Although the release of An Inconvenient Truth was hailed as a seminal moment for the climate movement—in language not dissimilar to that of environmentalists talking about the BP spill—in hindsight the documentary was a decidedly mixed blessing. “Most of the people who went to see that are what I’d call mainstream liberal Democrats,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “They liked Al Gore, they trusted Al Gore, they voted for Al Gore. For God’s sake, they were willing to plunk down good money to watch the guy do a slideshow.” The movie, in other words, persuaded the persuadable. But for those not interested in accepting climate-change science, the film set itself up as an easy scapegoat. “An Inconvenient Truth intensified the polarization, because Gore is fundamentally a politician, no matter how many hours he spends looking at sea-ice models,” says Revkin. “And that will always hamper his credibility with a portion of America.” In a January survey, Leiserowitz found that 53 percent of Americans didn’t trust Gore on global warming.
If you’re marketing a product, consumer irrationality can be very helpful; a confused consumer is an easily manipulated one. But while the original Earth Day is a triumph of modern branding—and corporate America has become expert at slapping the “green” label on its wares—environmentalists have struggled to come up with a successful formula for selling climate change. They still, for instance, aren’t even quite sure what to call it. Some prefer “global warming” since most people don’t like hot weather. Others like “climate change” on the grounds that higher temperatures won’t be the only dangerous outcome. Still others, like Gore, are partial to “climate crisis.” There’s even disagreement about the greenhouse analogy. Some environmentalists prefer the “blanket effect,” arguing that people are more familiar with blankets than greenhouses—only to face the counterargument that blankets are too warm and fuzzy.
A much bigger misstep has been to talk about climate change as an “environmental” problem. Leiserowitz, who has been conducting a series of surveys on Americans’ attitudes about climate change since 2002, has found that their most frequent association upon hearing the words “global warming” is “melting ice,” followed by “rising temperatures,” and then “impacts on nonhuman nature,” such as polar bears. “People overwhelmingly say melting ice is a very bad thing,” he explains. “The problem is that hardly any Americans live next to a melting glacier. It just reinforces the idea that the consequences are very distant.”
“The fact that the issue has been framed as an environmental issue instead of a human-well-being issue is fundamentally problematic,” says Ed Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. “It needs to be portrayed as something that’s going to harm us and our loved ones, because that’s the kind of thing we respond to.”
Even before the brown pelican became the iconic image of the Deepwater explosion, the polar bear’s reign as the climate movement’s mascot was coming to an end. “The child with the inhaler or the worker in Ohio that doesn’t have a job or the mom filling up her car with $4-a-gallon gas—those are more effective symbols of what the future holds if we don’t have change in our energy policies,” says Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. Late last year, a handful of former Iraq and Afghanistan vets established a group called Operation Free, which, with a partner group, VoteVets.org, is responsible for the most visceral climate-change ad in recent memory. Titled “Tough,” it features footage of American troop convoys in Iraq getting blown up by IEDs—some of which, the ad contends, are made in Iran—and then, over an image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an Iraq vet declares, “Every time oil goes up one dollar, Iran gets another one-and-a-half-billion dollars to use against us.”
A Marine scout sniper team leader who served two tours in Iraq, Matt Victoriano now spends many of his days driving around in Operation Free’s biodiesel bus to talk about clean energy and climate change—at least until he finds out whether he’s been accepted into the Special Forces. “Mission after mission when I was in Iraq, I was guarding supply routes so that our fuel could get to our forward operating bases,” he told a small crowd in a parking lot in Greenville, South Carolina, one recent morning. “And it dawned on me later that we can’t defeat the terrorists, we can’t defend the country, and we can’t protect our own citizens with our energy policy as it exists today.”
“Almost everyone gets the message,” he said earlier, as the bus rolled through Virginia. Victoriano, who is slight with dark brown eyes and speaks in clipped sentences, had four days’ growth of beard and Oakleys perched atop his head. He looked less like a new environmentalist than an old sniper, and as he talked about the climate movement, he expressed frustration about some of his environmental allies. “One guy who was working for an environmental group wanted everybody to show up and make T-shirts, paint T-shirts, and mail them to a Senate office,” he recalled about one of the stops the Operation Free bus had made. “No, I don’t do that. It’s useless.” He preferred harder-hitting messages, like the “Tough” ad. “When I saw that I said, ‘It’s about time!’ Everybody likes to pussyfoot around this shit. That ad throws it right in your face.”