In 2017, 65 percent of Americans believed that climate change was occurring and that it was caused by human activity. According to our latest Eco Pulse polling, that number is down to 55 percent. Now, what I regularly tell people about this seemingly distressing news is that the number of actual climate deniers — Americans who believe climate change isn’t occurring at all — stands at only 17 percent, right where it was in 2016.
I regularly say, "We need to stop focusing on whose fault it is. If your kid calls you and says he or she has just been in a car wreck, your first question is, ‘Are you OK?’ not, ‘Whose fault was it?’ So, in our messaging let’s just focus on the fact that there’s a widely acknowledged problem and we should all do something about it."
I do still think that’s the right approach. But as noted in my blog post a couple of weeks ago, I think those of us in the sustainability community have something to learn from the Disinformation Machine. And I’ve found myself pondering the question in the headline of this piece a lot.
To me, the QAnon conspiracy theory doesn’t even seem like a viable plot for a Hollywood blockbuster. Imagine the pitch to an A-list star: "So, half the politicians in Washington, and many in the entertainment industry, are leading a Satanic cult, kidnapping children and forcing them into a shadowy underworld of sex trafficking. These terrible villains sometimes kill the children to extract their adrenaline in order to make themselves younger and more powerful. You’re the president of the United States, recruited specifically to run for president so that you can destroy this evil plan. Many people in this terrifying cult will try to stop you — accusing you of courting foreign interference in your election, trying to impeach you, even throwing a pandemic your way. But you will not be stopped!"
I can see three things the QAnon story has going for it that we need to figure out in the land of sustainability communications.
Can’t you picture any star going, "Um, neat. And no." It just sounds too far-fetched, right? How could that possibly be a plausible story?
Of course, that’s how some people feel about climate change. As in, "Really? You expect me to believe in some unseen force that’s going to destroy life as we know it, and I’m supposed to give up fossil fuels and meat to save us all? Come on ..."
I can see three things the QAnon story has going for it that we need to figure out in the land of sustainability communications:
1. Save the children. That’s a QAnon rallying cry that looks to be pretty effective in pulling more mainstream moms into the fold. Most moms, myself included, are instinctively wired to protect children in peril. This is why it’s imperative that we stop talking about climate change as something that’s going to affect "future generations." Who the heck are those people? And how am I supposed to have personal feelings about a generation?
No, frame the message as "your children and grandchildren." Co-opt the idea of "save the children" to use it to move people to take action against climate change.
2. Evil/the Devil. I recently finished the seventh Harry Potter book with my daughter. If you’ve read it — or even just heard about it — you know the entire series is about Harry ultimately saving the wizarding world from Voldemort, the incarnation of evil. We get how awful Voldemort is, and we desperately want Harry to win. That same idea has been played out over and over in books, movies and even in country-building — Nazi Germany horrifyingly positioned an entire group of people as evil.
QAnon is doing the same thing (and many parallels have been drawn to anti-Semitic tropes). The trick, then, is how do we create an evil target to fight against to move people to action on climate change? Perhaps climate change itself is the evil? Perhaps it’s Big Oil? We need a villain to make our narrative more powerful.
3. Somebody people want a reason to hate. One thing I think is particularly nefarious and powerful about the QAnon narrative is that it holds up celebrities that many in America may want a reason to hate as perpetrators of the atrocities. It’s unpopular to hate Oprah Winfrey or the Pope. But say you actually don’t like them, for whatever reason. QAnon gives you a reason to justify your hate. And the whole Hillary Clinton "lock her up” thing that’s really old news? QAnon gives you a reason to bring it back and erase any lingering worries about the fact that Trump didn’t win the popular vote. "Who cares if she won the popular vote ... she’s evil!"
I don’t know who the equivalent is, but the "fight climate change" narrative needs more than a villain — we need a villain that people love to hate.