could be great — but that it certainly will not be easy. It will be more like making do on the home front in World War II than working the room at a green economy tradeshow.

We’re giving you some tough love here because we want you to start winning. We know, maybe that’s hard for you to visualize. So maybe you start by seeing yourselves not losing quite so bad. Maybe just getting one black eye instead of two.

But at the end of the day, kind of a lot rides on getting climate change right. Like the future of humans on Earth and that great hot dog stand in Key West.

So we’re rooting for you. We have lots more ideas. And we’d be glad to help.

Transition Voice

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  1. NikFromNYC says

    Uh…maybe it has something to do with the idle little boring fact that actual thermometer records don’t show any sign of being a hockey stick? Gosh, perhaps! I plotted the old records that exist here, in single postcard format:

    Game over before it even got started.

    • says

      Sorry, NikFromNYC, that’s just incorrect. I’m not going to argue about climate science because I’m not a qualified climatologist (see my article here), but I will refer you to the Academy of Science of every major nation on Earth. The US, the UK, Canada, Russia, China. They all agree. While minor issues remain to be worked out, the basic science of climate change is obviously settled.

  2. gofer says

    I never see any specific information of how Exxon and others are funding a “denial” campaign. How much money, when and to whom?? Exxon and most other oil companies are on the global warming bandwagon. It was BP and Shell that gave tons of money to the East Anglia Climate Research in the UK. Exxon just came out with a “doomsday” story about global warming. Climate Research gets BILLIONS in govt. money. WWF and Sierra Club have spent a boatload. All of this and nobody cares. Maybe it’s because we are all freezing, when we were told the opposite. The .01 degree that made 2010 the “warmest” ever (actually tied) is a serious stretch in believablity. Nobody ever talks about margins of error and no sane person would believe you could boil the earth’s temp. down to such a tiny number. That’s why the actual temp. is never mentioned. People would laugh when the “hottest” is .01 degree “hotter.”

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, gofer. I’m not sure if they’ve changed their tune now or if they’re just saying things that are ambiguous, but it’s been well documented that ExxonMobil and other companies have supported groups like the AEI and the Heartland Institute that challenge climate science. They’ve also supported big climate deniers like Pat Michaels. For documentation, check out or Ross Gelbspan’s book The Heat is On.

  3. says

    Looks like a few deniers got here first, but allow me to highlight, undersore, boldface and cheer the sentiments of this piece. Sleeping with the enemy didn’t work and sugar-coating the news didn’t work. I’m ready for firmer principles, more honesty, and a little more faith in the intelligence of the audience (even though we aren’t see a lot of evidence of that). It’s time to tell it like it is. I’m doing my part!

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    • says

      Dear Dave,

      Thanks for your nice comment. I hope we can see some better strategy in global warming communications. If the green groups can’t handle it, maybe someone else needs to lead the charge on climate. I didn’t know about GrowthBusters, but your site looks great. We’re starting to do film reviews too, so we’d love to see it when it’s ready.


  4. Glenn S says

    Add this post to a growing list of internal bickering articles I’m reading where the response to failure is to blame the messengers for not being proper salesmen.

    How about the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make em drink”?

    The idea that the public can even theoretically be won over by the right strategy is what’s unrealistic. That’s not to say we should stop trying, but why not stop beating down on groups that are at least out there trying to do something? Maybe it’s not ALL their fault and maybe the people they are trying to reach just can’t be reached?

    • says

      I have lots of friends at mainstream green groups, and I would feel bad for them if I’d seen lots of criticism of their work on climate. But I must have missed the articles you mention. And likewise, I haven’t seen much contrition, soul-searching or frank discussion among the big enviro groups, unless they keep it very secret. In public, their emails all still say “how much they’ve accomplished” on climate and how they deserve our support.

      What are they smoking? They had the best chance anyone ever had to pass a climate bill in Congress and they blew it. When will they again get Democrats in charge of the House, the Senate and the White House? It was the absolutely perfect opportunity.They had millions of dollars. And their shameful cap-and-trade bill was so watered down and polluter-friendly that James Hansen, the world’s top climatologist, said it would be worse than doing nothing. But yet they still failed.

      I’m starting to think the mainstream enviro groups have become the Neville Chamberlains of American politics. Maybe they value their insider Beltway access too much to rock the boat? And they still seem to be in denial and to think that they did just great.

      It’s too soon to blame the American people. They were never given a decent chance to care, because the communications campaign never met them half way. Instead, the green groups failed to connect or make climate relevant to what people care about today. By contrast, look at the Tea Party. It came out of nowhere and captured so much attention in less than a year, while the rich, smart green groups couldn’t do it in 20 years?

      I’m not sure if we should still be sending the mainstream enviros our donations anymore. Maybe somebody else should handle climate from now on?

  5. says

    According to the refereed journal literature, the only way to prevent runaway greenhouse is to terminate the industrial economy (e.g., I’m on board with bringing it all down in the name of saving the living planet and preserving habitat for humans on Earth. But I have very little company beyond a nascent anti-civ movement.

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