I’m guest teaching for my adviser’s Climate Policy Implications class while they are at a conference. Yesterday was the easier task, as the class watched most of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “11th Hour“. Like Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”, DiCaprio makes widespread use of catastrophic visuals in the first 2/3 of the film. I had discussions with classmates when I took this same class and others about the effects of these visuals. Filmmakers design them to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers, which occurs even if you know what the intent is. Beyond that intent, the images generate unintended consequences: viewers are left overwhelmed and feel helpless, which is the exact opposite reaction for which the film is likely designed.
The film contains spoken references to the same effect: “destroy nature”, “sick” and “infected” biosphere, “climate damage”, “Revenge of Nature”, “Nature has rights”, “nobody sees beauty”, “demise”, “destruction of civilization”, climate as a “victim”, “ecological crisis”, “brink”, “devastating”, and “environment ignored”. These phrases and analogies project a separation between humans and nature; they romanticize the mythologized purity of nature, where nothing bad ever happens until the evil of mankind is unleashed upon it. These concepts perpetuate the mindset that the movie tries to address and change. That’s the result of … science. As advocates of science, the interviewees in the film should support scientific results. But they ignore critical social science findings of psychological responses to framing and imagery. Why? Because they’re locked into a tribal mindset and don’t critically analyze their own belief system. All the while knocking the skeptics who don’t either. I stopped using catastrophic language once I learned about these important scientific results. The best I can do is advocate that these students do the same.
We didn’t finish watching the film during class, but the last handful of minutes we did watch did something few environmental-related films manage: stories of action and opportunity. Filmmakers and climate activists need to stuff their efforts with these pieces, not pieces of destruction and hopelessness. If you want to change the culture and mindset of society, you have to change your message.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the 11th Hour as well as this video: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492931/. I also want to talk to the class (mostly undergraduate seniors, a couple of graduate students) about the scope of GHG emissions. I’ve graded a few weeks’ worth of their homework essays and see clear parallels to the type of essays I wrote before I took additional graduate level science policy classes. As my last post stated, too many scientists and activists get caught up using shorthand terms they really don’t understand (I should know, I used to do it too). What does 400 ppm mean? 8.5 W/m^2? 2C warming? Many of my science policy classes required translating these shorthand terms to units we can more intuitively grasp: number of renewable power plants required to reduce emissions to targets by certain dates.
My hope is that resetting the frame might elicit a different kind of conversation that what they’ve had so far this semester. I also really enjoy talking about these topics with folks, so tomorrow should be fun.