The past month has seen both inspiring and terrifying environmental news around the world. China’s ivory ban further bolstered the nation’s environmental leadership status, while President Trump’s silencing of environmental bureaus has angered many–scientists, civil servants, and everyday citizens. A common theme of these issues is the problem of relatability of climate change to everyday life and people. This post will look through some of the recent news events and how issues of relatability have come into play.
China’s Ivory Ban
In December, the Chinese government announced a plan to ban sale and processing of ivory. The ban hopes to change the public’s perception of ivory products—no longer symbols of status and cultural values, but taboo shameful objects. This strategy would lower demand and prices. Similar ivory rebranding campaigns by organizations such as Wild Aid in China have featured celebrities discouraging sales of ivory. These strategies try to relate the plight of elephants to everyday citizens and their luxury preferences.
However, the supply side of the ivory trade is still not targeted as much, and some conservationists worry the ban may backfire.The Chinese government will close a portion of licensed carving factories and retailers, but the major market for ivory in China is illegal. Additionally, legal stockpiles of ivory frequently spill into the black market, sites like WeChat host ivory sales, and illegal markets in Southeast Asia still provide access to ivory. Therefore social media regulation and international cooperation efforts on these markets are needed to thoroughly protect elephants. At the same time, drastic means to reduce supply, like burning large amounts of tusks, may further incentivize poachers to aggressively hunt. Therefore, the battle to save elephants is a constant struggle to balance supply and demand, a test of international and regional governance.
Another continuing struggle for wildlife conservationists is showing how certain animals add value to the human world. The organization Save the Elephants lists certain agricultural benefits elephants provide, promoting plant growth and healthy plains. A National Geographic article explains how the ivory trade promotes criminal networks spanning from trafficking of ivory to guns, to drugs and even humans. For most citizens, an anthropomorphic stance, how the animals serve us humans, is needed to incentivize conservation.
Internet Censorship and Environmental Movements: US and China
After President Trump’s gag order on the EPA and other environmental agencies, rogue US national park rangers have persistently tweeted climate change facts in protest. This could potentially be the start of a new environmental movement in the United States, with scientists planning their own march on Washington, and others already having backed up their climate data before the inauguration.
The podcast “This American life” interviewed some Department of Energy employees in the US who struggled to figure out whether or not they wanted to stay in their government jobs in a Trump presidency. One stated that in their reports they have already deleted references to climate change, but some documents and projects from the previous administration are so well hidden that they could remain intact. Some employees hope to take advantage of the complex, delaying tendencies of bureaucracy to thwart Trump’s actions. This type of internal resistance, combined with external pressure from scientists and citizens, could still propel the US progressive climate agenda.
Part of my undergraduate thesis looked at the presence of protests online in China. Netizens would post somewhat provocative statements knowing that the government would see them and possibly act on them. The twitterstorm of #climatefacts may have a similar role of pressuring the government in the US. The rogue national park Twitter user knew President Trump would see the posts, and that an online crowd could gather momentum to circumvent the gag order.
As stated in a previous post, there has been a decrease in censorship on health and safety topics in China from 2015 to 2016. The Trump administration seems to be reverting to China’s methods of censorship, to control media that could damage the government’s reputation. But, as numerous protests against the Trump administration already show, the public will not stand for this censorship and social instability may encourage the administration to wind down such censorship in the future, that is, if social stability is a priority for the US government.
US netizens are particularly sensitive to the issue of censorship because the first amendment of the constitution prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech and the press. The current climate change movement’s overlap with the citizens’ rights could be a strategy to engage more Americans, who are quite protective of their rights, particularly the first and second amendment rights.
Women’s March and Everyday People
At the Women’s March in Washington D.C., Senator Kamala Harris spoke about how all issues are essentially women’s issues. “You want to talk about women’s issues? Good, let’s talk about climate change, education, national security, immigration” and she continued to list other topics. Signs of protesters reflected the multiplicity of issues of concern to women that may be worsened by the new administration. Senator Harris emphasized that one must consider how policies affect everyone—black, white, men, women, trans, immigrants. By changing the way we think about these issues, and realizing women’s stake and contribution to these issues, we can hopefully create a more inclusive society through policy.
Similarly, we must find a way to make climate change more relatable. Climate change affects everyone—rich, poor, men, women. A previous blog post explained how it affects certain (marginalized) groups more than others, but that this should not turn these groups into victims. This victimization creates an ‘other’-ness, suggesting that our actions ONLY affect others, not ourselves. Or that the onus of changing behavior is ONLY on some, not everyone.
Climate change is an ongoing, every day phenomenon, not just the melting of a faraway icecap or a drought in a remote village. A recent New York Times article aptly explains how American farmers have dealt with environmental changes for decades without explicitly calling the phenomenon “climate change.” But because the term “climate change” has become so politically weighted and divisive, such farmers did not vote for candidates who might have enacted policies to assist their adaptation activities. For them, “climate change” is tied to large government interventions that they view as harmful and burdensome. One farmer, arguing that he does more for the environment than the government could, stated, “We’re the ones working to protect the environment. We’re the ones whose lives are tied to the earth.” The discourse on climate change should change from framing effects as special events to everyday events that happen to everyday people. In this way, the discourse could also become more inclusive.
Tying everything together, the important way to move forward with acting on climate change is making everyone realize its impact on their lives. How do elephants’ lives impact me? How does internet censorship of environmental information affect me? How is a policy made in a nation’s capital tailored to individual experiences? Part of this job will be on citizens to more mindfully think about these issues, but part of the job will also be on journalists and rogue tweeters like the ones from the national park service, to continue fighting to promote information transparency.
Another key tactic in making climate change relatable is using children–adults may be motivated to act when they realize that their current actions affect their own children’s future. Here is a video reflecting that sentiment.