George Marshall’s Climate March Notes: Success, and a Missed Opportunity

by Eric Ellman

U.S. television network news devoted less than 1% of its coverage to climate change last year[1].  Those numbers will not increase after Sunday’s People’s Climate March coverage. Network television news broadcasts largely ignored it: Media Matters reported that NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox all neglected to cover the march on their Sunday morning news programs. 

None of this would have surprised George Marshall, author of Don’t Even Think About It: How Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, who spoke at the Yale Law School on Wednesday. 

Media coverage is often weak on marches, he says, “deplorably so.”  But he doesn’t lament the lack of coverage, either, perhaps because he feels marches are less effective tools of political change than we often think. Authorities like them, he says, precisely because people are marching and not standing still, occupying the center of a city or town.  Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Psychology, and director of the Yale Cultural Cognition project that hosted the visit, goes a bit further.  Kahan feels that familiar archetypes of protestors at a climate march exert a polarizing influence and are distractions from the underlying science that affects everyone.

Both men agree that marches are extremely valuable, however, as entry points for the large number of people that studies show are more concerned about climate change than is conveyed by their outward actions.  For those people, a climate march provides a place to testify to their belief among a large number of people who collectively create an accommodating social norm.  A large part of Marshall’s book involves discussions with psychologists who confirm that there are multiple aspects of climate change that allow people to compartmentalize their concerns. For them, a climate march can be an opportunity to cross over and say “I’m going to make a decisive change in my life.”

The religious overtones of testifying and renewal suggest an aspect of the human experience from which climate change activists might gain.  For all the pride organizers can justifiably take in having drawn 310,000 people to the streets of New York on Sunday, they might consider that there are over 100 congregations in America drawing between 6,000 and 43,000 people to church every Sunday[2], week after week, month after month, with many more watching at home on television..  Whereas only 5% of the public are members of an environmental organization, he says, over 70% identify with a religious faith.  Over 1/3 of Americans identify themselves as born-again Christians[3]. The tendency of environmental groups to make alliances with religious groups almost as an afterthought is, says Marshall, “a major tactical error.”

The People’s Climate missed an even larger contingent of the American public needed to affect the sort of changes that can stem greenhouse emissions. Political conservatives.  Gallup reports that 40% of Americans identify themselves as “conservative”.[4]   But while a front page story in the New York Times about the march celebrated its diversity, including the presence of religious contingents, there was no mention of anyone who identified themselves as politically conservative.  And yet George, who is on a mission to fill the conservative gap in the climate change roster, managed to find some.  As covered in Bloomberg BusinessWeek the next day, George spent part of his walk with a group of Nebraska farmers strolling the parade route.  

But the fact that the farmers didn’t have a banner that articulated their political position suggests an oversight on the part of march organizers: the failure to reach out more consciously to more such groups on the right, and creating a space in the march where they might have felt comfortable enough to hoist their own flag, and state in their own words and their own position for demanding action on climate change.

The Republican Party has a proud environmental heritage. From Teddy Roosevelt, who created the first national parks, to Richard Nixon who created the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Republicans created much of our critical environmental infrastructure.  310,000 people demanding climate change in the streets of Manhattan is wonderful. They almost certainly won’t get what they want, however, until an equivalent number of people who don’t share their values, but do share their goals, demand the same thing.


Media matters. How Broadcast News Covered Climate Change In The Last Five Years…

Outreach Magazine.  2013 100 Largest Churches in America.…

How Many Americans are Evangelical Christians? Born-Again Christians?” Black, White and Gray. Patheos. 3/28/2013 Saad, Lydia.  “Conservatives remain the largest ideological group in the U.S.,” Gallup Politics, 1/12/2012