Let no-one say that we don’t get plenty of entertainment value from the President of the United States. With George W Bush, it was the way he said things, occasionally – putting food on your family, wings taking dream, etc. – well, you kind of knew what he meant. With the present incumbent – who, it has to be said, is somewhat more slick – it’s more about exactly what he comes out with, and the (presumed) thought processes behind these utterances.
Just over a week ago, for example, he devoted an unfathomably large chunk of an otherwise anodyne speech to students at the University of California-Irvine to climate change scepticism, as you do, comparing climate dissenters to hypothetical critics of the US moon landing programme who might have raised objections on the basis that the moon didn’t actually exist or was made of cheese.
The POTUS has upped the ante, it seems. Stefan Lewandowsky famously compared us to conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were a hoax. Obama has now compared us to deluded people who think the moon itself might be either an illusion or solid Camembert (although, technically, “green cheese” would be the correct lunar ingredient.)
Obama has also called us “flat-earthers”, of course, which has made me wonder whether an entire straw-man climate-denier cosmology could be constructed, with a flat earth dominated by natural variation and a (possibly non-existent) cheese moon floating overhead. There’s possibly a team of climate psychologists at the University of Cardiff working on the mechanics of it, this very minute.
Anyway, why is he bothering with all this? Why is anyone, come to that? Could it be, perhaps, because the public are not actually as sold on the idea of climate doom, as Obama and his fellow travellers would like, and he’s having to turn up the rhetorical volume? I say this because there’s an interesting transcript of a recent show on one of New York’s public radio channels, where Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication mulls over possible alternatives for the terms “global warming” and “climate change”.
Here’s the first problem (for Leiserowitz, anyway, perhaps not so much a problem for the rest of us) – those terms are well-entrenched and nothing short of a colossally expensive marketing campaign would completely supplant them (he mentions a hypothetical rebranding of Coke, at this point.) Why is it a problem for him? Well, according to a recent survey, only a minority of Americans answered “correctly” that thousands or millions will die of climate change in the future. Clearly the majority still don’t think the world’s about to end.
The term “global warming” Leiserowitz considers more effective, as it evokes stronger feelings of being threatened. But it’s clearly not threatening enough. Radio host Bob Garfield helpfully tries to suggest a new name that’s “something maybe all inclusive and yet more terrifying”, and comes up with the not altogether serious term of “death weather”.
And here’s the second problem – environmentalists, politicians, bureaucrats and the media have been trying to threaten and terrify the public about global… um… climate… whatever for decades now. And the public’s indifference has remained solid, or even accumulated somewhat in recent years, a bit like Antarctic sea ice. Activists such as George Monbiot are beginning to acknowledge that scary rhetoric is actually alienating and antagonising the very people they want to win over (see this very good article about Monbiot’s volte-face, on Climate Resistance).
Will they be able to change tack, now? The climate conference in Paris next year is looming on the distant horizon, and it might seem politic to assume a new stance, which did not involve demonising dissent and evoking fear and disaster. However, Monbiot’s misgivings aside, I doubt that they are going to turn down the alarm very much between now and then, and suspect that like madmen in the apocryphally Einsteinian sense, they will be unable to resist doing and saying the same things over and over, and hoping against hope for different results.
Like someone who is absolutely certain the moon should be made of green cheese and won’t be told otherwise, they are probably not going to start listening to the indifferent majority, on this matter.