On Friday, July 2, 2021 at around 5:15 a.m., a fiery vortex likened to a volcano, Mordor, and even the Gates of Hell ignited in the Gulf of Mexico. The surreal disaster, which raged on for over five hours, was attributed to a faulty pipeline connected to a Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) platform over the Ku-Maloob-Zaap oil field. Pemex officials claimed that they followed the appropriate accident protocol and denied the existence of an oil spill.

For days after the accident, nearly identical images and video clips of the oil fire proliferated on mass media. News articles and op-eds called for a fossil-free future and for a critical re-evaluation of on-going American investments in oil and gas development. Public outrage became visible through infographics, memes, and critiques — but little has stuck. 

Only a few environmentally-focused news outlets have followed up this past week on the repercussions of the oil spill. Those that have note how the status quo of oil extraction remains largely unperturbed and supported by international powers, such as the United States Export-Import Bank, through generous grants and loans. Google Trends shows how over the past 30 days, searches for “Gulf of Mexico,” increased fifty fold, hitting peak popularity on July 3, 2021, the day after the fire. But just six days later, on July 9, searches returned to normal. 

This wasn’t always the case. In 1969, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill played a significant role in kicking off the environmental movement. The disaster was followed by a flurry of federal regulation and sustained public distrust of industry. Less than two years after that oil spill, the first Earth Day had taken place, the EPA had been founded, and the California Environmental Quality Act had become law.

The recent oil spill has disappeared from the public consciousness and has failed to engender any meaningful change. This serves as a stark reminder of the standstill the environmentalist movement finds itself in. While the movement’s stagnancy is complex and primarily a result of systemic and governmental forces, there is also something to be said about environmentalist tactics. Climate change conversation, with its exaggerated focus on science and sensationalism, alienates the average person. As time runs out on ensuring a livable future, a critical re-evaluation of how environmental ideas are shared is in order.

On communicating climate change

Today, the environmentalist movement and climate science are nearly inseparable. Scientific evidence gathered by international coalitions of reputable researchers, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), serves as the foundation for climate activist demands. While it is essential to base policy and rhetoric off of empirical evidence, there are several shortcomings with a fixation on the scientific argument.

The language of science is esoteric. Greta Thunberg’s opening comments at the UN Climate Change conference on December 11, 2019 provides an excellent example. Speaking to politicians and scientists, Thunberg succinctly outlines the problem –  “In chapter two, on page 108 in the SR 1.5 IPCC report that came out last year, it says that if we ought to have a 6% to 7% chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had on January 1, 2018, 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in [our] budget.”

In the context of a climate change conference, Thunberg’s choice to rely on scientific arguments as opposed to provocative statements that approach fear mongering is an appropriate one. However, whereas she might expect such facts to engender a reaction from individuals primarily invested in the climate crisis, the rhetoric’s influence on the layperson is less potent. When addressing the public, the essential ingredient lies in the personal and emotional, things which the hyperspecificity found in Thunberg’s language lack. An exact indication of the chapter and page of the IPCC report is unnecessary; the scale of 420 gigatons of gaseous carbon dioxide is difficult to conceptualize. What a 6% or 7% chance really means is left entirely to one’s conjecture. 

The problem is not limited to the quantitative facts of climate science. Important, qualitative terms such as the greenhouse gas effect, cap and trade, fracking, utilities, environmental justice, or net-zero carbon emissions versus carbon neutrality are also matters of great complexity. Furthermore, a surface level knowledge of these topics does not suffice since climate action is extremely scientific and political; entry-level climate knowledge is a significant investment of time and effort.

This doesn’t mean that science has no place in environmentalism. During the 1970s, when the environmentalist movement first gained traction through grassroots protests and a burgeoning scientific literature, a focus on science was necessary to combat the reactionary climate deniers that played up the role of uncertainty. In his book Climate Cover-Up, public relations expert James Hoggan explores how the oil and gas industry was primarily responsible for opposition to climate change. Organizations such as Western Fuels and the American Petroleum Institute funded their own educational entities to cast doubt on conclusions about the role of humans in climate change. For example, the goal of the 1998 American Petroleum Institute’s (API) “Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan” was explicitly to have “average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science” as well as to make “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science to appear to be out of touch with reality.” Such tactics ultimately sought to slow down governmental action and preserve the oil and gas status quo. 

While the above anecdote partially vindicates the movement’s emphasis on science and statistics, it reveals another problem. Using different methods and interpretations, the same dataset can be manipulated to produce completely opposite results, such as those put forth by the API. For the statistic aficionado, a good example is Simpson’s Paradox: “a statistical phenomenon where an association between two variables in a population emerges, disappears or reverses when the population is divided into subpopulations.”

But it would be unfair to allow ill-intended think tanks funded by oil and gas companies to delegitimize the benefits of scientific studies in environmentalism. Science can work, and concepts such as Simpson’s Paradox can be addressed. However, to resolve this empirical tension, one must analyze the methods that researchers use and think about why they were used. Whereas the general language of climate science is already several degrees removed from the average person’s understanding, the world of meta-methodology is far too many degrees away to attract citizen participation. 

Occupy Wall Street organizer Micah White summarizes the issue with relying too much on science and logic in his book, The End of Protest. He argues that, “Environmentalists got stuck in proving the scientific argument and have been falling down the rabbit hole of computer models and intellectual abstraction ever since. We are in a situation that the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard calls the ‘differend’: an irresolvable language game in which the absolutely final proof of climate change is human extinction.”

Even when environmentalists communicate climate change in simple and digestible ways, it often fails to register in the minds of American citizens. This is because the planetary scale of the climate crisis is hard to make relatable. A climate survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication indicates that while 70% of men and 71% of women believe global warming is occurring, only 42% and 48% respectively think that global warming will harm them personally. 

In this case, we ought to point fingers at ourselves. One potential explanation of the above statistic is that most parts of America have not yet suffered climate devastation comparable to that in developing countries. Our geographical positioning and our relative security of basic needs is a privilege, and it waters down any sense of true urgency. 

Other parts of the world are not as lucky. In America, climate burdens have triggered single-day protests that are followed by business as usual, but burdens in places such as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Middle East have disrupted entire ways of life for extended periods of time.

November 2020 saw two Category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, tear through Central America. Following the unprecedented fallout, over 10,000 people attempted to migrate northward. In Honduras, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock estimated that up to 80% of the agricultural sector was decimated. Various climate refugees lamented leaving their families but attributed the migration to having lost everything.

More recently, Jacobodad, a city in Pakistan’s Sindh province, has made headlines for becoming one of two places on Earth to have officially passed a threshold hotter than what the human body can physically withstand. Temperatures in this city can climb up to 126ºF. Combined with high levels of humidity, it is increasingly common for everything to grind to a halt as citizens retreat indoors and heat stroke cases fill hospital capacity.

Just like referring to  “420 gigatons of carbon dioxide,” discussing more comprehensible tragedies such as mass migration or scorching temperatures doesn’t quite click. Even if it lies within our imagination, these crises rarely directly affect the lives of average Americans and thus rarely yield a sustained reaction.

Part of the issue certainly lies with how climate ideas are conveyed. Newspapers often focus on the gravest indicators that climate change is occuring, neglecting the less sensational but admittedly more personal ways climate change affects us. However, the issue also lies in how climate ideas are received. Our inability to truly empathize with the plights described above hinders the development of a collective consciousness that is willing to hold society hostage until real change occurs. It is also a reflection of our privilege: we carry on with work, research, and hobbies as parts of the world quite literally burn.

New Tactics?

Problems are often easier to identify than solutions. If we are to accept that climate change communication is flawed for its reliance on science and inability to relate to non-experts, what should be done instead?

No one has “the answer.” While there is a developing literature on why protest occurs, the overarching characteristics of different schools of protest remains a topic for greater research. Still, some areas of research can be posited as promising fields of future study.

The environmental humanities are an interdisciplinary area of research whose focus rests in bridging the gap between environmental science and the human world. UCLA describes the field as both “descriptive and aspirational… it has emerged over the last five years to capture already existing conjunctions across environmental philosophy, environmental history, ecocriticism, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, and political ecology.”

In thinking about how to increase environmental effectiveness, I hope that meaningful insights might be found in studying the environmental humanities. Environmentalism needs to be broadened so as to permit people of all backgrounds, interests, and specialities to easily engage in equal conversations. This is already happening, with the development of an environmental justice movement which challenges white, mainstream environmentalism and centers recognition and distributional justice in promoting policy. The humanities and justice concerns reflect a commitment to inclusivity that not only makes more broader coalitions but also takes advantage of the “marketplace of ideas” to produce equitable insights.

Another solution to roadblocks in environmentalism might be found within ourselves. In the age of mass information and Fahrenheit 451-esque television and advertising, the reclamation of our mental environment is paramount. The external world often reflects our internal one, and we must be cognizant of how we allocate our attention.

Short-lived enthusiasm is endemic to a society in which the individual’s attention is constantly being pulled in innumerable directions. The phenomenon of piqued interest and exponential disinterest described earlier is a symptom of too much information and too little time to process. 

As a last consideration, we might want to consider our audiences and how we engage in conversation. While the information presented to international delegates and climate scientists are usually national or regional in scope, when we engage with our local communities, the information we present and the concerns we have should reflect those of the community. 

International crises such as the temperature in Jacobodad, the Gulf of Mexico on fire, and Central American climate refugees matter. However, for the person with limited time and resources, there are better ways to earn their attention. Community-specific solar panel proposals, or local-level analyses of car emissions and flood patterns make climate action clear and present. This specificity calls for more investment in our communities – both financial investments to fund studies aiming to produce effective policy as well as emotional investments aiming to better understand our communities and their problems.

Meaningful climate solutions require complex and intersectional changes that penetrate into the most fundamental aspects of global politics. Charting this path requires nothing short of perfect precision and unprecedented creativity. Reaching this ideal requires trying out new tactics whatever they may be and abandoning those that have expired or never worked in the first place.