Framing: How to talk about climate change to someone on a “Flat Earth Cruise”
One of the funniest comedy skits of all time is a recording from 1961 entitled quite simply “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years.” A Broadway-style extravaganza, it lampoons most of the important historical events leading up to the founding of America, including one hilarious scene in which the crew of Columbus’ mini-armada posit the idea that the world is flat and their leader is about to sail right over the edge into the abyss.
The debate turns into a song entitled “It’s A Round, Round World,” which you can enjoy yourself in the comfort of your living room thanks to the magic of the Internet and those clever people at YouTube.
(The It’s A Round, Round World song tarts at 6:15.)
The Flat Earth Cruise
What was comical in 1961 has taken on a special relevance in 2019, as a group known as the Flat Earth International Conference is planning a world tour aboard a luxury cruise liner. The cruise will bring together Flat Earth adherents from around the globe — err, disc — to experience sybaritic luxuries while proving once and for all that the Earth is indeed flat.
The most amusing part of this delightful daftness is that the ship will navigate to various ports of call using the 24 global positioning satellites that are parked in geosynchronous orbit high above the Earth.
Henk Keijer is a former cruise ship captain who sailed many millions of miles on the world’s oceans during his 23 year career. “Ships navigate based on the principle that the Earth is round,” he tells The Guardian. “Nautical charts are designed with that in mind: that the Earth is round. The reason why 24 satellites were used is because of the curvature of the Earth. A minimum of three satellites are required to determine a position. But someone located on the other side of the Earth would also like to know their position, so they also require a certain number of satellites. Had the Earth been flat, a total of three satellites would have been enough to provide this information to everyone on Earth. But it is not enough, because the Earth is round.”
Well, duh. And if anyone needed more proof, they could simply look at the photos of Earthm taken from space by various astronauts during the Apollo program or by the International Space Station.
And that’s the point. The FEIC claims that after “extensive experimentation, analysis, and research,” its adherents came to believe the Earth is not a sphere. Instead, they believe the Earth is a large disk, surrounded by “an ice wall barrier” that surrounds Antarctica — an ice wall that is rapidly melting, by the way.
Blink & All That
We here at CleanTechnica spend every day getting out news from the worlds of transportation, renewable energy, and science pertaining to the effects of global warming. But it may be no more effective than shouting into a hurricane. In his book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell does an excellent job of describing the genetic coding that permeates the brains of all humans to protect us from threats, both real and perceived.
In essence, Gladwell’s argument is that if we had to stop and filter all the information that pours into our brains from our senses every day, we would never get anything done. So our brains have created a system that allows for the instant characterization of new data based on prior experience. That may free us from sifting cascades of information every second of every day, but it is also the predicate for belief systems that end up enslaving us with preconceived notions. As Mark Twain once observed, “What you don’t know won’t hurt near as much as what you doknow that t’aint true.”
The mental processes described by Gladwell form the foundation of prejudice, which means literally “to prejudge.” Prejudging may save us from some things, but it will also guaran-damn-tee — as Al Gore would say — that we humans will find a way to destroy the Earth that sustains us.
It is the kind of acceptance of half truths and lies like the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana, the hysteria over communists in government that led to the McCarthy era, the Better Dead Than Red madness during the Cold War, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led the United States deeper into an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, and the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” lie that led to Dustup In The Desert, Part Deux.
Today, it is the sort of nonsense that makes people believe all government regulation is evil and spending $6 billion on a wall along the Mexican border is more important than investing in clean technology. As the popular expression goes, “We are so screwed.”
Psychologists tell us that human beings are susceptible to something called “confirmation bias,” which is a corollary to Gladwell’s work. Iresearchnet describes it this way: “Confirmation bias refers to processing information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information.
“Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.
“Confirmation bias is one example of how humans sometimes process information in an irrational manner. Philosophers note that humans have difficulty processing information in a rational, unbiased manner once they have developed an opinion about the issue. Humans are better able to rationally process information, giving equal weight to multiple viewpoints, if they are emotionally distant from the issue.”
Those of us who value the thinking of Dr. James Hansen, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, and Mark Z. Jacobson must realize rationality plays no role whatsoever in the minds of climate change deniers. They are operating with the emotional, subconscious parts of their brains, the part only tangentially connected to the cerebral cortex
One could argue that fake news purveyors like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News deliberately pitch their content in order to elicit an emotional, non-rational response from listeners and viewers. Those of us who advocate based on science need to understand that our appeals fall on deaf ears — literally. Our message never gets processed in the parts of people’s brains where second- or third-order thinking takes place.
It is often said how an argument gets framed is more important that what is said. Think of the frame as the emotional hook and the content as the appeal to conscious thought. Unless we develop strategies to change the minds of people at the subliminal level, global warming will soon overtake the Earth’s ability to support human life. Climate deniers may start to come around when their beach home slides into the sea or they can’t find enough food or water for themselves or their families, but by then it will be too late.
Change The Frame
I have been reading Bill McKibben’s 2010 book Eaarth. It offers a detailed look at exactly what disasters are waiting just around the corner because people failed to act on the known threat from burning fossil fuels in time. McKibben is a tireless advocate for the Earth who has been spat on, jailed, and subjected to close personal surveillance for his troubles. He lays out the future in no uncertain terms and it is a dark and dismal picture. The book is tough sledding for the reader.
It’s the kind of exposition that you know in your heart is accurate but the implications of what he says are so dire they make the reader contemplate self-immolation or seppuku just to lighten the mood. I will tell you this. After reading the first chapter, I had trouble sleeping at night. It is understandable that some people just don’t want to hear it. In many circles, just the words “climate change” make many people cringe. They go into shut-down mode, which means they don’t hear a thing that is said thereafter.
If we are to have any success with the climate deniers, we need to stop appealing to their heads and start appealing to their hearts. How do we do that? By changing from talk of desertification, dying coral reefs, starving polar bears, and rising ocean levels to a discussion that hits people on a more visceral level.
Talk About Health, Not Rising Sea Levels
We all know that opinions are worth precisely what we pay for them. With that caveat, my suggestion is we stop talking about all the horrors of a warming planet and concentrate instead on the health impacts of burning fossil fuels. Don’t tell people about rising global temperatures, tell them about how the pollutants that enter the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned are increasing the risk of premature births, lower birth rates, asthma, and reduced mental development in young children.
Tell them about particulates, tiny pollutants so small they can pass directly into the blood stream in the lungs. Tell them how those particulates can lead to cardiovascular, pulmonary, and renal disease. Educate them to the risks their children face from the crud that gets spewed into the atmosphere when fossil fuels — all fossil fuels — are burned. It’s easy to dismiss a few starving polar bears or ice melting in a part of the world few have ever seen. But one of the most basic human emotions is a desire to protect our kids from harm. In times of famine, parents will deny themselves food in order to feed their children.
We need to appeal to emotions that override the preformed judgments that climate deniers have internalized. We can argue until we are blue in the face and get nowhere with people who have made up their minds on climate change. Tell people we need a Green New Dealnot to save coral reefs but in order to save their kids from harm.
Groups like the Flat Earth people are all the proof we need that, left to their own devices, people will fail to take the steps necessary to keep the Earth habitable by humans unless we change how we frame the issues. If we can appeal to people’s emotions, we have a fighting chance of changing how they think about using fossil fuels. Once we do that, the strategies to slow or even halt the causes of climate change will happen automatically.
(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)