Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Bigger Threat: Joel Makower, founder of GreenBiz.com, wants to know why—a recent Time cover story on the subject notwithstanding—Americans are not “worried, very worried” about climate change.

Says Makower: “A bevy of seemingly lesser problems manage to get ample coverage by the media—and loud and clear response on the part of Americans and their leaders: immigration, education reform, gas prices, tax cuts, even avian flu. But public discourse on climate—arguably the mother of all social, environmental, and economic issues—never seems to move beyond background noise.”

I happen to agree with Makower. Sometimes I wonder whether the Bush administration will be remembered less for its response to the threat of terrorism than for its lack of response to the far greater threat of climate change.

But the reality is that risk experts (and once again, I tip my hat to Peter Sandman) have analyzed the way people react to different threats—and global warming is precisely the kind of threat we underestimate: it’s chronic rather than acute; it’s distant rather than immediate; it involves nature rather than mechanics (even though nature is, in this case, profoundly impacted by man).

And the climate change denial movement has been successful. It has somehow achieved a respectability beyond that of say creationists or Holocaust deniers. (Though this new campaign from the Competitive Enterprise Institute is not a particularly fine example of their technique. I’m not the only one to find the tagline—“carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life”—unintentionally hilarious.)

Makower’s suggested solutions—better education of gatekeepers, a “new vision” for energy, a grassroots education effort—sound to me like a pretty weak response. Tactically, they are all sound ideas, but it should be clear by now that the message they are intended to deliver just does not resonate with the American public.

Until we get the message right, until we find a way of framing it so people are energized to demand change, we are going to continuing slouching toward oblivion.

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