Winning the War of Climate Communication. Is Greta Thunberg the Memetic Weapon we Needed?

Greta Thunberg

Who speaks on behalf of young people about climate? Greta Thunberg does. She is the embodiment of the concept that what matters in communication is not the message but the messenger. Only a believable messenger can pass a believable message. And she is believable: she has a direct stake on the issue, it is HER future she is defending, just as the future of the people of her age. She is defending her future from old people who think only of their immediate satisfaction. They are the virus destroying the planet, she is the cure.

Years ago, I think it was in the mid-1980s, I was berated at length and in colorful (to say the least) terms by a young lady in Berkeley for not having buckled her 4 years old daughter, a classmate of my son, while I was transporting her in my car. As partial justification for my unexcusable wickedness in that occasion, I can say that, as far as I can remember, at that time there was no mandatory seat belt law in California (and also that the car I drove at that time, a Dodge Dart, was so old that I think it didn’t have seat belts in the back seats!). But never mind that:  I was wrong and she was right.

The story of that day in Berkeley has come to my mind more than once in the debate on climate change. You see, today we tend to think as obvious that seat belts are saintly things that save lives. But it was not so obvious in the 1980s and in the 1970s: we have forgotten about that, but there was a strong debate on the matter with some people maintaining that there was no proof that seat belts actually saved lives. According to a 2006 article by John Adams, risk expert of the University College London, mandating the use of seat belts in 18 countries resulted in either no change or actually a net increase in road accident deaths.

Think about that using the eyes of those people who deny the validity of climate science: you could ask what proof do we have that seat belts make you safer? Of course, we can play as much as we like with crash tests using sophisticated dummies, but hey, those are just models!You know how these debates go over the Web, once they start, they never arrive at a conclusion. And nothing is done.

So, why do we wear seat belts but don’t do anything about climate change? It is because there are people like the lady who berated me in Berkeley who want everybody to wear seat belts. They are parents, siblings, spouses, they have a stake in the safety of the members of their families, they don’t care so much about subtleties, demonstrations, and statistics, they can see that if their child is belted she won’t smash into the windshield with her head in case of a collision. If you argue that they are wrong, they will say you are a monster (as I was told I was, that time in Berkeley) and they’ll be perfectly right. It is because these people have argued, pushed, and worked in favor of seat belts that today there are mandatory seat belts laws.

Now, about climate change: who is arguing about people’s safety? Mostly, scientists. And there lies the snag: scientists do not have a direct stake in the issue of climate. Most scientists, old or young, seem to be interested mostly in their carers. And if the climate situation is so bad as scientists say they are, why do they still take planes to attend their silly international meetings? Scientists are not here to save the planet: they are there to write papers, speak at conferences, teach boring formulas to their students, they are just boring people.

In practice, scientists are the worst possible messengers to pass the climate change message. Not surprisingly, they haven’t had too much success, as we all know. Imagine that if — that day in Berkeley — instead of a young woman berating me I had been facing a white-haired scientist showing me data and diagrams. I am a polite person, but I am sure I could have told him something not so polite, instead of the apologies I told to the mother of my son’s friend.

That’s the problem, and it can be solved only by a change of paradigm in the memetic struggle: We need to change the message, but more than that we need to change the messenger. And there we are: Greta Thunberg. You see the difference? She has a stake in the issue: it is her future that’s being jeopardized by old men, the future of her generation. She has a right to speak, she has a duty to speak, she has the force to speak, and she does that. And the message she carries is extremely strong. It is a meme that diffuses in the memesphere and even the dark forces of denial will have a hard time stopping it.

Of course, it is not enough to be young, to be intelligent, to be motivated to succeed in this task. The memetic war is no child’s play. It is a deadly struggle, even though, normally, only virtually so. But even a smart young lady as Greta Thumberg needs to be supported – in a certain way “weaponized.” And that’s what has been done by the people of “wedonthavetime.” She is not just a different messenger, she carries a different message: it is “I want you to panic” — it is a much powerful message than the edulcorated version carried by scientists (“see, folks, we don’t want to trouble you but, well, there might be a little problem…”).

Greta Thunberg is now an awesome memetic weapon to fight the battle against the dark forces of ignorance and of denial.

We still have a chance. 

How to neutralize Greta Thumberg. I think that today just the thought of Greta Thunberg scares the bejesus out of the people of the anti-science crowd but I am sure they are already thinking of strategies to fight her. So far, the best they could concoct has been to ignore her, but some kind of smear campaign is not unthinkable. It was done 50 years ago to silence Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring” by defining her a “histerical priestess of nature”. Already a few days ago, Ms. Angela Merkel hinted that Greta Thunberg is part of a hybrid warfare attack waged by the Russians against Europe: you can’t imagine what these evil Russians are capable of! And, of course, if Ms. Thunberg makes the smallest slip in one of her speech that can be twisted and packaged in order to make her look racist or anti-semitic, then she is dead in the water. But the most effective campaign against Greta Thunberg might come from her potential allies, people on “the left” who think she is not radical enough and that the very fact that she is helped by PR experts is an insult to the intelligence of humankind. Among this nefarious band, the deranged people belonging to the NTHE (near term human extinction) sect are the worse. They believe that we are going to go extinct soon anyway, so there is no need to do anything and we can continue to live as we did before and so Ms. Thunberg and her ilk should just stay quiet, go home, and die in silence. They are very vocal and could do real damage, fortunately, so far they are a tiny minority.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)

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