Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 25, 2019

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

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 in Berkeley, I was berated at length and in colorful terms (to say the least) by a young mother for not having buckled up her 4 years old daughter, a classmate of my son, while I was transporting her in my car. As partial justification for my inexcusable 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 came 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 1970s and in the 1980s: we forgot 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 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 Thunberg 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 Thunberg. 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 likely in the near future. It was already 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 speeches 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


  1. Yes, they tried to Weaponize By Child on the gun control debate here in the US. Okay, he was a little too old and not very cute. I didn't say they did it WELL. But it didn't work, and neither will this attempt at Poster Child'ing. For many reasons. First being, no one is going to PAY for climate change. Starting with the Gore Warming shock troops who won't get rid of their own cars and crate an inconvenience for themselves. And how does China cut its own economic growth by not using coal? If they don't succeed economically they become vulnerable to American Empire. No, we are screwed. You are asking for people to go against human nature. I'm just the messenger, so don't shoot me :)

    1. Well, you may well be right. Unfortunately, though, eventually EVERYBODY will have to pay for climate change. And, very likely, more than anybody can afford.

  2. The Climate Crisis needs a cute cuddly plush toy mascot that we can sell millions of to really get the message out.

    1. Preferably one that floats so that when we throw them all out as the fad passes they will accumulate in the middle of the Pacific ocean! Perhaps if we make them white we can convince ourselves that this will actually help to arrest global warming by increasing the albedo of the sea. Maybe a small polar bear?

  3. 'Careers', Ugo, not 'carers'.

    I can't make my mind up about this young lady, she seems to be dividing opinion quite liberally. I hope she has an effect though, for my boys sake...

  4. Actualy I am not quite convinced.
    The planet goes through natural cycles of warming and cooling.
    Over the last several million years we have actually been in an ice age.
    Even on the several thousand year cycles we have been going through smaller cycles of warming and cooling.
    There are even shorter periods of warming and cooling.
    Im not sure about Milankovitch cycles because I really don't know enough about those to comment about them.
    However, I do know some things about history...
    The Roman Empire arose during a period of global warming, crop production was increasing etc..
    Then the Roman Empire declined and ultimatly collapsed during a cooling period.
    Next the "Dark Ages" were during this global cooling.
    Until the early " Middle Ages"
    Norse colonies flourished in Greenland for several centuries until about 1300 maybe1350 or so.
    That was when the "Little Ice Age" came on the scene.
    The "Little Ice Age" lasted until anout 1850.
    This seems typical for short term climatic variations. Something like 300 -600 years.
    Thetefore it seems to me that we should be entering a rather short term (300-600 year) climatic maximum.

    1. It doesn't matter if you are "quite convinced" or not. You may be wiped out anyway

    2. LOL Ugo you're a badass in Boss Mode. That guy is owned af. ;)

    3. And you didn't see me in "Cthulhu mode"!!

    4. In a past history there has been many changes of climate and temperature, but contemporary situation is on two orders faster.
      Second point: if you look on solar radiation activity in last 50 years you will see the declining. But the average temperature is rising up.
      The temperature is rising more in nights than in days, in higher latitudes than in lower, more in winter than in summer, more in lower layers of atmosphere. Is this proof of sun influence?

  5. It would be nice if it were so, but a sulky-looking little child, fairly unattractive, isn't going to cut the mustard, I'm afraid: she has been poorly chosen as a persuader.

    Panic,too,is a useless emotion in respect of so complex a predicament.

    Personally, I find her theatrical gloom irritating, and the more I see St Greta the more that irritation grows. Like all the long-faced people who bang on about feminism, gender, race, etc -one just switches off.

    Smiles win friends, not frowns: it's basic psychology for the hairless ape,

    Have the well-known images of naked children clambering over refuse heaps and scrap yards, and recycling poisoned junk from the advanced economies, done anything to moderate consumerist waste? To our shame, not at all.

  6. Però che ragionamento fine prof. Bardi, complimenti! Dato che il messaggio non passa, cambiamo il messaggero, mettiamoci una minorenne, così la gente si commuove e finalmente... del resto il fine giustifica i mezzi!

    E per fortuna Lei rappresenta la parte progressista, che si oppone a quel gruppo di ignoranti, la democrazia, la possibilità di formarsi un'opinione in modo indipendente e libero, etc....

    Bene, mettendo da parte l'ironia, è veramente deprimente assistente a simili show.

    Ancor di più che il problema, visto dalla sua prospettiva (giusta o meno che sia), è un problema di mancata credibilità (dato che le persone, la gente comune, sembrano non percepire correttamente il problema cambiamento climatico): affidandosi a simili messaggeri, utilizzando simili sotterfugi, la credibilità è destinata a raggiungere abissi mai visti (chi è causa del proprio mal...).

    E non voglio neppure affrontare il fatto che solo uno sciocco si affiderebbe a un simile messaggero: ai più infatti è evidente che una bambina di 15 anni non ha nessun potere (se non nei libri di fiabe) e che i potenti della terra di certo non la temono (come titolava in altre occasioni il corsera). Come le dicevo simili strategie comunicative fanno danni, ledono la fiducia, osannarle poi come Lei ha fatto in questo post...

    1. E bravo anonimo. Se avessi avuto bisogno di un esempio di uno che non ha proprio capito nulla di come funziona la comunicazione, me lo hai gentilmente fornito. Continua pure a fare come hai sempre fatto, dato che hai visto che funziona così bene.

    2. E oltre a essere ignorante, mandi anche messaggi offensivi. Se credi che te li passi, stai fresco.

  7. Good mourning Ugo. Thank you for your cogent thoughts. Though i may not always concur 100%, i find an honest human within them, but not with many of those remaining. These comments by others demonstrate that they will never be the ones to assist our planet's plight. Having been born in a comfort zone at the expense and lives of others, such civilized/domesticated lives will never sacrifice in defense of our only living habitat, never reciprocate with all the Earth. Sadly. The infinite varieties of deniers 'out there' are legion, and from my perspective it's simple: breads and circuses and all that surround such attitudes will hold sway over doing what's necessary. Your comment re: Thunberg being smeared by the elitists are increasing. No surprise there. Greed and control of everything is the narcissistic, sociopathic mantra, the survival mechanism of the undeserving as legitimate members of Earth. A wise being years ago told me: "Always, always, the right thing." Today, it rings ever true. Thank you for your thoughts. rogue composer.

    1. Well said, and thanks for the interest

    2. Maestro Heart, you are rather arrogant to assume that if I don't find myself convinced by St Greta the Glum, that I make no sacrifices and have done nothing for the ecosystem and wildlife.

      I am intent on leaving the little part of the earth for which I am responsible in a better ecological state than I found it - what have YOU done?

    3. Allow me, Anonymous, to say that your attitude is exactly what's taking us to the disaster. It doesn't count what YOU do as an individual-- doing your little things is an easy excuse to feel better without changing anything. What counts is what WE do as humankind, that does change things. And that means doing what Greta is doing -- rising up and saying aloud what needs to be done. Not what you are doing, feeling smug for what you are doing alone.

    4. Thee is nothing 'smug' in my attitude, and it is wrong of you attribute that to me.

      With respect, Ugo, you are quite mistaken -for understandable emotional reasons I suspect - in thinking that in the real world we now have much choice: for our civilisation, for our species the path is set.

      Just look around you: the ecological devastation and human suffering that is caused by industrial economies and over-population has been known for decades,to no avail.

      It is clear that everything that can be dug up, processed, burned, will be; power blocs continue to fight and plot as since the dawn of civilisations; concrete and tarmac will be poured until they can be no longer, and so on.

      I am not interested in 'making myself feel better': our own limited spheres are all we have, and my small plot is now full of wildlife: what have YOU done in that respect? Go and buy some land and do something with it, and then lecture others.

      Futile, yes, in the face of the great system of destruction and destabilisation we have constructed.

      But we cannot undo it: it can only collapse, and the ecosystem rebalance, probably without many of our species. Sawing of the branch on which we sit is the only paying job in town, unfortunately.

      We are bound by Fate - the accumulated consequences of all the wrong decisions and propensities of our species.

      I am sorry you should be reduced to insulting your readers, and shall now not bother anymore with this blog.

    5. You started with the insults, anonymous. Expect others to do unto you what you did unto others.

    6. Ugo, and I am only repeating what has been observed by former regular readers of yours on other blogs, you have rather lost touch with reality:

      'If you don't agree with my solution, you are part of the problem', which is your general line these days, is neither courteous nor rational' I'm afraid.

      Such a great pity.

      At no point have I insulted anyone, merely disagreed, with reasons.

    7. You said that Maestro Heart was "arrogant" -- which is an insult. You may deny that, but that's what it is. And I used the term "smug" which you felt was an insult -- that's debatable, but your feelings are none of my business.

      That's not the point: the point is your statement that you are "leaving the little part of the earth for which I am responsible in a better ecological state than I found it" which I think is not just useless but positively counterproductive. No insult intended. If you think I've lost contact with reality, it is your opinion which I respect -- but I'll keep mine.

  8. To have the best chances of having a SUSTAINED popular support backed by acceptance of ever decreasing standard of living, the following requirement would be needed:
    #1. The tactic so far has been to not yell 'Fire' in a crowded theater. It's been to obfuscate fossil energy depletion problems under the umbrella of climate change policies. That was a STUPID mistake that will cost us all dearly.

    #2. If stakes are so high, the system would need to HALT in a previously unheard of manner. Entire nations would need to have their production halted for a few days so that a solemn, thorough explanation of the [S]ituation could take place. Needless to say the mere fact that governments would actually go through with such method would in itself be an appreciable attention grabbing shock, especially considering the fact that it would have to be announced months [years?] in advance.
    The "GDP taking a hit" argument is as of now a laughable one. The money printing is of such proportion nowadays that it has become irrelevant.

    When you have something so shockingly disturbing and denial inducing as what needs to be communicated here, you need TO GO OUT OF YOUR WAY to convey that:

    #1. no ideology is at play here. I once read on a libertarian leaning website a post accusing the ecology and climate minded left of succumbing to the new faith for "liberals deprived of religion". Being politically agnostic I replied: ["...and that would make libertarianism the new faith for conservative deprived of religion"]
    #2. that an implacable scientific death match has occurred and that one side has unambiguously one. You can always find a PHD to say that smoking is good for you once said Al Bartlett; the debunking of arguments of deniers by academics whose credentials are the most authoritative on the matter, has not percolated down, even if only in a vulgarized manner.

    And I'll just end with a side note here:
    The strategy, the tactic, the approach, the angle used were all appallingly dumb.
    Take Peak Oil for example; a very simple argument can be used to hammer the point down with overwhelming force: If reserves of legacy wells assured us of supplies until the second coming, or until we reach a Star Trek phase of progress, than we wouldn't need to get blood out of a stone by fracking it like a junkie snorting the cocaine he dropped in a sandbox and assuring us he's not addicted, he can stop when he wants...
    Very simple, very effective.
    As for climate change, the subject is SO BORING, so un-spectacularly evocative that much more effort needs to be deployed to convey that because of that very reason that it appear as such to the layman, the size of the body scientists sounding the alarm should eliminate any possibility of collusion in a pointless fad. It's to dawn boring and the opposite of sexy-interesting subject matter for such ample efforts taking place in that field.
    A kid that young is being used. That is going to backfire badly.
    If the stakes are that high, drop the gimmicks and go straight for the jugular.
    If the stakes are that high, we don't have time for anything else...

    1. ... meant "too damn boring" in the second to last paragraph and body 'of' scientists in the sentence above...

    2. OMFG ...meant unambiguously WON. It's been since my brain froze like that and I start writing phonetically !

      Ugo ... for god sake, you should have the comment caption box made larger so one can have proper perspective on what has been written.
      A button to edit a comment would be nice to; for some reason, the preview button never seem to pop to my attention in time ;-)
      Would also like to add that the phrasing of my 1st paragraph should be changed from "following requirements" to something like "the following needs to be considered" ...

      You start writing...and then you delete a part to change your approach, your phrasing, ... add another point, delete, fine tune one part...then 35 min later you're so exhausted from all the pondering and head scratching that you go ok...screw it that seems long enough ...and then you hit post. Darn it !

    3. Yeah, sorry, the comment system of Blogger is primitive. I have been considering a change of platform. One of these days....

  9. If you are talking about internet memes, then the Greta Thunberg meme is just another The Left Can't Meme meme. In the interwebz the right rules. It is a mob mentality.

  10. Hi Ugo, With respect I don't buy it. Let me present the other side.

    Greta has a full right to speak on this but not more than any other member of the human community. We all have people we care deeply about and more than that, we're profoundly interested in the success of the human endeavour. Greta doesn't have any more right to that anyone else, and not any less. We're in this together.

    Many scientists speak passionately and eloquently and not in the ditzy way they're characterized here. Greta, like Obama, is a new face on an old problem: She's a diverting fresh new face. She doesn't add a whit to what millions of others know. The acceptance and welcome of grief and a realization of a profound pain that we're already in is the direction of a new meme. Those old scientists and their grandchildren are feeling it too. Greta can feel like a pressure release when we need intensifying pressure, pain and hurt - the feelings that culturally and personally, we are avoiding continually.

    Greta's a feel good candy, like a happy slogan on FB.

    A present cultural meme that the article plays off is that of the smart girl showing the the klutzy old professional man. Since Ugo portrays this dynamic strongly though it has nothing to do with our understanding of climate change, I suspect that this is the emotional core of his argument.

    1. Allow me to disagree, Andrew. The way I see it, Greta is not just a new face. She is a different viewpoint: she represents the stakeholders of the climate problem: the young people who will inherit the Earth (what's left of it, unfortunately). These people have had no voice, so far, in the debate. And the great merit of the Greta meme is to have given voice to them. Or so I see it, at least!

  11. Thanks Ugo. My point is that many of us, including I think you and I, have no recognized voice, no heard voice. Everyone is an equal stakeholder. We're all "Spartacus" (old reference I'm afraid). We're all Greta.

    1. Yes, we'd better be Greta than Spartacus -- I think

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  13. Well, on the Greta 'meme', powerful that it is, it seems 'deja vu all over again' when we look at Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressing the same body back in 1992.

    So how are we doing using the youth shaming approach? Getting the same result these days? Let's keep doing it and expect a different outcome. That will at least keep many off the streets with pitchforks or whatever Mr. Hedges might be suggesting these days...

  14. Ugo
    A bit odd, but I could swear there were some earlier comments that are no longer visible. Bill Everett and mine (I think I was replying to 'Roger') and I guess some others are gone. Bill's had some links I was going to look at.

    1. I don't know.... let me check with the spam folder... Google does strange things...

    2. No. There are some weird comments in the spam folder, but nothing by Bill Everett or you, Phil. Maybe they appear under some other post.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)