An Open Letter to Tim Cook: Think Different about Climate Change

In your commencement speech at Tulane University, you acknowledged to the newly graduated that your generation had failed theirs by not acting sooner to curb the devastating impacts of climate change. The burst of enthusiasm and media attention from youth activists has been encouraging; however, I think our generation (full disclosure: I am 9 years older) should assume responsibility for addressing this debacle.

While it would be terrific if Apple engineers created an app to drawdown CO2 from the atmosphere, we know that’s not likely. However, I’ve “thought different” about how you could make a difference.

But first this: It’s been said that we have the solutions to climate change but the only thing missing is the political will. I would argue that the only thing missing is the social will.

If more Americans were concerned to a degree commensurate with the risks, we wouldn’t have a President who is doing everything in his power to exacerbate the problem. Meanwhile, Americans are flying and driving more miles than ever and sales of gas-powered SUV’s and pickups are increasing — as are greenhouse gas emissions. Even among those who are concerned, too many are waiting for others — politicians, entrepreneurs, or scientists — to “fix” the problem.

Unless voters in both blue and red states understand and feel the urgency, there will not be the political will. Even if Democrats sweep the Presidency and Congress in 2020 — which is by no means certain — and elements of the Green New Deal become law, the public needs to support — and even embrace — these changes or there could be a wave of obstruction, resistance, and backlash similar to the response to ObamaCare.

In the conversation about solving the climate crisis, the importance of individual action has often been minimized. Why bother recycling or changing lightbulbs when the impact is infinitesimally small in relation to the scope of the problem and the tons of CO2 emitted every day from other sources? While this is true to a degree, when faced with an overwhelming problem about which one has no control, a natural response is to put it on a mental backburner. The public is more likely to accept the inconvenient truth when their actions are seen as important — which I believe they are. And when enough people care strongly about an issue, it can grow into a social movement; the kind of energy that in the past has generated social change and shifted the cultural zeitgeist.

The solution to global warming is usually described as the transition to 100% renewables, which is common sense and absolutely imperative. As Will Rogers said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” But renewables can change the supply but will not reduce the demand, and that’s where individual actions do make a difference. In addition, the minimization of individual impact has had led to a sense of disengagement and a lack of personal responsibility.

We need the general public to be motivated, engaged, and actively participating in climate solutions. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that, as a psychologist, I believe the immediate problem to be solved is not political or technological but psychological. As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, my work has helped clients change their thoughts and actions, and that a pretty good description of the goals of climate change communication.

So: this is the critical question that needs to be addressed by you and your cohort: What will it take to awaken the American public to the need for immediate and forceful action to deal with this crisis?

The people that we need to convince will not read a book or article, nor watch a documentary or TV program on the climate crisis. The messaging to date has largely been preaching to the choir. Fortunately, there are tools that are used every day for reaching past the choir. It’s surprising, when you think about it, that these have never been used for spreading the truth about global warming.

An advertising and marketing approach reaches its audience where they are already present and, at least partly, attentive; as ads on a favorite TV or radio program, billboards beside busy highways, spreads in magazines or newspapers, posters on public transportation or buildings, pop-ups on the internet, ads on Facebook and other social media, or in theaters before the feature film.

We know advertising works; if not, we wouldn’t see so much of it and companies wouldn’t pay large sums for it. Elections have been won or lost on the quantity and content of political ads. Advertising routinely sells the public on products that are unhealthy or unnecessary, so perhaps it’s not unreasonable that it could “sell” messages about a healthy environment and sustainable future.

There is a proven track record for this kind of public health campaign. Littering, using seatbelts, and cancer risks from smoking were public health campaigns that successfully changed not just opinions but behaviors too.

A substantial body of research by social scientists has identified elements of effective communication about the climate crisis. This research has shown that positive solutions are more effective than descriptions of climate devastation, and the presentation of scientific facts and data are not as effective as narratives and emotional appeals. A climate campaign would need to understand and speak to the mindset, values, and beliefs of the target audience and should also present a positive vision of what a zero-carbon future could look like.

Even those who understand and accept the scientific facts prefer not to think about the crisis because it can lead to despair or depression. Many of the pleasures of modern life can generate feelings of guilt in recognition that these contribute to the problem. But whatever the feelings that interfere with facing the climate reality; denial, confusion, distrust, disinterest, guilt, impotence or despair; a comprehensive and wide-ranging public education campaign would make the awful and inconvenient truth difficult to repress, deny, or ignore. Hopefully, it would lead to conversations with family, neighbors, and friends.

Advertising works when the messages are repeated often and across multiple platforms. Given the intensity of avoidance and denial that needs to be overcome, a variety of ads with a range of messages should be seen several times a day, day after day, week after week.

A well-funded and comprehensive climate campaign would also impact elections. Rather than funding multiple political campaigns promoting the virtues of candidates, an intensive, nationwide climate campaign that awakens the public to this emergency would benefit all progressive candidates while simultaneously holding political deniers and obstructionists accountable.

The “ask” of most ads are straightforward. Use seatbelts, stop smoking, try this, buy that. But the responses needed to address this crisis are much more complex. Warning about the dangers of global warming will not be effective unless appropriate responses are provided, just as you would not sound an alarm in a building or airplane without pointing out the exits.

As a result, the ads should all end with a catchphrase and the url for a companion website. In a sense, the ads would function as advertising themselves to direct viewers to the website, which would provide details about the science and implications of global warming, as well as appropriate responses. In addition to political actions and individual actions to reduce emissions, there should be an emphasis on local and community responses, as these can be environmentally effective while promoting values that are shared by Americans on both sides of the partisan divide.

What I describe here would be very expensive yet the costs minimal as compared with those of global catastrophe. What’s needed, Tim, is a champion who has the status and influence to bring together the titans of the financial, technology, political, business, environmental, academic, entertainment, and marketing worlds to collaborate on this campaign.

At Tulane, you quoted a speech by FDR: “It’s common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it, and try another. But, above all, try something.”

Is such a thing possible? Of course, it is! Would it work? Possibly. Try it. The alternative is unfathomable. Failure should not be an option.

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