The Zombified State of Climate Communication

Some of you may recall a recent public awareness campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that began this way:

There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.

The message went viral and the CDC goal of raising awareness of disaster preparedness was accomplished. True, they goosed it with social media, but the whole thing was an exceedingly clever campaign, leading scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson to say:

This is a mass communication success story if EVER there was one.

Olson also believes that the CDC success holds lessons for climate communicators who are willing to take chances in their outreach campaigns.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Educating people on how to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters is one thing. Who can argue with that idea? Climate change, on the other hand, is viewed through a heavily politicized lens. For example, look at what happened to the last creative effort that strived to get beyond the standard climate change boilerplate.

That said, if you are someone who wants the public to take global warming seriously, Olson is surely correct when he looks out on the dreary landscape of climate change communication and concludes:

What are the other options? That you somehow “stay the course,” remain an academic purist, and just keep spouting out the same literal-minded message year after year even though your numbers show that hardly anyone is listening? No, this is indeed the problem. And it’s a very serious problem. I keep citing Matt Nisbet’s report earlier this year showing that the climate community over the past decade has spent somewhere between a third of a BILLION dollars and a billion dollars on essentially attempting to communicate their message in an effort to get Congress to pass climate legislation. The entire effort has been a complete failure. No one is interested in what’s happening with the climate. The public is as bored with preparedness for climate change as they previously were bored with preparedness for hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.

The only problem with this observation is that the blowback on Nisbet’s report from well known quarters of the climate concerned community suggests that there is little appetite for changing course from what is currently failing them.

26 Responses to “The Zombified State of Climate Communication”

  1. Paul Kelly says:

    It really is hard for people who have relied on the information model and the political process to face the reality that they are losing ground, not gaining it. They must choose between taking a different approach or curling up in the comforting blanket of failure.
    Some in the climate community understand the ineffectiveness of their message is due to the message itself, its framing, its spokesmen, its partisanship and its absolutism. Most do not, refusing, I think out of fear, to think outside their self righteous and increasingly counterproductive box. They have become the true delayers.

  2. grypo says:

    Rhetorical nonsense.  I’m not sure how much more Paul insists people bend to satisfy whatever policy goals he is after, but knowing what we know, we’ve already given too much and jostled endlessly to get nothing.  It is unfortunate you can’t bend the physics and the change the time scales to satisfy politicos.  We either mitigate of we don’t.  We either adapt or we don’t.  I don’t know anyone from Paul’s “true delayers” that ever argued against either.

  3. Paul Kelly says:

    I don’t want you to bend or alter your understanding of the science. I want you to succeed by acting within a focus model rather than an information model and by finding solutions outside of the political process rather than within it.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    The Christchurch earthquake triggered many New Zealanders to check their own quake kits – we checked our bottled water, gas cookers, tinned food, medicines etc.
    What would a climate emergency kit contain ?
    I mean what would you need to cope with a few millimetres of sea-level rise and maybe a degree of warming over several decades?

  5. Jack Hughes says:

    Thanks, Keith, for the interesting link.
    Whatg is missing in the CDC story is any measurement of what people DID after being aroused by zombies.
    Did they measure any uptick in sales of hurricane kits or survival items or home safety stuff? In other words was there any ACTION or did people just tweet-n-forget?

  6. edG says:

    “the climate community over the past decade has spent somewhere between a third of a BILLION dollars and a billion dollars on essentially attempting to communicate their message in an effort to get Congress to pass climate legislation.”

    So much for the Big Oil story. It is really the Big Green AGW crisis research-industrial-financial-state complex story.

    “The entire effort has been a complete failure.”

    Gee, I wonder why?

    “No one is interested in what’s happening with the climate.”

    A totally absurd statement. What he means is that nobody is interested in the wolf crying stories anymore.

    “The public is as bored with preparedness for climate change as they previously were bored with preparedness for hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.”

    And those are real. And, funny, I thought we were supposed to have nothing but AGW driven horrendous hurricane seasons. Katrina was said to be a sign. Where are they all?

    No wonder people don’t believe the hype anymore.

  7. Randy Olson says:

    The CDC folks are working on the metrics about how people actually have responded to their campaign.  A couple of news stories did their own informal surveys and said they found a lot of people actually doing stuff.  Perhaps more important is the wave of regional and local agencies now contacting CDC to use the zombies theme for their own efforts.  And yes, I know it seems like a sad state of things that they have to “stoop” to this, but the bottom line is that it’s a traditionally hard-to-communicate topic that has been brought to life.  

    As for the knee jerk reaction to the UK “No Pressure” PSA, that’s reflective of the limited, dull, uncreative approach that has been taken to climate communication in the U.S. where the entire movement suffers from the stultifying effects of political correctness.  You can’t take a narrow, cautious approach to mass communication and expect to do anything truly exciting.   

  8. Jeff Norris says:

    Mr. Olson
    I am a little confused about your assertion that disaster preparedness is hard to communicate.  I would say that communicating the idea and need is easy but creating and sustaining preparedness is difficult. Studies in Ca. have shown that close to 80 % are aware of the need and most of the associated requirements to prepare for earthquakes but less than 40% have taken the necessary steps.  The CDC spot was excellent but will it actually result in people buying portable radios, 3 gallons of water extra medications and more importantly restocking them ever year, probably not.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    Randy can you explain what you mean by ‘the knee jerk reaction to the UK “No Pressure” PSA’ ?

    If you mean the vile 10:10 campaign that revealed how the green mind works – a window on their world. It was sickening but it was also valuable: they showed their hand too soon and revealed their ghastly worldview.

  10. Pascvaks says:

    It take years to get a PhD.  You really have to focus on what you’re doing.  Sometimes you can lose sight of the Big Wide World around you.  Zealots have a narrow focus on things too.  So too do politicians who owe favors to many “friends”.  Give me a person with a vista every time.  Ahhhhh Plato, I knew ye well!  Wherefore art thee?  Athens is burning!

  11. harrywr2 says:

    grypo Says:
    July 20th, 2011 at 10:57 pm 
    <i>but knowing what we know, we’ve already given too much and jostled endlessly to get nothing</i>
    Even if I’m faced with overwhelming evidence that the sky is actually falling, if the solution offered is to put up a teepee in order to protect myself from the falling sky then I won’t take the premise that the sky is falling seriously.
    If ‘climate change’ is real then I’m going to need more heating, more air conditioning, desalination equipment and massive water pumps.
    The bulk of the ‘climate change’ community believes we can power all of that with windmills and solar panels.
    My brother in law is a senior executive at a major power company. He laughs at the idea that it is even technologically feasible to power a modern society with windmills and solar panels.
    Of course, in order to be ‘politically correct’ he’ll install some token windmills and solar panels so people can ‘feel good’.
    The climate change debate suffers from kilowatt solutions for terrawatt problems. Hansen is one of the few prominent realists.

  12. Pascvaks says:

    (SarcOn)I understand that in Hawaii the old trick of offering virgins to volcanoes worked pretty well.  Think we ought to try that?  Bet Old AlGoreium The Great, the High Priest of Global Total Change, would be honored to verify the integrity of the offering and roll the first dozen or two in.(SarcOff)

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo (2):

    You don’t seem to be grasping Paul Kelly’s (1) point. He is essentially saying that the lack of introspection and outright refusal of climate communicators (let’s take Gore and his Rolling Stone essay as the most prominent example) to reexamine their methods is what makes them unwitting delayers to progress on the climate change issue. In fact, by continuing to focus so strongly on the media’s supposed culpability and moneyed interests, they are essentially doubling down on the same strategy that is getting them nowhere.

    BTW, on a separate note, I know you have another comment from another thread stuck in moderation. But an upgrade in software and security that took place yesterday is for some reason keeping me from approving comments with links. Hang tight while I get that straightened out.  

  14. I’m very much in tune with Randy’s take on the problem–although I grant it’s possible that raising awareness might not equate to taking action, although we tend to assume they’re the same.

    But people like Joe Romm argue that “just tell people the scary facts” model has failed because we haven’t beat on it hard enough, not because it’s inherently ineffective. I instinctively feel that he’s wrong, but I certainly can’t prove it.

  15. Pascvaks says:

    @Mike Lemonick

    Romm  proves it for you, and everyone else.  You can only get so far beating a dead horse.

  16. grypo says:

    There are several issues that we can discuss if Paul’s point is what Keith says it is.  The “spokesman”, Al Gore, essentially opened up the discussion to the public.  Beforehand, the discussion happened at a political level that was, for the most part, between science and policy makers.  So in order to create political will, there was also the creation of political strife, due to Gore’s position in global politics.  The Gore issue is complicated, but his contribution was necessary, as no one else had the power to do so.  Celebrities only can get you so far.  Scientists are, for the most part, reticent and divided.  So if the point now is that we need to move on from Gore-type messaging, then I agree, as I’ve always been wary of using him as someone who could fill the remaining voids.  But I can definitely not refer to him as a “delayer”.  Who knows where’d we’d be without him.

    The ‘moneyed’ interests are just basic facts.  They’re there, they are a problem, and they need to be dealt with in time.  This should continue to be part of the message, albeit less prominent depending on the target audience.  

    Paul’s “finding solutions outside of the political process rather than within it.” is his deal.  If he wants to do that, then please come up with something.  But make it more than a platitude, and show the work.  If black carbon is the thing, then point out the way.  I’m sure everyone will be behind it.  If it is R&D then go for it.  Neither of these will solve the physics problem, or can change the time scales, but you can be assured the only people that will delay that kind of action will be same ones delaying action on everything else.  If we are going to continue to shoot messengers, don’t be surprised if people stop stepping up.

  17. grypo says:

    And just to clear the air on my own personal feelings — I am open to any market based system that either takes carbon and other emissions out of the atmosphere or replaces carbon products, especially with nuclear and even shale gas, given the proper compromises on the other side.  This includes the Libertarian positions on revenue-neutral taxes and markets that punish carbon use across international lines.  If these are accomplished with little government intrusion, all the better.  Just give us something that’s tangible and doesn’t wrestle physics

    The major problem with this is that it’s too late, as we’ve already screwed ourselves, and we need to start adapting our infrastructural base and changing our energy sector yesterday.  This will be costly and the money has to come from somewhere.  I don’t the commercial industry is going to find adapting and changing good for their bottom line, unless the govt subsidizes them to do it.

  18. Jeff Norris says:

    Your comment I think reinforces Keith’s and Paul Kelly’s view that the movement has an inability to critically analyze their efforts.   Your immediate reaction seems to be that they are saying that Gore has always been a “delayer” when my impression is that they are saying he has now become a delaying influence.  You then agree that the movement needs to move on from a “Gore-type messaging” but until members of the movement distance themselves from some of his efforts how with this happen?  Another way of looking at it as a lack of succession planning by AGW proponents.  Who’s ideas and messaging are being trial ballooned by proponents on a national or international level?  From the outside it looks like proponents are more concerned with their current personalities than their principles or objectives.

  19. Jeff Norris says:

    My comment 18 was directed at grypo (16)   

  20. Paul Kelly says:

    My point is what Keith says it is. You nailed the reason for finding solutions outside of the political process with: “So in order to create political will, there was also the creation of political strife”. Therefore, acting inside the political brings unnecessary conflict, which is a major cause of delay.
    What I’ve come up with is acting within a focus model. My idea is aggregated individual action. If you are in Chicago this Sunday, I will be in East Beverly at the 103rd St. Art Fair focusing attention on the Leo High School Windows, Doors, and Plumbing Project. Please come by our booth.

  21. grypo says:

    My immediate reaction has more to do with the idea that any simple messaging can be shown to be reason for delay.  The reasons for delay are severely complicated.  The most important being that we’ve just waited too long.  I’m not interested in protecting Gore or any other personality.  I’m interested in protecting the integrity of the message.  The message is correct and was important at the time.  We have no integrity as a movement if we toss off the truth in favor of politics.   We should do better now, I already said that and have been preaching that before today.  But what?  I heard a lot about what we shouldn’t do, but these replacement ideas appear to lack any substance.  i’m not going to agree with Pielke’s message just because I don’t agree with Gore’s or Romm’s.  Something else please.

  22. grypo says:

    “Therefore, acting inside the political brings unnecessary conflict, which is a major cause of delay.”

    This is a worthy point, but  needs better measurement for each instance.  Issues with economics at its heart will enter politics anyway.  It’s a matter of deciding what was gained and lost.  But since we agree that it is better to move on, I don’t reaaly feel like arguing what the net effect was before.

  23. edG says:

    Interesting discussion but it all boils down to the simple problems that the message cannot be sold because 1) it lacks credibility, and 2) its messengers lack credibility, and 3) the cost-benefit of most suggested actions based on this incredible message do not make sense to anyone but those who, for whatever reason, choose to accept it.

    Crying wolf has inevitable consequences.

  24. Keith Kloor says:


    You are fond of making sweeping, black and white statements. It might feel satisfying but it only adds to the noise. 

  25. Paul Kelly says:

    It is possible to make a cost benefit analysis favorable to energy transformation.

  26. Jack Hughes says:

    More klimate-bunker talk here, guys.

    The man-in-the-street now just tunes out when he hears climate babble. It’s turned into an Israel/Palestine type of news story – people see lots of very partisan extremists sparring about something irrelevant and just wish they would grow up and shut up.

    Any noise you make just reinforces this feeling of wanting to tune out. 

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