We Need Political Strategists Leading on Climate Change - Not Scientists

Pushing this beyond debate on the merits of the science and into real action on how we save ourselves

an #ecoWURD feature | G.S. Potter

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In a March 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer piece unpacking the dangerous health effects of climate change, Rutgers University professor Janet Golden and Drexel’s Michael Yudell posed a pivotal question:How do you make people pay attention and demand action?

When considering the limited response, so far, the question is a good one. But, if Golden and Yudell can’t understand why no effective action has been taken to stop climate change, they don’t have to look much further than their profession, academia, and their colleagues within it.

“As we know from the past, it takes an all-out effort with input from popular culture and news footage as well as expert assessments like those found in the report. During the Cold War, as the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists brought us the doomsday clock, with the minute hand just seconds away from midnight,” Golden and Yudell write. “Hollywood did its part too, with horror films about atomic radiation, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, and calls to prevent a nuclear Armageddon such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. The brilliant film, Dr. Strangelove or; How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb made us laugh and yet confront the brutal truth about possible nuclear annihilation.”

For a second, let’s just pretend that pop-scientist Bill Nye and pop-star Cardi B agreed to produce a track about climate change, a spectacular beat-laden warning about how it’s killing all of us. While doing that, Bill and Cardi aren’t going to stop and say “OK, but first, we need to go find us a historian and a public health guy so the video goes viral.”  

What they would want to do is, at the very least, talk to experts in marketing, communications, social media, or other related fields. And they’d prefer talking to folks in the know about music, science and spaces where they intersect. They’d also be smart enough to stay away from someone referencing black and white movies that most folks never even heard of in the first place.

The same thing goes for political strategy. And we’ll need a winning one to reverse the apocalyptic mess unfolding right before our eyes.  

People know that climate change is a problem. Recent polls show that. More than 80 percent of parents, 4 out of 5, want schools to teach their kids about it. A Harvard Public Opinion Project poll shows that a focus on environmental issues, especially climate crisis, will turn out more young voters.  A recent study published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported that 70% of Americans believe that climate change is real. Another  50% of Americans believe that they will personally be harmed by climate change.  

More importantly, the world’s most powerful organizations know that climate change is real, it is caused by humans, and it is having catastrophic effects on the health of humans across the globe. Even the U.S. military, as conservative an institution as that is, has adapted its overall global response strategies to the reality of climate change.

The most devastating aspect of climate change, in fact, is the impact it’s having on human health.

The World Bank, for example, acknowledges that “climate change can result in complete crop failure” and as a result “undernutrition has been identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century.” They report an estimated 7.5 million children are expected to experience nutritionally stunted growth by 2030.  Four million of these children will experience “severe stunting.” Weather related disasters have resulted in over 60,000 deaths per year.  Climate change also has a severe impact on mental health. Air pollution is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, and increases in the rates of suicide – especially among farmers – are being traced back to the consequences of climate change. According to the Centers for Disease Control, farmer suicide rates are double that of veterans, and a Berkley researcher has made a link between the deaths of 59,000 Indian farmers over 30 years and the rapid escalation of climate change.

The World Health Organization has also produced research highlighting the global health crisis being driven by climate change. “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe for example, more than 70 000 excess deaths were recorded. Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water. A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which kills over 500 000 children aged under 5 years, every year. In extreme cases, water scarcity leads to drought and famine.”

And there’s more. In addition to these global threats, wildfires, hurricanes, cold snaps, heat waves, and more can all cause illness and injury like what we’ve seen from the damage done by weather related events such as Hurricane Maria in 2018, Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and the recent polar vortex.  

If that wasn’t enough, in 2016 unexpectedly high temperatures thawed out the permafrost in Russia causing an outbreak of Anthrax in a remote village in Siberia.  As the ice thawed, so did the carcasses of reindeer that were scattered across the region. The anthrax that had killed the animals remained frozen in their bodies until they were released by increased temperatures caused by climate change – 75 years later. There are a number of species threatening viruses and diseases being carried in an untold number of frozen carcasses worldwide. As the temperature of the earth rises and their bodies begin to thaw, it is feared that diseases known and unknown my enter the groundwater and find their way back into the human population.  

So, for three years now, it has been common knowledge that climate change may literally cause the zombie apocalypse. Yet, nothing has changed.  And that is largely because the people that are in control of the political efforts to change it believe that all it takes is a few researchers and a couple of movies to create global reform.  

Just Netflix and chill folks, because we are just an Avatar and a Fern Gully away from Global Green Success. If only we could just find one more professor to team up with one more team of movie studio producers!  

Sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is.

The first problem with the type of political reform proposed by many academics is that it ignores the main driver for political change: a competitive environment. Like many idealistic reformers before them, they fail to incorporate the fact that there are well funded and often armed networks of organizations fighting climate change reform. A number of them are currently operating through the White House. Without a defensive strategy to counter their efforts, there is little that sound logic and a trending hashtag can do to stop climate change or the “climate hoaxing” keeping us from doing anything about it.

Those types of “solutions” also fail to recognize the shape of the political playing field. Research and public opinion can’t go anywhere without a parallel effort of legislation, governmental interaction, direct action, and support from key organizations and people in positions of power and leverage – just to name a few. The technology and diversification of communications, especially considering social media platforms, are drastically different than when Dr. Strangelove was produced.  

We rely on the academic field to guide populations toward a solution on climate change, and to offer us a wealth of expertise that can reverse these conditions overnight.  But, part of the problem is that they are actually not experts in political strategy and reform, the real means to force societies there. As problematic is the tendency for scientists and researchers to create false dilemmas preventing them from acting as spirited advocates for immediate climate change response. Scientists, as a 2017 Journal of Environmental Communication study found, are more worried about maintaining their credibility and tenure track positions than they are about saving human beings from imminent disaster.

Academics just don’t understand since they’re not experts in political reform. They are, like Golden and Yudell, occupying spaces in the media that actual experts on political strategy should be occupying. They risk misdirecting the public and people in positions of power to focus on solutions that won’t get them anywhere other than making Hollywood and batches of campus activists feel good that they did their part. But, is that enough? 

Not really: academics are needed for the research. Yet, there is great risk when using their knowledge in one field to assert expertise in an area they have no business being in – while not understanding or giving a nod to the work of actual experts in the field as they do it.

If you want to know why there isn’t more movement on climate change given the dramatic effects it will have on the human species, look to your local political strategists. Partner with them. Climate change, now a crisis, is a scientifically proven threat to humanity’s very existence. We definitely need the continued academic research and data to bolster that case. But, leave the fight to the professionals. A strong response against climate disaster and slow government response must be the result of shrewd political movements locally and nationally.  It’s the only way we can push this beyond debate on the merits of the science and into real action on how we save ourselves, our children and our planet.