Two recent video segments on the on-going air pollution crisis in Beijing, China help illustrate the power of making an environmental crisis visible. First, ABC News lays out the severity of Beijing's toxic air:
Like oil-soaked birds following an oil spill, there's no denying the persuasive impact of seeing the dirty air filters of just one day of pollution. As ABC News' Gloria Riviera wipes the black soot off a car window, I reflexively want to cough as I imagine breathing that into my lungs. News visuals like this tap into our empathy and help us imagine living in the shoes of a Beijing citizen, even if only for a moment.
This got me thinking about a question Mike posed in an essay earlier today: How do environmentalists convince people of the urgency of addressing climate change? Mike writes:
Part of the problem is hard to get around. It's human nature, and very hard to change. People know some things are important, but they don't pay attention until it becomes personal. So while a person might know about heart disease, it might not stop him from eating junk and not exercising until it hits him. A similar thing happens with environmental problems; people don't mind too much when whales on the other side of the planet are getting killed, but when it's their water that is poisoned, it's something else. Unfortunately, like with heart disease, sometimes by the time it becomes personal, it's too late to act.
As Riviera notes in her report from Beijing, "Government can't ignore problems everyone can see." However, despite clear visual proof of the health danger of unchecked industrial pollution, well-intentioned media can still miss the opportunity to make the bigger picture clear to viewers.
In bit titled, "Things May Be Bad, But at Least We Can't Chew Our Air," Jon Stewart frames Beijing's air quality in an Us vs Them context, noting the Chinese air crisis as somehow making economic and political problems here in the United States less worrisome:
What has made The Daily Show so powerful as a voice in the media is their method of building upon the work of other outlets. Like the best political blogs, Stewart is at his best when he's weaving together clips and comments from other media to make deeper points about the subject matter. Unfortunately, even with the brilliant Neil Degrasse Tyson participating in the bit, they missed an opportunity to build upon the ABC and NBC reports and make the point those two outlets fail to express: that air does not cede to borders. China's air is our air. Ours is theirs.
As Mike concludes in his piece on communicating environmentalism, it is a mistake to jump too far ahead and assume your audience will connect dots or find the bigger picture message:
The problem is that we too often skip to the end and don't spend enough time explaining the basics and intermediate steps. This matters a lot because the very same argument will be interpreted very differently by someone who has the foundational knowledge required to truly understand and by someone who does not...
So, someone who already knows a lot about how ecosystems work, our planet's climate, non-linear systems with tipping points and lots of inertia, the evolutionary role of predators, and the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services will be able to put environmental news in context and grasp its importance. Yet people who know these things tend to forget that there was a time when they didn't know, so they tend to speak as if everybody was on the same page.
But someone who only hears the last step in the reasoning might not have the tools to truly understand. It's these tools, these basic foundational blocks, that we have to do a better job of providing, so that when people hear about global warming or sharks heading for extinction, they don't just think "I don't mind if it becomes a few degrees warmer, and it's not like I would want a shark as pet anyway, so good riddance."
On a certain level, we in the environmental movement have had such low expectations from politicians and the mainstream media that we've trained ourselves to accept a unsatisfactory level of discourse related to environmental science. For example, on one hand, I'm just happy to see the air crisis even mentioned on The Daily Show, but on the other hand, when it isn't handled with care, this coverage can misinform people about the interconnectedness of these environmental problems.
I understand that journalists fear coming across as too preachy or biased, but interconnectedness can be conveyed with integrity. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, for example, many outlets reported on the issue of radiation that would reach the Pacific coast of the United States. I wish a similar frame had been used in telling the story of Beijing's toxic air crisis.
We may not be breathing in the same level of soot as the citizens of Beijing, but make no mistake about it, we are breathing the same air. The carbon put into the atmosphere by the Chinese does affect our climate. It will impact your life. It already has, even though you may not see it. There is one climate. One atmosphere. One ocean flows into the next. We, like the ecosystems we live within, are connected in ways many of us fail to truly recognize. The sooner our media can learn this lesson and incorporate it into their reports, the better chance we'll have in educating and mobilizing the public about the urgent need to address climate change.