Al Gore’s 24-hour climate change communications blitz faced a stiff challenge in its efforts to define the message while, in effect, playing defense. A challenge for climate communicators: How to re-capture the offensive.

There’s a cardinal rule of politics: If you don’t define your message (or campaign), your opponent will. The objective is to set the terms of the debate. Generally speaking, playing defense is not a winning strategy.


And that’s why former President Al Gore’s “Climate Reality” event is unlikely to advance the climate conversation to a new, elevated place in the public mind. To understand why, let’s look at the motivating factor behind the 24-hour multimedia broadcast, which Gore explained in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this week:

“This presentation is a defense of the science and the scientists, against the timeworn claims by deniers.”

Such a strategy, besides forcing Gore & company into a defensive crouch, is built on the assumption that “deniers” are the primary reason for the stalemated climate politics and the public’s insufficient attention to climate change.

This approach presumes the public is also not getting a steady diet of well-communicated climate science facts, an assumption increasingly challenged.

For example, over at Climate Progress, a popular blog on climate change issues, an Australian educator recently asserted:

“We’ve got to realize that telling the truth again and again isn’t getting through in a society that navigates by ‘truthiness.’”

Truthiness is a term coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert. Wikipedia defines it as “‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ in that it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

But Joe Romm, the editor of Climate Progress, disagreed with his reader:

“Nobody is telling the truth again and again … There was a brief window when they did and it worked. When people explained the science — Gore and the IPCC — media coverage and public opinion rose together. When people stop explaining the science, both fell.”

This logic seems to be Gore’s operating premise, as well. Hence his high profile reemergence as a climate spokesman in recent months, and as the organizing force behind this week’s “Climate Reality” event.

Bryan Walsh at Time takes stock of Gore’s latest initiative and also offers a nuanced take on the public’s lessened interest in climate change:

“In 2007 and 2008 — in the wake of Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth — a solid majority of Americans saw climate change as a direct threat to their families. But that support has eroded — a recent Gallup poll found that just 53 percent of Americans saw climate change as a threat, and Washington has remained gridlocked on the issue. There are countless reasons why that’s the case — a cratering economy, overrepresentation of fossil-fuel interests in Congress, simple fatigue — but there’s no denying the fact that Gore and his allies have so far failed to convince enough Americans to share their urgency over global warming.”

What might do the trick? Walsh mentions some of the ideas and work of Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker, who recommends that the climate message be communicated less literally and more subtly through likable characters and storytelling.

At this point, given the political standoff and the Groundhog day-like debate, climate strategists would do well to start thinking outside the box. Various climate communicators like Gore have mounted a robust defense of climate science in the past few years. But as any football fan knows, even the best defenses rarely win games alone.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.