The Biggest Obstacles to a Climate Deal are Overwhelm and Emotional Disconnect

Cross-posted to Daily Kos.

History tends to repeat itself

In a completely unscientific study, Green Media News has found the biggest obstacles to reaching a global deal on climate change are the massive overwhelm and emotional disconnect that stop climate change issues from becoming part of the national discourse.


I’m overwhelmed with all this. And I have a high tolerance for minutia; if I’m overwhelmed, that’s not a good sign for the climate movement.

I have to admit I’m torn. I’ve been reading news from Cancun all afternoon. And I’m tempted to go down the list and talk about all the things that are happening at COP16 and around the world relative to climate change.

The world is burning. Island nations are flooding. Indigenous peoples have been poisoned, their land and water contaminated with toxic waste dumped by oil companies in the name of profit. People are being displaced by the millions due to climate-related disasters. Bloggers are ranting about it. The mainstream news barely covers it.

Is the climate movement guilty of preaching to the choir?

Well, really… is anyone else listening to words like “adaptation” and “mitigation”?

Finding: There is an emotional disconnect between the language of the climate movement and its underlying drivers. This emotional disconnect is the single greatest obstacle to reaching a climate deal because when you look at the language of the movement, it becomes immediately and crystal clear why there is no global consensus for action: without emotional currency driving a movement for change, there is no real motivation for change.

Here’s an example of how a climate refugee might describe their experience with climate change:

I’m scared and hungry. My parents were killed in the flood. Somehow I survived. But there is no one to take care of me. All my friends are gone. My pet is gone too. I have nothing. The government says we don’t have enough money to rebuild and we have to move. All of us… my whole village. It’s so crowded in the refugee camps. There are many thousands of us. Where shall we go now? Is this the rest of my life, in this refugee camp now? Someone please tell me how I can get out of this mess. I have dreams for my life and my future. Are my dreams going to die? Am I going to be a refugee forever?

But here’s how we talk about climate change in the UNFCCC process:

We must make advances on issues such as mitigation and adaptation. We must come to agreement on REDD as part of a balanced package that includes compromise on all sides. Hopefully if participating nations are willing to compromise on important issues, progress to a balanced package can be made.

Can you see the emotional disconnect between the words being tossed around and the actual human experience of suffering and loss due to climate change?

Let’s contrast the above with some anti-climate messages we hear often on the FOX-GOP:

They’re going to raise our taxes! They’re fighting a war against business! They’ll shut down your business with their over-regulation and excessive taxation!!!

Now that’s an emotional message.

See, the problem with the climate movement is that it was born in an era where science really mattered. It’s only recently with the FOX-GOP’s assault on science that the climate movement suffered its biggest setback: the emotional disconnect.

The FOX-GOP has taken the messaging campaign of anti-climate-change to the hearts and minds of America, while the climate movement itself still struggles with an identity crisis and a marketing failure.

As I sit here watching the clock ticking by, my thoughts are many. Here’s just a few:

  • I have to work in the morning
  • If I don’t post until midnight again, no one’s gonna see the post
  • The internet connection at this cafe is so damned slow
  • She’s cute (oops, distracted….)
  • What is the story down in Cancun?
  • Love Bill McKibben’s quote about Winston Churchill.
  • Great job, Canadian Youth delegation for calling out your government!
  • Are people really so dense to ignore climate disaster in Pakistan and wonder why they support the Taliban?
  • OMFG Ted Turner did you really say that?!
  • With all the great coverage of COP16 that nobody is reading, what good can I do?

The overwhelm is the other great obstacle to reaching a climate deal. I’m focused on this with all my heart and all my might. Yet I’m tired after a long weekend of 12-hour shifts at my day job. I spent the whole day today reading and watching news, thinking and meditating, writing and deleting… and when push came to shove, and I saw the clock ticking away, this is all I could muster to say.

So what about the people we’re trying to reach — the people on the outside — the ones who aren’t watching COP16 news, or reading climate change blogs? What about the people who are more emotionally moved that their taxes are going up?

And why are we talking about taxing dirty energy without moving subsidies from big oil to the green sector? Why is it fair to tax something dirty when the clean alternative isn’t even available at scale?

The solutions being discussed are missing the mark.

Here’s what I need to get over my own overwhelm and emotional disconnect… and to the Climate Movement, if you can meet me where I stand — which admittedly is a lot closer to your side of the street than the anti-climate bunch — chances are, you’ll be a lot closer to reaching your adversaries:

  • Give me clean energy first. Then tax the dirty stuff. Don’t tax fossil fuel energy excessively without first creating the clean energy which won’t be taxed, and making that energy available to me. DUH.
  • Talk to me in words that make me feel something. I don’t care about words like “mitigation” and “adaptation” and “balanced package” no matter how much you tell me those words are important. I DON’T CARE. Find words that move my heart.

Everything else is detail. Speak to these two bullet points above, and we’ll have a climate deal in no time.

Started off well. Then. before you know it, you’re all back to talking Cap and Share insider geekery that a mainstream audience don’t know about and don’t care about. The comments string to this blog are a perfect micro example of what the movement does.

With the greatest respect – none of you are wrong. I agree with most of what you said but we are truly missing the point as a movement – we need a complete rethink.

Cop16 is not on the radar of mainstream media so it’s doesn’t get to a mainstream audience, which means the wider electorate in countries around the world aren’t engaged and mobilised, which means politicians can make a cold, statistical judgement on whether what they do effects votes – can they screw the planet and stay in post? Currently, hell yes. We are not formidable opponents in our current guise.

We need fundamental and strategic shifts in our approach…

If the media won’t cover it we need to find ways to reach a mainstream audience without them. There are lots of ways to do this. They may be beyond our comfort zone but they’re there.

If politicians won’t do anything different unless it means their jobs we have to make a direct link between the electorate and the elected… small, simple political actions that make clear people want action or a different government. The Spanish showed this brilliantly over the Madrid bombings. There are ways we can do this. They’re not the ways we normally use but they’re there.

And most significantly, we have a strategic imperative to unite. After COP15 our movement derided world governments, accusing them of acting in self interest and pointed the finger at them for not coming together to save the day. What hypocrisy!
Our movement couldn’t agree on the colour of snow most of the time. In the UK, the biggest NGOs regularly delete supporter data because they can’t agree to share it. Brand visibility trumps unity too often. It’s getting better but it still exists (I’ll be crucified for airing that, but it is true).

As a movement we need to ask the world to do one thing. We need to make it simple. If we were truly innovative and united we’d have a chance of engaging a newer, wider and more powerful mainstream audience in simple political action – our leaders would look at the figures and be terrified. Because they would have to act.

Let’s talk outwardly. Let’s unite. let’s short circuit a media who don’t cover us unless there’s a riot. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s start doing what will work best not what we do best, because it’s stopped working.

I am heartened by the chatter in the movement that reflects on what we need to do differently. Blogs like this are to be congratulated for their honesty. What we do next has a lot riding on it. Good luck to us all.

I’d love to see cap and share take hold in the UK and the EU. That would get us talking over here for sure… People getting paid directly? Of course here in the US with cap and dividend they’re already trying to put a middle man in between the American people and their money. We just can’t leave a good idea alone here. If we adopt it, we’ll almost surely corrupt it or dilute it so that a privileged few can profit… It’s like the matrix, man. America’s consciousness is in deep, deep slumber.

I believe you are right, Evan, in the States, sadly. But over here in the UK and Europe we think there may be a chance for Cap and share. The best thing you can do over there and build stuff from the ground up, there are plenty of exciting local initiatives. And yes, grab Cheney by the balls.

David I think cap and share — or cap and dividend as I hear it’s called here in the US — is intriguing however I believe the notion of a cap on carbon emissions right now is a non starter in the FOX-GOP House of Reps. I’d like to drill down on the subsidies issue bc that’s tons of taxpayer money going to oil companies and I think it’s time we are told why we pay that. I’d like to know more about that secret Cheney back door energy policy too, which call me crazy but my gut says when we find out what that was all about, if he’s still alive by then it will probably have Cheney in prison for crimes against humanity, and I’d like to see full transparency on energy policy in the US. I don’t know how we get to any real progress in the Dark Ages.

Tenny this is exactly what I’d like to see happen. Any tax on carbon is going to be passed onto the consumer in the form of higher prices. The people who argue for a carbon tax (and I used to be one of them!) are wrong to think this will stimulate a switch to low carbon alternatives. The low carbon alternatives need to be available in order for people to have something to switch to. The “crazy talk” about a carbon tax leading to the enslavement of mankind by the power elite isn’t so crazy when we don’t have clean energy available at scale. Once we have clean energy in enough quantity to “choose to use” it — and I believe switching subsidies is the fastest way from here to there — I would fully support a carbon tax at that time. Not as the initial driver to a low carbon economy, but as the final nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel economy.

Climate issues are not really my forte however speaking from the heart is…so if you want more heart you have to stop trying to find it in places that are not going to generate that kind of expression. I suppose it is problematic to find heart based conferences that will discuss climate issues that will be seen as “legitimate” by world governments. Keeping them boring as possible may serve to keep people from becoming interested…perhaps this is serving a purpose?? Okay conspiracy theorists I am not but in the wake of finding that the US manipulated diplomacy efforts during in last year’s climate conference then it is interesting to question the whole process.

Also look at what are the concerns of humanity today??? What are people focused on right now and then ask yourself why people are not giving a damn about a Climate Conference at some swanky resort in Cancun??? If you can connect what is important to people’s hearts today with climate change issues then you can start a movement…but for now…and in the wake of the news today…this is not on the forefront in their minds or emotions…the trick is leading them to it in a way that wakes them up without going the FOX News route…If you’ve noticed, people are wanting the truth. If I were you I would pick apart the entire process and thank Ted Turner for saying something that got people to listen and think…So coming from an understanding that there is no bad anything…just discernment and skillful actions, then seeing the polarities of things is a great attribute to the entire cause. Look for the good in everything and you’ll find the answers.


Rather than “tax” the oil companies, our pitiful elected officials could decide to stop giving oil companies subsidies (paid out of hard-earned taxpayers’ money) that they do not need at all, considering the obscene profits that they are making.

Those subsidies could then be given to clean energy companies to get them to the point where they have scaled up enough to compete against the dirty energy companies.

Really well expressed, Evan — thanks for your hard work there. I, too, am at somewhat of a loss about what to write. Branson’s words are about the only ones that gripped me. It does have to be visceral to get the point across and move people in a direction they really do not want to even look at.

Take care and keep writing.

You had me in complete agreement with you until I got to your first bullet about not taxing fossil fuels until clean energy is available. Did Exxon get to you? They need to be taxed now to level the playing field not only with clean energy research and development but also to pay society back for the distruction to our water quality, air quality, our oceans and shorlines, and the mountain tops that are destroyed so that they can reap huge profits whil receiving giant subsidies from the government at the same time.

Evan, great post, you’ve hit it the nail right on the head. There are those who say that we don’t even need to talk about climate change at all, because the term is so vague and broad that it doesn’t mean much to folks, and I tend to agree. As someone who has deeply cared about our out of balance relationship with the earth for as long as I can remember, I’ve never quite connected with the “climate change movement.” It’s not that I don’t care, but I just feel strangely alienated from it, because there’s nothing that I could do that I’m not already doing, safe for perhaps screaming, crying or otherwise freaking out. But me freaking out is not going to solve the problem either, so I just feel more grounded and useful living a simple life, treading as lightly as I can, and in the process connect with people, inspire and be inspired to slow the madness down. This doesn’t mean that these climate conferences aren’t important or that I’m not interested in them, I just try to keep a perspective on them, knowing that my emotional investments are more effective and seem to get much better returns in local, real life relationships.

I don’t agree with your first bullet point. The oil companies are funding denial and making huge profits. They should be taxed and exposed, using the emotional language you describe. Target them with that emotion, just as the right talks about big government.

We’re being lied to! Manipulated! Treated like morons! F**ked over! So THEY can sit on their mountains of cash AND pollute my backyard and screw up the planet for the future. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! Greedy bastard merchants of death! etc….

Also, watch this: