'Climate change': Too Big and Too Little

04/03/2007 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past Saturday evening I was on a panel on "communicating about climate change." As I was walking to the venue, I had the following mini-revelation: the problem with communication about climate change is that it's been too focused on climate change. The notion of climate change, and most of what we know about it, came to us from scientists. And it has remained a thoroughly scientized subject. Which is fine if you're a scientist, but not if you're trying to mobilize a large-scale shift in the way the world's people interact with each other and with the planet.

I put it like this: as a lever for creating social change, "climate change" is both too big and too little.

It's too big in the sense that it's difficult to rouse people behind the goal of stabilizing GHG levels in the atmosphere at no more than 450 ppm. That's an enormous, clinical, abstract notion. It does not stir the viscera. And it leaves most people paralyzed. How could you take the first step toward a goal like that?

Whereas, people understand what it means when you say, "make your community safer and more walkable. Encourage the local economy. Support local businesses and local farmers." People understand it when you say, "lobby your legislators to get XYZ bill passed, and vote for candidate X." Or, "stop any more dirty coal plants from being built." Or, "make our country safer by reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources." Or, "make sure new buildings in your community meet high sustainability standards." Etc. People need tangible, short- and mid-term goals and causes.

Luckily, virtually everything we need to do to fight climate change has other, more proximate benefits. So when you're trying to get people fired up in the near-term, focus on those benefits -- benefits they can understand and that they might witness in their lifetimes.

"Climate change" is also too small. Telling people to "fight climate change" is like a doctor telling a patient with an unhealthy lifestyle to "fight diabetes." Yeah, the patient needs to rid himself of diabetes, but what he really needs is to live a healthier lifestyle. The heating of the atmosphere is a symptom of what has become an unsustainable way of living, but it is only one symptom. There's also biodiversity loss, the end of cheap fossil-fuel energy, the death of the oceans, widespread income inequality, alienation and unhappiness among citizens of the developed world, resource conflicts in the developing world, etc. etc.

What we really need is to remake the way humanity lives on the world. We need a Second Industrial Revolution that produces more equitable distribution of resources, greater local and regional self-sufficiency, reduced terrorism, war, and conflict, and above all an immensely reduced ecological footprint.

That's the kind of charge that can inspire a generation. That's the kind of charge that lends itself to narrative and myth. That's a story a generation can tell about itself. "Fight climate change" is clinical, narrow, and negative. "Remake the world" is inspiring, encompassing, and positive.

In short, "climate change" is an inherently scientific notion, one that's too large to inspire concrete change and too small to frame a generational struggle.