We cannot solve the climate crisis if we don’t discuss it. And the fossil fuel industry knows this. Big Carbon understands that if society takes the climate crisis seriously, it’s the end of their business model.
To delay climate action and regulation of their industry, Big Carbon plays the long game to generate climate silence and inaction through public relations and pressure tactics. They shame and discredit scientists while strategically deploying a rightwing flack machine to attack academics and coerce the media. To intimidate teachers, this pressure creeps into education through the politicization of climate science and environmental issues. Those demanding climate action are stigmatized or forced into bad faith arguments. Or worse, they go silent.
This has a pernicious effect on media literacy in the United States. Most media educators work within existing institutional structures, which are unduly pressured to avoid politically difficult subject matter. The climate crisis should not be disputed as a matter of belief. It is scientific fact.
The spiral of climate silence is when people care about the climate but they don’t discuss it because they fear being socially isolated. This is evidenced by how little news media cover the topic. In the US, a 2018 Yale study identified how the majority population is concerned about the climate, but most don’t feel comfortable talking about it. This is what climate silence sounds like. And it’s also why climate communicators insist that the most important action we can take is to start conversations about the climate emergency.
The absence of an urgent conversation in media, politics, and education demonstrates how science alone is not a loud enough wake-up call to mobilize action on the climate. But what about pop culture? Netflix’s third most viewed film, Don’t look Up, may have done the trick. It was a sonic boom blasting through climate silence, igniting bottled up frustration about climate inaction into an exploding discourse on the existential threat of climate breakdown.
It supplied the symbolic and discursive imagination to start climate conversations and help process anxieties about the future. To give an example, in recent weeks I have posted links on social media to articles with comments like, “Don’t Look Up! Antarctica version”; “Don’t Look Up! Oceans version”; and “Don’t Look Up! South America version.” In each case, I’m leveraging the film’s pop culture vernacular to start conversations about doomsday glaciers, heating oceans, and record-breaking surface temperatures, things we don’t normally like to talk about.
I identify with the frustrated on-screen scientists screaming into the ethers. We are climate versions of Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in the 1976 film, Network, yelling into our screens, “We’re mad as hell and no one is doing frack-all about the climate!” People in the media literacy community who know me are probably used to hearing this. But I cannot say it louder. What is the use of media education if the tipping points of our global ecological systems make all our educational efforts meaningless? But don’t look up! We are media educators, why should this concern us? Why should we care?
Pedagogically, the film is an important salvo of climate communication, but it’s certainly not perfect. What works is the film’s caricature of a society so distracted by superfluous media and culture war politics, it fails to grasp the crisis of impending environmental disaster. The blunt instrument of parody depicts scientists and activists trying to get the world to “look up” to see the evidence of what is coming (a catastrophic comet), while a countermovement attacks science and implores people, “don’t look up,” and ignore scientific evidence. Whether it is COVID-19, imperiled democracy, or climate breakdown, a sizable chunk of the population is choosing to look away from empirical and scientific evidence, while deriding experts and assaulting academic institutions when they do speak out. Media’s obsession with gossip and entertainment serves as enablers of the denier countermovement (those forces trying to inhibit climate action).
Flack against Don’t Look Up reinforces the film’s central critique of media. Social silence around the climate emergency is difficult to penetrate because media (and education as well) avoid difficult conversations around the damage our economic system is causing to the biosphere. Whether conscious or not, many of us are attached to the status quo and its benefits. Confronting our dependency on fossil fuels and radical change often produces a psychological response to look away. This is why clever storytelling is so essential to shifting how we see the issue. By mirroring and attacking the polarization that exists deeply in our society, the film dislodges the despair and rage many feel about our deteriorating environment.
As I have documented in the past, climate silence is particularly strong in the media literacy community, so I’m writing a series of blog posts to instigate a conversation about what we can do about it. In this series of posts, I will explore five major discussions we need to have in media education: the scientific basis of climate breakdown and its moral implications; media’s role in perpetuating the climate emergency; climate silence in media education; media literacy solutions; and climate action as a response to climate despair.
Climate science is clear. Despite fossil fuel industry disinformation and the climate change countermovement, global heating is not a belief, but a scientific fact. We are obliged as members of the high-tech world and richest nations that are primary sources of the planetary emergency, to act and address it. It is our custodial responsibility to the Earth, more-than-human world, future generations, and the victims who are not heard, to take action and cease our silence.
Corbett, J. B. (2021). Communicating the climate crisis: New directions for facing what lies ahead. Lexington Books.
López, A. (Forthcoming). Gaslighting: Fake climate news and Big Carbon’s network of denial. In J. McDougall & K. Fowler-Watt (Eds.), Palgrave handbook of media misinformation. Palgrave MacMillan.
López, A., & Share, J. (2020). Fake climate news: How denying climate change is the ultimate in fake news. Journal of Sustainability Education, 23.
With a research focus on bridging ecojustice with media literacy, Antonio is an expert curriculum designer, educator, trainer, theorist, and researcher. He is a founding theorist and architect of ecomedia literacy. As an author he has written numerous academic articles, essays and four books: Ecomedia Literacy: Integrating Ecology into Media Education; Greening Media Education: Bridging Media Literacy with Green Cultural Citizenship; The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice; and Mediacology: A Multicultural Approach to Media Literacy in the 21st Century. Currently he is Chair and Associate Professor of Communications and Media Studies at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. Resources and writing are available at: https://antonio-lopez.com/