In the world of environmental communication, we are learning as we go. For years, we thought facts and outrage changed minds in ways we now know they don’t. We need to explore reliable new ways to speak, listen, and connect in the face of environmental disinformation and polarization.
For that we need ongoing research that helps educate us as it explores and advances the principles of effective science communication and highlights the harms of anti-environmentalism.
My own journey from corporate PR consultant to co-founder of a new media website investigating climate change disinformation was eye-opening. We launched DeSmogBlog in January 2006 to “clear up the PR pollution that clouds climate science.” We wrote about Darth Vader PR campaigns in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK, largely funded by the coal and oil industries. Finding myself in the midst of a nasty international dispute about the climate crisis, I realized the strategies used to mislead people with anti-science propaganda and anti-environmentalism are much more developed and robust than those used to educate people about science and the environment.
My interest in environmental disinformation started in 2003 when I was invited to join the board of the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada’s best-known science-based environmental organization. Consultants at my public relations firm thought accepting would be a mistake. They questioned the wisdom of associating with environmental activists. We worked for the establishment. Environmentalists make the establishment nervous.
Suzuki Foundation board members had concerns of their own. Wasn’t public relations spin part of the problem? Wasn’t it responsible for much of the public confusion? It’s hard to argue with that. Public relations does have its “dark side.” Without bad actors manipulating public opinion, our path toward solutions would be quicker: We’d see more light, less heat.
Even though I owned a highly successful PR shop in Vancouver, I didn’t see myself as part of that dark side. But I can see why some Suzuki board members might disagree: We represented the establishment on difficult public issues, including the environment: governments, hospitals, universities, big business (especially real estate development), banks, biotech, forestry, mining, oil and gas, and even the cruise ship business.
When I accepted the appointment, I didn’t know a lot about the environmental challenges the world was facing. But when I join a board, I read my board package. I attend board meetings. I listen to briefings and read reports.
When Al Gore came to a board dinner in the spring of 2007, I paid attention. And given chances to talk to famous scientists about climate disruption, I jumped.
Two pieces of writing around that time upended my worldview: a New Yorker series called ‘The Climate of Man’ by Elizabeth Kolbert, which in 2006 became a best-selling book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe; and Boiling Point in 2004 by former Boston Globe reporter Ross Gelbspan. These books opened my eyes to how serious the climate crisis is.
Over time, I realized that environmentalists are not crazy or even radicals. They’re very often telling the truth: Humans are rapidly destroying the oceans, driving record levels of species to extinction, and dangerously overheating the climate. Environmental collapse isn’t just a future risk. It is well underway.