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More Heat, Less Light

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“There are a lot of really talented lobbyists in D.C.,” says McKibben, “but they don’t have anything to work with. Senators know there isn’t that much behind them.” If this summer’s BP anger is to be channeled into a fundamental rewiring of how people think about the planet, environmentalists have to get them to think about it often and in unexpected, depoliticized places. To that end, Ed Maibach at George Mason is teaming up with the nonprofit group Climate Central to invade the local TV weather forecast, which most Americans recently reported trusting for information about global warming. This is the kind of statistic that makes climate scientists crazy. As does a recent poll suggesting that almost two-thirds of all TV meteorologists think there’s no scientific consensus on the subject. Still, since that’s where the message is getting across, Maibach set out to shape it, enlisting a Columbia, South Carolina, weatherman named Jim Gandy as his guinea pig.

Unlike some of his TV colleagues, Gandy is a believer; he was shocked a couple of years ago when a geology professor asked him if global warming was real. Next month, Gandy will begin dropping into his nightly weathercasts the first of a dozen 30-second climate-change segments he has produced with Climate Central. One will explain that while today about six June days in Columbia hit 95 degrees, the number will almost double by around 2050, “if we keep pumping heat-trapping pollution into our atmosphere.” Another will discuss the likely increase in the number of days that hit 101 degrees by likening them to a game of craps being played with loaded dice. “I don’t live in a red state. I live in a dark-red state,” he says. “If you can convince these people of global warming, you can convince anybody.”

Maibach hopes that within the next couple of years, the local news will be flooded with Jim Gandys, forcing viewers to integrate thinking about climate change into their daily routine. Other environmental groups are focusing on similar projects. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that making household decisions to install compact fluorescent lamps—rather than fight for political legislation—is, in the words of some critics, an “unstrategic use of virtue.” But recent neuroscience and behavioral-economics research suggest that changing people’s individual behavior may be the best way to grow a movement. To that end, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently presented what it calls a “behavioral wedge”—a list of fifteen fairly simple and affordable actions, from taking one fewer airline flight per year to eating poultry instead of red meat two days a week, that could reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent by 2020. McKibben’s 350.org is organizing global “work parties”—rather than political rallies—this October, during which people install solar panels on the roofs of their homes or dig community gardens in the neighborhoods. Later this summer, Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is planning to launch a program called Repower at Home that will focus on helping Americans create more energy-efficient homes. “The human brain is best attuned to deal with problems that are really close and really immediate,” says Keith Goodman, who’s in charge of the project. “This is designed to help us get over that action hurdle. By giving people tasks that are more urgent at the household level, we can build that momentum.”

A key task the project hopes to solve is the problem of public signaling. “One reason the Prius has been so successful is because it’s distinctive-looking,” says Goodman. “Prius owners brand themselves with it. But when you look at other things you can do, like get your home weatherized, that’s totally invisible. All those peer and social effects don’t happen.” Repower at Home plans to experiment with door stickers or yard flags, for example, to signal homes that have programmable thermostats. It’s also building a website where people can document their own energy-efficiency efforts. The goal is to make efficiency cool. “How do you make it aspirational?” asks Goodman. “We need to make people feel that unless their home is efficient, they can’t even have people over for dinner.”

On Thursday, June 17, John Kerry appeared before his fellow Democratic senators, who were gathered in the Capitol’s Mansfield Room for a caucus meeting, to make an impassioned plea for a comprehensive climate-and-energy bill. The centerpiece of his presentation was a short video that sought to answer the question Why Now? Since it was aimed at a bunch of politicians worried about reelection, there was the requisite mention of recent polling data that seem to show public support for legislation that limits greenhouse gases. But most of Kerry’s video featured the images—and corresponding messages—that environmentalists have been working so hard to associate with climate-change. There were pictures of oil-soaked birds and beaches, workers building wind turbines and installing solar panels, a kid with an inhaler, and even a brief shot of an unshaven Matt Victoriano with some other vets in Kerry’s office. The video ended with a replay of the “Tough” ad. There was nary a polar bear to be seen.


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