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Propaganda, Self-Censorship and Climate Change

Scientist Melton argues that it’s time for the environmental movement and environmental journalism to state the full truth – loudly and often – to counter denialist propaganda. That would entail using the four

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Scientist Bruce Melton argues that it’s time for the environmental movement and environmental journalism to state the full truth – loudly and often – to counter denialist propaganda. That would entail using the four “poison” words: climate change and global warming.

Climate change messaging is changing these days. One only needs to look as far as the Sierra Club’s unprecedented encouragement of civil disobedience with the Keystone Pipeline to see this happening. The polls are telling us that some 70 percent or more of Americans believe the Earth is now warming. This falls to a little over 50 percent when the words “because of man” are added to the question, but it is a majority.

Contrast this with about 97 percent of climate scientists believing Earth is warming and caused by man. Why is there such a difference? Part of the reason is because a pox has been put on these four little words: climate change and global warming.

A self-imposed moratorium in the environmental and broadcast communities has been in effect on those four words since the early part of George W. Bush’s administration. Environmental organizations across the nation recognized that negative climate science propaganda was changing public awareness. So those words found themselves being repeated less and less. They were poisoning environmental outreach efforts and their use created distrust.

Why did this happen? Likely, it was almost completely because of propaganda from vested interests. The voices of the propaganda, for various reasons, cast doubt about climate science in much the same way that similar voices (and sometimes the same voices) cast doubt about smoking and cancer, acid rain and ozone-depleting chemicals. The vested interests’ work was authoritative and their money and vision allowed them to distribute their message widely.

In their quest for fairness, the media gave equal time to this authoritative message about climate change not being real. Why? Because it was authoritative. It was designed to be that way using carefully chosen words and carefully chosen academic findings. People began to listen because their authority figures repeated the message. Climate change “believers” dropped from the rolls in droves. Awareness plummeted.

Environmentalists knew that using the poison words was harming their counsel, so they began to advocate for conservation issues to mitigate the effects of climate change that were not directly associated with the poison words. The rallying cry began to focus on the great benefits of energy security from alternative sources, clean air from clean energy and mountaintops unremoved. King coal and the Keystone Pipeline were still targeted, but those four “poison” little words were nowhere to be seen or heard.

The story has changed today, but only a little. In the environmental community, however, the discussion rages as to whether or not to use the poison words. The passive-aggressive ways of the last decade appeared to be working a bit, or was the increase in awareness actually caused by the rapid increase in weather extremes or maybe the change from Bush to Obama – and does it matter any longer?

Academic work has long shown that increased knowledge changes behavior. This fact is as common as how our behavior changes from learning how to read and write in grade school. But the same behavioral academic work also tells us that repetition of misinformation also changes behavior. So how do we increase climate change awareness in spite of all the propaganda?

We could wait for the increasing extremes to do the job. Unprecedented weather events enhanced by or caused by climate change are beginning to make an impact on awareness in local areas and, as long predicted, the extremes are increasing and will likely to continue to increase. Climate change awareness is increasing even though the same old tired voices continue to tell us that no one individual weather event can be blamed on climate change.

These impacts are happening more often and they are happening to you and me. More academic work tells us that when you and I are personally impacted by something, our behavior changes. So we could just wait.

The discoveries in climate science, however, continue to show the situation is getting worse faster than anticipated. And because of nearly 20 years of delay, as the climate scientists have told us all along, future impacts will be even greater than we have previously anticipated.

Climate change is interjecting itself into the public discussion more often lately with the increasing extreme weather events, but there is still a moratorium on the four poison words in the most important place – the environmental advocacy community. It is this community that we rely on to spread the word on why and how pollutants harm our lives. We know we cannot rely on the media because of their “fairness bias.” Most journalists are not scientists; mainstream journalists believe that to be fair they must report both sides of “issues” with words from authoritative figures on both sides.

The predominant passive-aggressive environmentalism messaging in climate science outreach today is holding back awareness. We have enough votes (believers) to kick the climate deniers off the island and get on with things. We simply need to capitalize on those votes.

So how in the world do we get action to finally happen on climate pollution? The answer is simple. We need to take a page from the opposition’s playbook: Propaganda, repeated often enough, and loudly enough, becomes accepted as valid. This same concept works with the truth, oddly enough. The solution to climate pollution starts with a very cheap and simple technique.

Tell the truth and tell it more often than the propagandists are telling their story. Tell the whole truth. Don’t hold back the poison words. This is a very plain and simple strategy that has proved itself time and again (not the telling of the truth – using propaganda). Repeat the message over and over again: repeat, repeat, repeat. If repeated enough, the message becomes a valid living thing.

We have bonus points available to us in this challenge as well. We have the truth. We need to stand on the authority of our scientists and stop dancing around the issue. The passive-aggressive messages of the last decade educates just as well with the “poison words” included – if this message is repeated more often than the propaganda.

This challenge is about defeating negative propaganda. The two things that can do this are more positive propaganda and personal impacts. We can’t wait for enough of us to be “born again” to climate science through personal impacts, so we must create truth messages in quantities greater than those that would have us disbelieve are creating theirs. We must tell the whole story, not just the climate consensus part.

We need to base our decision-making on the latest science, not the consensus. The consensus position is middle ground and relates literally thousands of climate scientists’ opinions and is therefore the least common denominator of agreement. It is a negotiated viewpoint of multiple theories and hypotheses. Because of this, it is watered down.

The reason there is a consensus is validity. When all of the experts agree to something, you can pretty much take that to the bank. There is much less chance of it being wrong. A consensus takes a long time to build. Time has not tested the latest findings. Over time, almost all of climate science becomes validated and a part of the consensus. But time is not on our side.

The discussion rages in the environmental community about how to educate, but this discussion is not echoed in the academic community. It rages in the environmental community because of the negative impacts of the vested-interest propaganda. There is no propaganda in science. Climate science is not a political or economic, or even a social issue, and it is not difficult to understand either.

Properly translated into plain English, we can all understand climate science. A lot of this translation is happening now and has been for literally decades. But the “authoritative” voices have been busy. We simply need to be busier than those “authoritative” voices. We need to speak louder than them and repeat, repeat, repeat. We have enough votes to kick the disbelievers off the island. We need to understand that the need to move forward on treating climate pollution is greater than the need to keep from upsetting the minority.

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