It is now more often said than any time in the past that natural disasters occur due to global warming. Often inviting ridicule upon the consensus upholders, this is more definitively predictable than the disasters themselves.
Such a high degree of predictability however deserves attention. High predictability usually implies causation. The natural question therefore is: What is causing these predictions to occur with such regularity, and … predictability? Why do the climate activists attribute every natural disaster to anthropogenic global warming?
Judith Curry’s considered opinion on this matter reflects a view that many climate skeptics likely share.
The substantial interest in attributing extreme weather events to global warming seems rooted in the perceived need for some sort of a disaster to drive public opinion and the political process in the direction of taking action on climate change.
In April 2011, members of a public relations firm which runs the website called Desmogblog.com, released a report. The document discussed a conference which took place almost a year earlier. Named the ‘Stonehouse Standing Circle Summit’, it was a gathering of “some of North America’s leading communications professionals and academics”, the report put it. Edward Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz were listed, as were chiefs from a host of public relations and lobbying firms and activist organizations.
What one can gather from the document is quite interesting. Initially it starts with the blasé interpretation of environmentalism which is in vogue currently: ‘environmentalism is a failure’. How and why has environmentalism ‘failed’? The report quickly moves to diagnosis of its ills – and these are placed squarely in the realm of public relations and ‘communication’. It simply concedes to itself that the environmental movement is ‘fact-based’, relies solely on science and data to make its case, and that it is improper communications that has caused its supposed debacles. This is mainly because there is a “lack of coordination between environmental organizations”, the report concludes, which results “incoherent messaging at the meta level”. This “lack of coordination and message discipline” among environmentalists, it goes on to state, “results in confusion, uncertainty and mistrust”.
This line of reasoning becomes central in the report. Though surrounded by a further litany of contradictory complaints and grouses on the purported failure, the report mainly proposes measures to counteract supposed flaws identified above.
The main solution proposed by the delegates, we learn, is the exploitation of crises to ratchet up public mindfulness of climate change. The rationale is stated by the report as follows:
“Moments of distress and disaster provide the best opportunity to change minds, a condition that advertisers and marketers have known for decades.”
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the ensuing media coverage is shown as an example of a poor response from environmental public relations personnel. The delegates noted the failure to paint the “BP blowout as another symptom of […] oil addiction”, noted how environmentalists “lost the opportunity to use the BP blowout as a teachable moment”, and the “total failure to connect the BP disaster to the elephant in the room – climate change”.
At this stage the report edges toward offering concrete remedies to the purported ills it diagnosed: “Could we have had a coordinated crisis management strategy, a coordinated stable of speakers quickly prepared for media appearances to connect the dots to the bigger picture implications of such a disaster?” A while later it hits upon the sentinel problem: to wrest control of the ‘narrative’ and the information territory as soon as a disaster occurs. What something gets called first, determines what it comes to be known for – the report avers. “The first frame that is presented to the public is usually the one that dominates the rest of the conversation and leaves a lasting impression that defines an incident for years to come”
The only solution, the report concludes is to have a “SWAT team” of public relations personnel who will “ready to go into action immediately” as a disaster occurs, and immediately link the disaster to ‘climate change’ across a wide variety of media platforms. This would serve the twin purposes of swiftly capturing the sphere of information, and gaining mileage afforded by reaching minds in a vulnerable state.
We know these scenarios will keep happening as long as we remain addicted to fossil fuels – oil spills, coal mine tragedies, natural gas explosions, coal ash impoundment failures, etc.
We also know there will be extreme weather, hurricanes, droughts, food shortages, melting ice caps, calving glaciers, species extinctions and other indicators of a climate run amok.
Why are we not planning our communications response now, before the next inevitable crisis strikes? Instead, we reinvent the wheel each time, on the fly, with limited impact.
The consequences for not making the link could be severe (lost opportunities), but those for making false links between global warming and disasters, minimal. ‘Just jump in and attribute’, the report seems to say. Thus it advises:
There is no time for gathering thoughts or being cautious
The methods advocated are clear—emulate advertisers and marketers in ‘taking advantage of current events’, don’t be caught by surprise by disaster but instead meet and plan ahead, develop a ‘coordinated crisis response strategy internally’, and ‘get out of the gate quickly to set the tone of the coverage’. Making people afraid is alright:
“As long as you’re not trying to spread panic, or exaggerating the worst-case scenario, it’s fine to use some scary language to motivate people.”
As noted, the participants of the conference are some of the most prominent names in ‘climate science communication’ and advocacy in the United States and Canada. It would hardly be an exaggeration to assume that these individuals apply at least some of the principles laid out in their deliberations in their day-to-day work with the press and the public.
As this candid report shows, co-ordinated and large-scale media and advocacy efforts to link ’climate change’ with natural disasters occurs, because it has been decided beforehand that such connections have to be made. The blinding speed at which the linking is carried out, once again, is simply because there is a perceived need to make this link before competing explanations for the disaster can take hold.