Paul Lussier's Latest Act

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by Eric Ellman

After a 25-year career in television and film, Paul Lussier ’82, is back at Yale, in the role of his life.

Lussier’s career trajectory – from performer and comparative studies major to Discovery Channel producer and climate change communications activist – has led him to “Climate Change and the Media,” the wildly popular seminar he teaches each week at Ezra Stiles College. The class combines his encyclopedic knowledge of culture and communications theory with his passion for science and story-telling.

“He’s a genius and he’s charming,” said Gus Speth, former F&ES dean and co-founder of the National Resource Defense Council.  “He works hard, and he knows his stuff.  If he had chosen a life in academia, he would be a distinguished, beloved professor at this point.”

To Lussier, a lack of narratives that connect science with policy explains the national deadlock over climate change. “Narratives we live and tell are a reflection of our socio-political infrastructure,” he said.  “They lock us in and prevent our telling new stories that achieve change.”

Climate change, he said, requires and represents an opportunity to change those stories.  Luckily Lussier has an impressive list of friends to help him do just that.

A partial list of visitors for “Climate Change and the Media” include: James Hansen, the former Director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics; and at least one billionaire philanthropist. 

Representatives of both sides of the political aisle line up to offer perspective and present narratives for packaging.  On October 29, U.S. Department of Energy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Director Michelle Wyman will offer students the opportunity to develop and deploy strategy and outreach for the Governor’s Climate Accord, a new initiative that already has 11 governors representing both Republicans and Democrats on board.

They come, Lussier says, because they recognize that existing communication strategies are not working.  Instead of uniting on behalf of climate change action, the electorate is doing the reverse. Eight years after Al Gore’s, “An Inconvenient Truth” made climate change a household phrase, the gap between Democrats and Republicans who believe in human-caused global warming has grown from 26% to 42% according to a Pew research poll. 

With 15 months remaining before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes one last effort to achieve an international agreement on emissions reductions in Paris; with the same organization warning that we have a 15-year window to avert catastrophe, what is the world to do?

“Just scaring people with apocalyptic messages about the future won’t work,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, who visits the class on December 10.  And bear in mind that “Climate change is polarizing because positions on it have become symbols of loyalty to competing cultural groups” according to Dan Kahan, director of the Cultural Cognition Project, and another internationally recognized Yale expert on climate change communications.

Lussier offers up the case of “An Inconvenient Truth” as an example of a narrative structure that failed both tests.  “The conventions of Hollywood story-telling,” says Lussier, “protect and serve the story-teller, the star, not the science.”  For everyone who voted against him, and for everyone who perceives environmentalists as “the other”, Al Gore was the wrong messenger.

Emerging from the environmental rubric is thus, the first thing Lussier teaches his next generation of climate change communicators.  He offers Jim Hansen’s story of U.S. government censorship as a more universally appealing narrative (of research that just happened to be about climate science).  High school kids preparing a presentation for Senator Susan Collins is a “democracy in action” story (that just happens to be about climate change) that’s hard, he says, for network news to turn down.

 “What we are doing,” says Lussier, “is mapping out the social, cultural, economic, political and religious areas that climate change touches. Each nodal point is defined by its own distinct narrative wherein opportunities exist to intersect with climate science and to generate meaning towards personal and cultural identification, media uptake, and ultimately better progress towards policy.”

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