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Conyers Davis

Arnold doesn’t care if you believe in climate change

Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Climate change is real, and so is global warming. You don’t need to convince me, Arnold, or millions of other environmentalists of that. But if we want the public -- and the policymakers they elect – to give a damn what should our focus be on? The answer is easy, the thing that makes everyone’s eyes burn, throats hurt, and noses run: Air pollution.

In the middle of the 2015 Paris Climate negotiations, Arnold Schwarzenegger issued this statement: “I don’t give a damn if you believe in climate change. I couldn’t care less if you’re concerned about temperatures rising or melting glaciers. It doesn’t matter to me which of us is right about the science.” 

Arnold hadn’t sold out to the oil companies or joined the flat earth society. No, he was making this point: It’s time for pro-environmental policymakers to overhaul their communications.

Communications focused on “climate change” and “global warming” language too often comes off as academic, rooted in the specifics of science that are outside most people’s frame of reference. As a result, rhetoric about “climate change” and “global warming” often fail to convince average people that dramatic action is necessary (which it is). If you want to watch people’s eyes glaze over, start talking about PM 2.5, melting ice caps, or 1.5 degree temperature rise. That just doesn’t resonate with most people, who are interested in how the here and now impacts them personally. 

Furthermore, talk of “global warming” gives climate deniers a rhetorical leg to stand on. Just check out twitter every time there’s a winter snow storm or the temperature dips; the deniers love asking the rhetorical question, “is this what global warming looks like?”

Climate change is real, and so is global warming. You don’t need to convince me, Arnold, or millions of other environmentalists of that. But if we want the public -- and the policymakers they elect – to give a damn what should our focus be on? The answer is easy, the thing that makes everyone’s eyes burn, throats hurt, and noses run: Air pollution. 

Climate change is caused by air pollution, whether it’s the pollution from factories, powerplants, freeways, campfires or any other carbon-emitting source. If you solve one, you will solve the other. But unlike climate change, air pollution is something that people can see and smell in their daily lives. It’s not an abstraction and, as such, it becomes a powerful rhetorical tool. Environmentalists would be smart to acknowledge this, and shift communications to a framework that emphasizes this universally disliked (and recognized) menace.

Once you make that switch, the OpEds, speeches and policies write themselves. The reasons to fight air pollution are clear, compelling, and well documented: 

In America, pollution kills an estimated 100,000 a year. Globally the number is exponentially larger. According to the World Health Organization over 7 million die annually from pollution.  That is more than triple the numbers who die from AIDS, malaria and tuberculous combined. 

Arnold was right in 2015, and he’s right now: It’s time to move beyond a discussion of whether people believe, or don’t, in the specifics of science -- and instead focus on the impact of pollution on their daily lives. Let’s fight climate change using a framework that’s right in front of the public’s nose.

Air pollution victims have faces, families and very compelling stories -- and environmentalists would be wise to highlight them. In a recent landmark ruling, British authorities concluded that pollution contributed to the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013. This made global news because it was an easy-to-understand story about a family hurt by pollution. Recognizing these victims is a meaningful way to make the impact of climate change real.

Pollution also has an outsized economic cost. In 2017 the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health estimated that the financial cost of pollution totals nearly $4.6 trillion per year. According to journalist John Vidal “pollution already costs some countries as much as 4 per cent of their GDP – a figure likely to increase because children are the worst affected and deaths across much of the world are set to double within thirty years.” Again, these numbers are compelling and speak to a major motivator: money. 

Finally, addressing air pollution is good for business. Since 1970 when the Clean Air Act came into effect the United States have invested approximately $65 billon in air pollution controls. Instead of destroying business and American competitiveness – as many critics argued it would – the U.S. has received roughly $1.5 trillion in benefits.  

Over the past 40 years the modern environmental movement could have made much greater progress if it had changed its strategies to frame these problems in ways that the public finds meaningful. Arnold was right in 2015, and he’s right now: It’s time to move beyond a discussion of whether people believe, or don’t, in the specifics of science -- and instead focus on the impact of pollution on their daily lives. Let’s fight climate change using a framework that’s right in front of the public’s nose.