The main challenge I see with selling climate change to middle America is that it can't be reduced to a sound bite. A second, equally important, challenge is that up until now progressives have mostly deferred to scientists to "prove" that climate change is happening and that it's the direct result of human beings producing too much CO2 by burning fossil fuels. The reality that many climate change activists, myself included, couldn't totally get their heads around the science made it extremely easy for the right wing to kill the issue altogether in early 2010. By hacking into some emails which allegedly revealed some climate scientists had fudged on some of their numbers.
And it was all over. Growing popular support for hard choices which would have raised the cost of gasoline and household energy bills evaporated over night. The American working class is already quite mistrustful of scientists and other professionals with an "excess" of education. Philadelphia Inquirer report Alfred Lubrano describes this and other aspects of "blue collar" culture, in his 2004 book Limbo.
After living in New Zealand for eight years, which has a predominantly working class culture (owing to unusual demographic shifts I have written about elsewhere), I am newly sensitive to this distrust of "experts." In New Zealand, which has to be the DIY (do-it-yourself) capitol of the world, it extends to non-academics, such as carpenters, plumbers, mechanics and panel beaters (auto body specialists). It's routine here to fix a rust spot on your car by spray painting some paper mache filler. For everything else, a little duct tape and number eight wire, and "she'll be right."
I now believe the correct way to fight the climate change battle is to lay out the issue in such a way that the average sixth grader can understand it. This is why I was extremely excited to see the fantastic ABC documentary Crude on Maori TV several
weeks ago. Although Crude first aired in the US in 2007, this was the first time it's been shown in New Zealand. The previews all make it out to be a crash course in geology an explanation of how oil is laid down in the earth's crust. It's not really. It's actually a hard hitting, mildly scary lesson about the carbon cycle and the environmental changes that occur when it's disrupted.
Use an Image When a Sound Bite Won't Do
Marketing specialists say that when sound bites don't work in putting across complex concepts, the next best too is visual imagery. Clearly the filmmakers who produced Crude understand exactly how to incorporate the repeated use of striking, somewhat scary images to get their ideas across. The repeated shots of the thick pea soup of ocean dead zones (which are increasing) are what did it for me. Coupled with the repeated message that the majority of the earth's surface was covered with these dead zones during the Jurassic period when the world's oil was created. And that the vast majority of the earth's carbon was present in the form of atmospheric carbon dioxide during this period. And that, as a consequence, the entire earth including both poles, which were ice free year round was a massive greenhouse.
Unpacking the Carbon Cycle
For me an understanding of the carbon cycle and the Ocean Conveyor Belt that oxygenates our oceans which doesn't rely on complex measurements or computer models has been key to getting my head around the current climate change controversy.
I now understand (well enough to explain to someone else) that there are basically four places where carbon is stored on earth: in the atmosphere and oceans as CO2, in the crust (as fossilized calcium carbonate rock, oil, coal and natural gas) and in livings plants and animals. When the earth was first formed, the vast majority of its carbon was present as atmospheric CO2 and (as oceans formed) dissolved CO2 in the oceans. Then when life emerged, plants used energy from the sun to extract carbon from CO2 and form the complex hydrocarbons that are characteristic of all plant and animal life. The cycle is completed when these plants and animals die and bacterial decay releases the carbon back to the atmosphere (see diagram).
The Jurassic Greenhouse
During the Jurassic Age (200 million years ago), high atmospheric CO2 levels meant the entire earth including both poles which were ice free year round was a massive greenhouse. Then complex ecological events occurred that caused hydrocarbons from plant and animal life to be trapped in the earth's crust as fossilized rock, oil, coal and natural gas. I used to believe that fossil fuels came from decaying dinosaurs. However current geological science indicates that oil, at least, derives from massive algae blooms that formed in the massive dead zones that were pervasive in the ocean that covered nearly all (there were no polar ice caps) the earth's surface.
As in present day dead zones, the algae blooms sucked all the oxygen from the water and killed all the fish and other animal life that eat algae. For over 250,000 years, layer upon layer of dead algae sank to the ocean floor. And because there was no oxygen for bacteria to convert it back to CO2, the pressure build-up converted it to an even more complex hydrocarbon namely oil.