Genevieve Guenther, Founder of End Climate Silence
We often say that working for a livable future on this planet is going to require all hands on deck, and that everyone has skills to contribute to the massive transition and changes that must lie ahead. Someone who embodies this very idea is Doctor Genevieve Guenther, who as a former Shakespeare and renaissance literature scholar, is now using her extensive knowledge of language, rhetoric, and the power of communication to provide tools to strengthen how we talk about the climate crisis.
In 2018, she founded End Climate Silence, an organization dedicated to push the media to connect news stories about extreme weather and climate impacts directly to the climate crisis and its causes. For too long, the coverage has been silent about climate science, especially when it comes to already reported stories that are undoubtedly connected to climate. Dr. Guenther is also an affiliate faculty member at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York.
In this episode of the podcast, we talk with Genevieve about what drove her to become active in the climate space, using literature to inform stronger climate communications, and why we need to hold the media accountable when it comes to this crisis, the greatest challenge of our time.
Below is a transcript of the podcast, edited and trimmed for clarity and brevity.
Maria Virginia Olano (MVO): I’m so glad that you could be on and I’m so excited to be talking with you today. I must say I’m a huge fan of your Twitter feed, I think that’s how I first came across your work.
Genevieve Guenther, PhD (GG): Thank you so much! Well, thank you for asking me to be on, it’s wonderful and an honor to be here! I’m glad you enjoy my Twitter, it’s definitely become a community for me. My background is in English literature, in Shakespeare studies so most of the people I’ve met and who are working on climate change I’ve met through Twitter, so you know it’s been a real life line for me to find other people in the climate movement.
MVO: Absolutely! It’s a funny thing because for a really long time I was very reluctant to even go on Twitter. It felt just maybe a little overwhelming in a sense and you know with the fast pace and a lot of the negativity. I fully agree, even through this year, finding community and just a way to to express opinions and understand that other people are going through very similar things that we are I think is a super positive and wonderful side of social media.
GG: I really agree. The climate scientists on twitter have been so generous and taught me so much about the issue, and I’ve learned a lot from other activists. For me, it’s been a tremendous resource. I recommend it to everybody who’s interested in climate change to start following climate scientists, climate organizations, and climate journalists, and NY Times Climate, and take it from there.
MVO: We’ll definitely get into some of that later on, but I first wanted to ask you how you’re doing? How has this year been for you and how are you holding up?
GG: I’m very, very tired, obviously. I’m a Mom to a ten year old, whose school has gone remote. Whatever domestic labor I had before the pandemic has been quadrupled, and my husband has done a lot of it too, but it makes it challenging. The news about the breakdown of our climate and the things that are already starting to happen to people all over the world is really hard to absorb — it fills me with grief and it fills me rage to see the entire west coast on fire and have the president of our country claim ‘It’s going to get cooler, you just watch.’
Luckily enough, I am someone who is motivated by anger. The outrage that I feel towards these people who are so wantonly destroying the possibility of life on our miraculous planet actually keeps me working hard and keeps me going. But, you know, the political situation is also anxiety-producing. Our election is coming up, and the evening of this recording is going to be the first presidential debate and we know that Chris [Wallace] is not planning to ask any questions about climate change. To me, this feels completely insane, psychopathic levels of denial, psychological and social and institutional [denial] about the crisis that we’re facing because we have so limited time to decarbonize our economies and try to halt global warming at a relatively safe level.
It’s really an onslaught of things that are infuriating and things that are terrifying, and it’s hard to have the endurance for that, but you must. At least I feel like I must, because I feel like fighting against it is actually a way to prove that, on some level, human beings must be good and that we do have hope that, in fighting, something might happen even if we cant see what it might be at this moment. Even though it’s exhausting, it’s also the thing that keeps me going, it’s where I get my commitment and my sense of endurance.
Doctor Genevieve Guenther, who as a former Shakespeare and renaissance literature scholar, is now using her extensive knowledge of language, rhetoric, and the power of communication to provide tools to strengthen how we talk about the climate crisis. It was the first time in 12 years that presidential debates asked a question about the climate crisis, according to analysis from Climate Power 2020.
MVO: Right, absolutely. I think what you’re saying is this overwhelming sense of dissonance that a lot of us who work in this space, or who are just concerned about the state of the climate and the livability of the future feel. It’s this idea that we see it, we read it, and we’re quite literally seeing the world on fire, and then we turn on the news and we’re talking about something that’s not that. Or we are preparing for a presidential debate and campaigns and this is happening — moderators not agreeing to include the biggest crisis afronting us, ever. It’s something quite difficult to square. You mentioned a little that this is what’s giving you strength and you’re powered by anger, but how do you think your approach to work has changed this year and with everything that’s been going on?
GG: Well, I don’t really think my approach has changed. I’ve always worked at home, the writing that I do, I do at home in my office and much of that has stayed the same. Much of my activism has been in the digital space — reaching out to journalists, editors, anchors, and producers through social media, but also through email and over the phone. I think I’ve had a grand total of four or five in-person meetings with people who work in media who are trying to move to covering the climate with the urgency it deserves.
For me, my daily life hasn’t really changed that much except for the fact that I’m interrupted dozens of times a day by one minor domestic crises after another. Even for a hug — which I welcome — but I’m not someone with a terrific working memory. If I’m in the middle of a thought and my son comes in for a hug, it’s wonderful to give him a hug, but then very often I turn back to my text and not remember what I was about to say. My friends tell me I should just close and lock the door, but I’ve never been able to do that.
So that’s challenging, but a minor challenge considering the whole range of things people are faced with during the pandemic, ongoing economic crisis, and the climate crisis. For me, I don’t think my daily routine has changed that much. Just the intensity of my feelings and the urgency I feel in trying to move the needle a little but towards a culture that is less dissonant, and understands the magnitude of the climate crisis, and how little time we have to mobilize everyone to solve it. It’s more of the same, but more of the same intensified.
MVO: This year has been an adjustment for all of us, but whenever I talk with or think about working parents at this moment, juggling family life, education, and everything else that comes along with raising other human beings, it just seems so much more overwhelming. Hats off to you, and everyone else out there doing this and doing it so gracefully and wonderfully.
I wanted to go back and talk about your background, because you just mentioned that your background is in literature. That’s what you got your PhD in and what you studied, so how did the jump happen from that area of study into climate communication and climate work? Was there a particular moment that made a click for you or how did that transition come about in your life for you?
GG: Well, I always imagined myself as someone who accepted that climate change was real. I saw Vice President Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and I did not contest it, I accepted it, but I always put climate change on the backburner. It seemed distant and not at all personal. But after I had a child, that really started to shift for me.
While I was on maternity leave, I had a lot more time to read the paper and I sort of read all the way down to science journalism and that section of the papers I was reading. Everytime I read an article about the climate crisis, for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was kind of an anxious mother. I’m an only child so I never had younger siblings, I was the first of my friend group to have a baby, and I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing. I wanted to protect this little being that I brought on this planet and do the best for him that I could, and somehow seeing these articles about this planetary emergency that was unfolding in real time really struck me. Especially because this date, 2100, very often science has said that if we don’t bring our emissions to net-zero by a certain date, then we will achieve this much warming by 2100 — it’s this benchmark that scientists tend to use to discuss projected effects of global warming. My son was born in 2010, which means his life is going to play out over the 21st century. For him, 2100 — if he’s lucky, knock on wood — will be around the end of his life. All of these horrific projections that I read about in these articles, I realized, would be happening over his lifetime.
All of a sudden the climate crisis became very personal to me, and I started to feel directly responsible to do what I could, bring my training and my talents, such as they are, to bear on this crisis. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I did have a sense, almost right away, that I was going to work on climate communication. From my perspective, climate communication seemed to be coming out of a sociological approach to understand how people make choices. I didn’t see a lot of literary criticism being brought to bear on the problem. For example, in classical rhetoric — which is part of my background because my degree is in renaissance literature and I’m a Shakespeare scholar by training, and of course all these writers in the English Renaissance looked back to classic rhetoricians, so I had to read all that stuff too. For example, one of these principles in classical rhetoric that helped animate Shakespeare’s language and some of the greatest literature in human history, is this principle called enargeia, which is a Greek term that means energy or vividness or liveness. It’s about the capacity of language to produce images in our imagination and produce emotions in response to these images, and then through those emotions, desires and aversion to different kinds of behavior. It seemed to me that, even when climate change was placed in these frames, as they’re called in sociology — like the health frame, what is climate change going to do to our health, or the faith frame, how do people of faith understand stewardship of our planet — to me I felt like there wasn’t enough literary enargeia in the climate communications I was seeing.
I thought a lot about this, but nobody in the humanities was really talking about the problem in those terms. They were interested in literature through the lens of the anthropocene, which sort of became a historical period in environmental humanities. Climate communication experts were often just doing polling and research and focus groups, and not really thinking about it in terms of literary terms so I didn’t know what I was going to do. I started reading the literature on communication. I read a lot of books on climate science and took an online climate science course through the EdX platform — which is really this brilliant thing where you can take college-level courses for free for certificates. I even did the climate reality training that Al Gore offers through his Climate Reality Project, where civilians are trained to go into their communities and give climate communication talks and try to raise awareness in their local communities.
But I didn’t really see my way forward until 2017, so quite a long time after I started thinking about these issues. In 2017, the New York Times hired a columnist named Bret Stephens, who has been on record as a really inveterate climate denier and claimed that climate science was a kind of a religion that asked us to have faith in something that was false. I was so horrified that the New York Times, which was the institution that I assumed was the mouthpiece for the reality community or at least the paper of record, I was so appalled that they thought climate denial was still legitimate political commentary in 2017 that I started a petition to try to get them to rescind their offer to Stephens. So much of the political project, I think, of getting climate policy passed is to take the social license away from climate deniers and to take social license away from fossil fuel companies, and to help everyone understand that these people are espousing ideas that are going to lead to the deaths of millions if not billions.
The anthropocene refers to the current geological era. Humans have had such a significant influence on the planets natural systems that we’ve greatly altered ecologic and geologic processes, hence the use of the “anthro” prefix to describe the age. Read more.
I tried to get Bret Stephens fired, essentially. The petition that I wrote took off like wildfire, so to speak. It was just before the March for Science in D.C. and then the Climate March the week after and I went down and single handedly handed out xeroxed flyers about the petition to college sustainability groups and asked them to share in their networks. Then the campaigner of Change.org, which was the platform I used, reached out to me and said ‘this is really going somewhere, but you need to be on Twitter to promote it.’ Like you, I had a real aversion to Twitter ironically enough. I didn’t understand the format, I didn’t understand who was on there, I didn’t want any part of it. I was a Shakespeare scholar, a lit-ite, I didn’t even have a TV at home! I was not into this whole thing at all, but she insisted and she said ‘this is how the NY Times is going to see the position because most journalists and editors are on Twitter and this is how they talk to each other.’
Read Genevieve’s petition that calls for Stephens dismissal from the New York Times, which amassed over 40,000 signatures.
So, I went on Twitter to promote the petition and, in the process of doing so, became connected to some climate scientists who had done their own open letter begging The Times to not hire Stevens because he was espousing climate denial. We didn’t exactly get Bret Stevens fired, but we did shake up some of the staff at the opinion page, and I think also we put The Times on notice that the day that climate denial was going to be considered legitimate was coming to an end. In any case, what happened to me personally was that I became connected to these climate scientists, who took me under their wing, answered questions, and started retweeting me and talking to me on Twitter. I started to feel like I had a community there, and that built over the next years.
David Wallace-Well’s article, and later book, has been largely criticized as being “alarmist” in the way he talks about the impacts of the climate crisis. Read more.
At one point, climate scientists were not very happy with a journalist named David Wallace-Wells, who wrote this article, which became a best-selling book, called The Uninhabitable Earth. They thought that what he was doing was exaggerating what the science was saying because he was using all these literary techniques — like hyperbole, compression, vivid metaphors — to talk about all these worst-case scenarios. Of course this was cat-nip to me, so I jumped into this debate and wrote some blog posts about how it’s really important that writers and literary people should be allowed to use their techniques to communicate the climate crisis. This is not simply a science problem anymore, it’s an everything problem, so everyone has a right to talk about it in the way they’re trained to do so as long as they’re not explicitly lying.
In defending David Wallace-Wells, of course who didn’t ask me to do any of this and didn’t know me from Adam, I became more connected with some of the climate journalists. In the meantime, I started to work on a book about the language of climate change using my expertise as someone who understands how literary techniques are used politically, and understands how language resonates across the social sphere, and in the media, to produce certain effects. But then, finally, in 2018, I also founded an organization called End Climate Silence after listening to NPR one morning for three hours and hearing multiple stories clearly about climate change. One about the droughts in the West, which were already a problem years ago; one about the floods in Japan that year that displaced, I think, 3 million people; and then one about self-driving cars, which failed to mention that we need to electrify our transportation system as soon as possible. These three stories were on NPR, which, again, is considered a mouthpiece for reality based communities, but the announcers who were reporting these stories did not even mention climate change.
It was so surreal and disturbing to listen to that kind of performance, of climate silence or climate denial as if climate change weren’t happening, that I went home and I wrote a thread about it. The thread went viral, and Emily Atkin — a climate journalist who, at that time, was at The New Republic but now writes her own newsletter called HEATED, which everyone should subscribe to — anyway Emily Atkin picked up the issue and it sort of inspired a conversation around journalists of all varieties about climate communications in the media sphere, and why the television doesn’t do segments on climate breakdown. In that process, I realized that what I thought journalists and the news media more broadly should do is stop thinking about climate change as a science or as an environment story, and start understanding it as the context and agent of stories they were already reporting every day. To me, I felt that this paradigm shift was so necessary that I founded this little organization with a mission to get news media to connect climate change to stories they’re already telling about its causes and effects.
I’ve been working on that since 2018. I think we had a certain degree of success in our activism directed at print journalists because I think print journalists are very conscious of what their peers think of them. They’re very open to editorial notes, which I am pretty good at giving because I’m used to grading papers as an english professor. The New York branch of Extinction Rebellion also did a few actions targeting the NY Times, which a lot of various years people rolled their eyes at because they thought ‘well the NY Times has a climate desk, why should there be activism directed towards them?’ But I do think that not only does the NY Times have a climate desk that is really unsurpassed in the kind of journalism they’re bringing to bear on this crisis, but they also, I’ve noticed, increasingly have their journalists on other beats bring climate change into the stories they’re telling — in the world section, politics section, or other sections of the newspaper. Once the NY Times started to move on that, other print outlets also started to mention climate change in stories that were not explicitly about climate change.
Once that happened, I started focusing on broadcast news. In fact, I didn’t have any success in that regard at all because the broadcast news doesn’t care one whit what their viewers think, or what Twitter thinks, and certainly not what activists think. They only care what their advertisers think, and they were under the impression that climate change was a ratings killer because it’s a bummer and people have it on the backburner. But, I was seeing so many polls showing that climate change is becoming an increasing concern for American voters, not just Democrats who always have climate change always in their top one or two concerns now in most national polls, but also around Republicans. Younger republicans especially, which of course is the demographic advertisers are most keen to reach.
Emily Atkin’s HEATED newsletter is for people who are pissed off about climate change, and provides in-depth reporting on the latest developments relating to the climate movement, fossil fuels, and politics. Learn more.
We at End Climate Silence did our own polling to see if people really did or did not want to see stories about climate change on the television news. And it turns out that a plurality of Americans follow climate change very closely — 38% follow climate change closely in the news. A majority of Americans pretty closely, and overwhelming majorities — 76% — think that if there is a connection between extreme weather and climate change, that the broadcast media should absolutely report it. Also, majorities of republicans, over 60%, agree that if there is a connection between extreme weather and climate change, the news should cover it. Finally, majorities of Americans — 58% — say they would be more likely to watch a news program that covered climate change more frequently.
Our polling came out, and I had an op-ed about this in The Boston Globe. A week later, we replicated this poll with Data for Progress and the numbers were almost entirely identical, it was really quite uncanny. Then a week after that, Yale University and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication, Vice News, and Covering Climate Now — another initiative that is partnering with newsrooms to get climate stories in the news — did more polling. Their data overwhelmingly showed that Americans want climate change news, for example, 76% of Americans want to know what the presidential candidates are going to do in response to global warming and they want to hear about those plans in the news.
It seems like this idea that people aren’t interested in climate change news is out of date. In fact, not delivering the kind of content to viewers that viewers want and thereby, indirectly not serving their advertisers in the way they want to be served. Now our approach with the television stations is to offer a carrot or show that there is a desire and to try to convince them they should be selling a better product, and no longer trying to morally shame them into the right thing because they’re absolutely shameless.
Anyways, so that’s the whole narrative of how I ended up here talking to you today.
“Americans want climate change news. Media should give it to them.” Read Dr. Guenther’s op-ed in The Boston Globe here.
MVO: Genevieve, this is so fascinating. One of the things that jumps out about your story to me is that we often say and hear that we really need everyone. No matter your expertise, your background, we need you. This transition and this transformation is going to take all of us, with myriad levels of expertise, but you quite literally embody that. I mean it. You are a scholar of renaissance literature, right, who saw this problem and quite literally sat down and said ‘how can my expertise be used here’ — which is a leap many people wouldn’t even be able to make.
But your ability — and we’ll be sure to link to your media and blog posts because I was reading in prep for them and they’re really fascinating — is brilliant to be able to watch your story and how this happened and how you’re not contributing in such invaluable ways into this discourse. I’m someone who is super interested in climate communications, I actually did my dissertation for my masters in specifically climate communications and what we’ve gotten wrong and the huge opportunities that we have to change that. It’s been a topic that I’ve been fascinated by, and reading your takes, most specifically the heroic narrative and how you bridge the renaissance literature into what we can learn to tell climate stories now. It’s so brilliant and fresh.
Do you mind talking about how you’re currently applying your training and expertise into finding a niche within this crisis and how you can best contribute to move the needle forward?
GG: I do formal research into climate communications, and it’s a little idiosyncratic because it’s highly interdisciplinary. I will bring in literary theory, but also clinical psychology and sociology, to come up with proposals for communicators about how they can best communicate the crisis. Not only to educate people, but also to inspire them to bring their own talents to the climate movement and to make the biggest tent possible so we can put a ton of political officials on our elected officials and get them to lead this transition. As we know, this is a systemic issue that will take massive private and public partnerships in order to rebuild the economy that will allow us to have a future.
For example, you talked about these Medium posts that you read from a few years ago. The one about what renaissance literature tells us about climate change communication is actually a paper I gave at the AGU (American Geophysical Union) annual meeting in 2017. It argues that the structure of the narrative that climate communicators had been using to date was counterproductive because the structure of the narrative is fundamentally a comedic structure. Which is to say that you present a situation and then the situation goes awry, and then at the end there is some sort of resolution to the situation. It’s the typical ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back at the end.’ Very often climate communication will say here is this problem, and here is what’s going to happen if we don’t solve this problem, but here is why we can have hope. Then it will list all the technical solutions that enable us to decarbonize if we gather the political will.
That is structure, ending your communication with hope, actually is counterproductive to arguing because it allows people to feel resolved. It allows them to resolve the uncomfortable emotions that your story is generating, and allows them to feel like things are going to turn out alright in the end and displaces the agency of saving our planet to technology and machines instead of inspiring them to take responsibility to act civically and politically to generate the change themselves. What I’m trying to suggest that communicators do, instead of using this comedic structure, I’m trying to suggest they think of epic literature as their model. What you do is you say, for example, the archetypal epic for renaissance writers was the Aeneid. The Aeneid is this story in which Aeneias, who has been fighting at the resolution of the Trojan war, sails through the Mediterranean and founding Rome. It’s about coming from the end of one civilization, going through all these trials, and overcoming all these failures in order to found another civilization. What you need in those narratives is you need a clear antagonist or a series of antagonists, and, God knows we have those in the climate space. We have the fossil fuel industry, utilities, lobbyists, politicians, and people in the media who are denying the problem, so we have these clear antagonists who need to overcome in order for us to found a new world based on economies that run on safe energy. To participate in this kind of epic narrative, you need to find qualities in yourself that will allow you to endure the fear of reading stories about climate change, the fear about thinking about what’s going to happen to you and your children, the grief that you may feel, all these negative emotions you need a way of coping with them but there is this stoic, heroic, but also communitarian subjectivity that these narratives construct, where you continue to do your duty because the other people your with expect it of you, and because you feel called to do it. And this is what I think communicators should really try to inspire in people, not just the reassurance that there is hope because solar panels are now cheaper. That allows you to displace the solving of the problem onto the technocrats. No. This is a life or death political struggle, and every single one of us needs to find it in ourselves to take it on and contribute to solving it in any way we can, to the best of our ability, according to whatever talents we’ve been given and whatever capacity we have because of our social structured position to contribute to the movement. That’s the argument I make in that paper.
Read Genevieve’s blog post, “What Renaissance Literary Theory Tells Us about Climate Communication.”
MVO: What I take away from that so much, and it’s something that comes up a lot is ‘what gives you hope’ or ‘what makes you hopeful.’ In previous episodes, and last season specifically, we talked a lot about this. It’s the idea that it is not hope itself, it is the agency that we each have to work for that hopefulness. It also reminds me of a piece by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, which I’m sure you’ve been familiar with and the releasing of her book just recently, she wrote a piece pretty much saying’“f*** hope.’ It’s about the work that we have to put in order to have a livable future, versus the hope that you think of outside yourself and just living there as a passive way that you don’t have to get involved in. So I think it’s absolutely brilliant and fascinating.
I wonder if you could tell us how you are now applying into your work with broadcast journalism or print media — I think we’ve seen a huge change. Just a couple weeks back on the very front page of the NY Times and Washington Post with the wildfires is something we’re not used to seeing just a few years back. Where do you see the biggest windows of opportunity to continue on this path to change the narratives?
GG: Well, I think that — with the release of these polls showing that American voters really do want to hear about climate change in the news — as long as we keep these polls in front of the faces of producers and executives at the television stations, and as long as the polls are born out by their own internal analytics of their own ratings, we are going to continue to see a shift. I know the week after my Boston Globe op-ed came out, there were nine segments about climate change in the primetime broadcast shows Network and CNN, which is absolutely unprecedented. Granted, it was also the week that President Trump went California and explicitly denied climate change, again, and he’s packing NOAA with climate deniers. There was a lot going on, but it’s also the case that we would not have even seen that a year ago. Hopefully their own analytics from those segments bear out the polling.
I know that people in Europe are very interested in replicating these polls, starting in the U.K. and then going through Europe, and I’m going to be partnering with them to do that. It seems, from what I’ve seen on Twitter and conversations with fellow activists, that Greta Thunberg is getting interested in the problem of climate change and the media. She’s coming to see, which I agree with, this is the only thing that has a chance of raising awareness enough to generate this mass movement that will allow us to put a countervailing political force on our politics that hopefully will be more stronger than the force of the fossil fuel industry and sort of entrenched inertia in business as usual. She’s started to get interested in climate change and the media, and as soon as she gets interested in something, then there is going to be a massive transformation because she’s an extremely talented activist that’s inspired the world.
The way I think of my work mostly is tapping at a wall with a little hammer, and trying to make a crack in the wall to let the light in. And hopefully making it big enough that, low, the wall crumbles and then all of a sudden the sun can stream across the landscape entirely. That’s kind of a clumsy metaphor.
MVO: No, I like that a lot!
GG: For me, I don’t necessarily have goals that I strive for. My goal is to work as hard as I can on this everyday and do my best, so that at the end of the day I can feel I did my best and did everything I could to leave my son a habitable planet — for all children really. I try not to think about the outcomes too hard because that’s a way to sort of make yourself depressed and exhausted, I just focus on what I can control, control my own behavior, and work as hard as I can.
MVO: That’s the best we can all do and hope for.
MVO: It’s kind of funny because we do see progress in some ways, but then you turn around and there’s another wildfire or another hurricane or another climate denier. SO it’s kind of this tug and pull, and moving forward and understanding that in the aggregate, we are moving in the right direction, while at the same time reckoning with the fact that we don’t have the time or bandwidth to spare. That’s something that a lot of activists, scientists, and even journalists have to grapple with and recognize. You alluded a little to this, but I wanted to talk more about what we’re hoping for. Communication is not a means in itself, it’s a means to an end. In an ideal world that we get this right, and we understand that every story is somewhat a climate story, that everyone cares about this issue but some people just haven’t realized it yet. What, in your view, is that end goal of a critical mass who understands this, but beyond that — what is beyond understanding towards engagement and, ultimately, transformation?
GG: The first step would be to have the news media covering this crisis with the urgency it deserves. Bringing climate change into every story where it appears, actually explicitly connecting the dots with what they’re reporting and the climate breakdown that we’re already beginning to see. But also, the media repeatedly explaining that we have less than two decades to bring our global emissions down to net-zero, and even then we would have to suck billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere to even have a chance to halt warming at 1.5℃. Communicating the information over and over and over and over so that people understand what we’re facing, and explaining that what we’re seeing in California is not an anomaly, it’s not something that’s going to happen and not happen again.
2020 is the coolest year, on aggregate, that we are going to ever see again in any of our lifetimes. Explaining what our children are facing, in a really local and personal way, explaining the science behind that, is not adequate. People don’t process outside of their tribal commitments, outside of their psychological complexes, there’s a lot more work to be done in order for people to accept this information and turn that into action. That kind of media communication is the first step.
In addition, you take social license away from climate denial so that it is as shameful to be a climate denier as it is to be a Nazi. The that that might sound hyperbolic, still, means that we’re not where we need to be, because it should be as shameful to be a climate denier as it is to be a Nazi. To take social license away from the fossil fuel industry, and also to make it shameful to perform your consumption of fossil fuels. All of instagram is about these wonderful travel experiences that these influencers go on and it’s a way of celebrating the fossil fuel economy without shame, and it needs to end. So those things need to happen, but what really needs to happen is people need to put sustained, political pressure on elected officials. With civil disobedience, with ongoing strikes — not one or two days a year, but ongoing strikes — civil disobedience, mass movements that force our governments to lead the transition to a net-zero economy. It needs to be as pressing and inescapable as the COVID pandemic is now, because even the pandemic right now is so polarized that fully 40% of the U.S. is not properly masking up because they think that threat is exaggerated by science for political purposes.
We’re faced with tremendous opposition. There is a lot of work to do. This is the thing, we don’t know how social tipping points really work. If you look at a lily pond, for example, and that lily pond has one lily on it. Within 30 days, that pond is going to be entirely covered in lily pads and everyday the number of lily pads is going to double. On Day 29, the pond is only going to feel half full, it’s only at the last very moment that the pond is full and right until the last moment you’re only going to see that you’re halfway there. What we have to do is get up everyday, move the needle in whatever way we’ve taken on to do it for ourselves, in our communities, in our institutions, and in our politics. But we just have to do that work over and over, and have faith that living according to those values. And working out of our love for our children, this planet, whatever it is that makes us feel grateful to be alive and work towards that everyday, the tipping point is going to come. It’s not going to come if we don’t do that, so we just have to keep trying, keep working, keep recruiting people as much as you can, and just keep talking about climate change with your friends, your acquaintances, your coworkers, in every scenario because the thing that enables denial to flourish is climate silence — this is why we need to end climate silence above all.
MVO: That was absolutely brilliant, and I think you’re right. Everything you’re saying is resonating so much because we only have that. We only have where we are, how we are, and with our skill set and then the choice to make what we are going to do to contribute to the change we know needs to happen.
GG: That’s exactly right.
MVO: I’d love for you to give us a piece of advice or is there something you wish people could start doing immediately to change the ways they talk about the climate crisis.
For me, personally, it’s become a huge pet peeve when anyone talks about ‘saving the earth’ or ‘saving the planet’ because that’s never what it was about. It was quite literally about preserving the ability to keep life on Earth.
GG: Right! It’s about saving us.
MVO: Exactly. Is there something we can practically change almost immediately for anyone listening who wants to be a better communicator in service of this transformation?
GG: I have SO many pieces of advice, I could keep you here all day. I’m writing a book right now about the language of climate change, about how the way we’re thinking and talking about it is misrepresenting the problem, giving us an inaccurate picture in our imagination and killing our desires for solutions.
Let me just give you this advice. Stop saying I believe in climate change. Stop asking people if they believe in climate change. To use the verb ‘believe’ is to implicitly represent climate change as a fiction or a theological tenant. You believe in God or you believe in the Easter Bunny, you don’t know God or the Easter Bunny. You know that 2 + 2 = 4, you don’t believe in 2 + 2 = 4. This locution, ‘Donald Trump doesn’t believe in climate change’ or ‘Sir, do you believe in climate change?’ This locution actually seeds ground to the climate deniers, who say that climate change is fictional, who call themselves skeptics. It’s perfectly legitimate to be skeptical of belief, it’s not legitimate to be skeptical of an established truth. Don’t say ‘believe in,’ say ‘do you understand climate change?’ or ‘do you accept the reality of climate change?’ Some other verb that represents climate change as an established reality that you have to either to understand, accept, or do you have a plan to combat climate change. Anything except ‘believe’ that is one of my biggest pet peeves.
MVO: I fully share that. It’s funny how even well intentioned, well-meaning people trying to communicate don’t understand these potholes that we fall into that compound these issues of denial of science and the truth.
GG: That’s exactly right. The problem does not only lie with climate deniers explicitly manipulating language, the problem also lies with the fact that the language that advocates use often reinforces the message of climate deniers inadvertently. Then there are certain little words like ‘we’ — I have an article in slate on this, and it might turn out to be the preface of my book — but people say ‘we’ are causing climate change. On the face of it, that seems like a true statement because this round of climate change is caused by human activity and human beings are causing climate change. But that ‘we’ is an ideological fiction, which hides the fact that billions of people on this planet have absolutely no hand in causing climate change, and that there are millions of people on this planet trying to stop climate change by doing everything they can to end the fossil fuel era. Instead of thinking that ‘we’re doing this’ or ‘we’re causing climate change,’ we have to think about climate change as something that we are being prevented from undoing.
The way that our language represents climate change to us, the way it paints it in our imaginations, is so often inaccurate and so often misrepresents the problem, and misidentifies who the responsible parties are. I think we also need a kind of reset of our entire lexicon so we can move forward being really clear about what the problem is, who the antagonists are, and how much better things will be for all of us when we solve this problem.
MVO: I’m so grateful to have people like yourself doing the critical work to help us undo these issues and these biases that have been built up for so many decades of talking about this issue and politicizing this issue. The beauty also is, when I talk about these things or potholes, there’s a lightbulb that goes off for people where they’re like ‘oh, that makes so much sense, but I had never thought of it in that way.’ That’s kind of beautiful to me that those people are going to walk away and forward with a new understanding of how we also can be preventing it from compounding or getting worse just by the language that we use.
GG: That’s absolutely right. Ultimately, if you want to talk about climate change, but don’t think you know how? That’s fine! You don’t have to say the right thing either. Most of these pieces of advice I have are for professionals in the climate space or journalists, or people who communicate in the media sphere. For people who have taken this on yet, it doesn’t matter! Just talk about your feelings, your fears, just break the silence and bring it up. It’s awkward and it’s challenging, but that’s heroic to be the person in your social circle who’s sort of bringing up the thing that no one wants to talk about. That in itself is a form of heroism because it takes courage. Have the courage to talk about climate change. Don’t worry if you’re not doing it right there is no right way. Just get in there and say you’re worried about this or want to solve it, or you’re mad at Trump, or you feel conflicted about your vacations — let’s just talk about it!
MVO: Dr. Guenther I could literally speak to you for hours on end, I find your work and brain so fascinating and I’m so grateful for your time today. I know it’s coming to an end, but this episode is scheduled to air the week of the election — two days after the election.
Maybe in closing, is there anything, any thoughts for our future selves listening back to this on November 6th?
GG: I deeply fear that on November 6th, we are going to be in the midst of the election and we’re not going to have a resolution yet. I pray that election night will be a landslide for Joe Biden and we won’t have to continue to worry about the outcome of the voting or court decision or anything like that. I want to let everybody know that whatever the outcome of the election is or will be, your taking climate action is about who you are and how much you love being alive and the people in your family and community and this miraculous planet that we’ve somehow been given the gift to live on, so don’t let yourself feel despair. Please grieve, because grieving is the flip-side of your love. Grieve away if you have to, but don’t feel despair because this is about proving, everyday, there are people on this planet who live in love and not in greed, who live for the future and not for today, and who are your allies. We’re all in this community together, and you’re not alone.
MVO: That was so beautiful, and those words are such a gift. Thank you very much for everything that you do.
GG: Maria, thank you so much for speaking with me today. It was really good to talk to you.