Genevieve Guenther on Climate Communication
From the archives, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Professor Genevieve Guenther about the forces that shape our climate discourse.
In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Genevieve Guenther, a Renaissance scholar and literary critic at The New School who turned to climate activism after having a child and becoming increasingly alarmed about the world she might leave to her son after she died. They discuss the forces that shape our climate discourse and how to communicate effectively about the climate crisis. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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[00:00:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Hello, everyone.
We're back again on with our interview series and this is one we've been looking forward to for many months, because it is with a person who brings a very different take to the subjects we've been talking about for some years now on our interview series.
Dr. Genevieve Guenther is a Renaissance scholar and literary critic who turned to climate activism after having a child and becoming increasingly alarmed about the world she might leave to her son after she died, which we hope is many centuries in the future. After graduating from Columbia University, Dr. Guenther received her PhD in English Renaissance Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2017, she formally changed her research focus from Renaissance literature to the climate crisis and she is now an affiliate faculty member at the New School. Using her training in rhetoric and cultural politics, she works to revamp the ways that we think and talk about the climate crisis. In 2018, she founded End Climate Silence, a volunteer organization that pushes the news media to start talking about the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves.
Genevieve, thank you for joining us. I'm just going to kick off with our usual first question, which is, and it's especially interesting in your case, you just have a fascinating background.
[00:01:26] You were a scholar of Renaissance literature, then you pivoted towards climate change, and you may not think of that as a pivot. How has that background informed your perspective on climate?
[00:01:35] Genevieve Guenther: Well, in some ways, the Renaissance throughout Europe, but also in England, is kind of analogous to the historical moment that we're living through. You could say that Europe comes out of the medieval period and major things happen. First of all, science discovers that the Earth goes around the Sun and not vice versa. There is the discovery of what is now the North American and South American continents. There is the fracturing of the political consensus in Europe, which is centered on Rome and the Pope who governs all of Christendom, and the Protestant Reformation of course disturbs that consensus and leads to the rise of the nation state as the dominant political form in modernity.
English literature itself is created in this period. We didn't have English literature before this. As a matter of fact, the first book that I wrote is about this rise of English literature and how for decades there are ways in which poetry and narrative storytelling and theater are confused with forms of magic, because they both have this kind of common philosophical justification under them, which is the idea, which is fundamentally neoplatonic, that language has this kind of power over people to make them imagine things that then go on to affect their dispositions and their behavior and even their religious beliefs.
Magicians in the Renaissance were using these ideas to try to see if they could control access to angels and devils and the entire panoply of spiritual creatures that Christianity, completely legitimate Christianity, taught everybody was in the world at all times. But poets were also turning to these philosophical antecedents to say, "Well, actually, poetry isn't just the sort of crappy thing that aristocrats do or young men do to try to get women into bed. In fact, poetry is this ennobling way of using language, which will help the sovereign lead people into being better political subjects, lead them into being better ethical subjects, teach them morality without them even knowing they're being taught. These are basically two different versions of the same idea, and this goes on for decades until in The Tempest.
I argue in the first book that I wrote, Shakespeare takes this idea of the power of magic in The Tempest, and he turns it entirely into theater. In The Tempest, you have this magician who is able to use magic to transform the political and ethical dispositions of his enemies so that he retakes the legitimate power that they stole from him. But then at the end of the play, he comes out in an epilogue and asks for applause and says, 'Everything you've just seen here is just stagecraft, there is no such thing as magic.' He gets the audience to applaud and to forgive him for having practiced magic, but thereby conflates the kind of aesthetic something you do for entertainment and the magical something you do to have political power. But at that point it's basically, those are two different separate things.
This really becomes the case in the 18th century with the rise of philosophical aesthetics. Okay. So that's my first book, but what's so interesting is that there are ways in which the historical moment that we're living through now, and this need to create new energy and economic systems that won't contribute further to global heating is this process that created the rise of English literature. Right now we are all using a kind of neoliberal economic thinking to find our way through this crisis and try to find its solutions. But this thinking is actually a cultural form that we're going to need to leave behind, I argue in the book I'm writing now, in order to solve the climate crisis. But the problem is that even—not only are fossil fuel interests using this sort of like essentially philosophical antecedent to justify the continued production and consumption of fossil fuels, centrist and capitalist and technocratic climate activists and advocates are also using this paradigm to try to find solutions.
There's this way in which the dominant discourse in the language of climate politics remains of the historical period that we're trying to get out of. Already, there are new ways of thinking about it, but mostly the solutions are still using the old frames of thinking and talking. What my book is trying to do is piece out how those ideas, those ideologies and ideological assumptions influence both fossil fuel disinformation, but also actual climate advocacy and thereby keeps us stuck in this historical phase that we actually need now to transcend. That's how it's similar. In some sense, like the first book that I wrote, even though the topic is incredibly different and I'm not really using Shakespeare in my new book at all, the kind of historical thinking that I'm doing and the way that I'm tracing discourses between a one domain that is sort of illegitimate, i.e. magic or fossil fuel rhetoric, and this new discourse, poetry or climate advocacy, is actually incredibly analogous. Anyway, that's some answer to your question.
[00:07:21] Ramanan Raghavendran: It's a great answer. And Mary's smiling her head off because she knows my obsession with the Foucaultian idea of the episteme, which has some similarities, we live in a certain kind of episteme and that dictates many things overtly and not so overtly, but then they change.
[00:07:42] Genevieve Guenther: That's right.
[00:07:42] Ramanan Raghavendran: And we are in a new period. Perhaps we hope that we are in such a period, but we will do that in our third interview, because we will be doing many interviews with you against your will. Let me move on to question number two, which begins to take us a little deeper into climate in general.
[00:07:59] Which is, drawing on the expertise, your expertise in the humanities which we got a taste of just now, how do the tone and connotations that we use in our communications around climate, how do they reflect and reinforce ideas of technological progress and the juxtaposition or the positioning of humans against nature?
[00:08:22] Genevieve Guenther: Well, I think it's a very deep seated assumption that somehow technology allows us to separate ourselves from what is commonly called nature, allows us to dominate nature, allows us to somehow transcend the limits of the material world. It's not surprising that we all feel this way. There are plenty of anecdotal examples that allow us to really believe fully in this ideological premise—vaccines, space flight. It just goes on and on and on and on, but I think one of the lessons of global heating and the climate crisis more broadly is that there's nothing that humans build or do that isn't nature. Our vaccines are a form of nature. Our plastic bottles are a form of nature. Our airplane flights are a form of nature. Our Instagram posts, all of it is nature.
The question is, is it a nature that supports life or is it a nature that is being made ill in some way? Just recently the climate scientist at Caltech, Peter Kalmus, who's also a very passionate climate activist, did some direct action in LA. I think he chained himself, he and some colleagues chained themselves to one of the banks that is still lending money to oil and gas companies to continue and expand their extraction. In one of the videos I saw of this direct action that these scientists were taking, there was a poster behind them, which said 'We are nature healing itself.' I think that this is a really powerful idea that needs to be elevated and normalized in a way that nothing we do controls nature. It's just an... there's no place outside of the planet from which to stand above and control nature.
We need to think of everything we do as being integrated into the ecological and human systems that give us our being and ask ourselves, is this something that will continue to hurt? Or is it something that will heal? That is one answer to this question of, how in our episteme are we thinking about technology? It's interesting because since the enlightenment, since the 18th century, there has been a lot of work on technology as a, what's the word I'm looking for… as a practice of colonialism. We understand that technology is something that relies in some sense on the oppression of the people whose resources are being extracted, on the othering that allows people to be some subjects of technology or objects of technology. We understand that these things aren't necessarily beneficial in every universal context in terms of human systems.
That's what science studies has shown us, at least since the 1980s. But I think it's only now that historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty and others are saying, you actually have to not just have a global perspective, how does this work in the economics of colonialism, but how do these ideas work in a planetary sense, really thinking of the human species, not only at war with itself, but potentially at war with the very systems that give us being. We have to always have that kind of double consciousness of thinking, does this benefit humanity? How many of us? And not in a utilitarian way, but just in a really material way. Also, what does this do in the ecology that is not actually something separate from us, but is the grounds of our very lives?
[00:12:15] Ramanan Raghavendran: I want to jump forward to the media. There's lots of things we could say about the media, positive and negative. One way to ask the question is, you started End Climate Silence in 2018.
[00:12:29] Relative to that date, what do you think is wrong, and just so we don't make this a session that is very critical or only critical, what is right about the media's coverage of climate change today?
[00:12:42] Genevieve Guenther: Well, I think the print media has done a wonderful job since 2018, expanding its climate coverage. Most major newspapers in the United States have added climate desks and staff them with really fantastic journalists who are telling really important stories, not just about the science of climate change, but also the politics that are leading us to make global heating worse overall. I do think the print media has done a better job. I also have noticed that in some articles that aren't explicitly about the climate crisis, even reporters who aren't avowedly climate reporters have started to connect the dots in energy stories and stories about immigration, in stories about inflation, in stories about fashion and traveling to fashion shows and really in every domain, more and more journalists have started to connect the dots between the stories they're telling and the accelerating climate crisis, which is what you want to see because, of course, the climate crisis is not in a science or environment story.
If global heating is the effect of human activities, that means that it's the context for every single story that every journalist is telling. Yes. I've been really happy to see that over the past four years, that has really become kind of standard practice among most journalists. That said, I think the broadcast news is still doing an utterly abysmal job.
Even just mentioning the climate crisis. Very often the network news programs will break news about extreme weather and literally repeat what the science has established is the connection between global heating and this particular extreme weather event, but they'll not even mention the words “climate change.” It's hardcore a form of climate denial, so that's still happening. The other thing that now is really becoming urgent is the fact that as the IPCC said last week in their latest report, we are 100% out of time. In fact, we are past time to phase out the fossil fuel system. We already have too many oil, gas, and coal projects being built today to halt warming under the Paris targets or at the Paris targets.
Banks are still lending money. Fossil fuel companies are still exploring for new deposits, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The media, even the print media, is utterly failing to put this story front and center. It is the film Don't Look Up to a T. There is an existential threat barreling towards our planet and they are entirely failing to raise the alarm. That's the next phase, as far as I'm concerned, really getting the news media to cover the climate crisis with the urgency that it deserves. It'll take a journalistic… a shift in the paradigm for what journalism, what objective journalism is.
Right now, objective journalism seems like the reporter, the anchor, whoever's telling the story, needs to be out of it and they need to sort of present both sides of a particular issue so that the reader can weigh all views on the thing and then make a decision for themselves. But now we need to change the paradigm for objectivity to, do you look out the window and see that it's raining? You just report that it's raining. You do not find—
[00:16:11] Ramanan Raghavendran: On the one hand, but on the other hand.
[00:16:13] Genevieve Guenther: Exactly, exactly. You do not say, “Sources say rain makes us wet.” I mean, this is life and death, so they need to start acting like it. That's my sense of what the news media is doing at the moment.
[00:16:27] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, that is a good segue into our next question, which is, you've outlined visions of what climate communication could look like. We especially like the idea of writing an epic poem that feeds into a social media campaign, we ask that you collaborate with us on that if you decide to do it.
[00:16:45] Could you give us a couple of principles of strong communication about climate? Who do you think is doing a good job with climate communication?
[00:16:53] Genevieve Guenther: Well, I think that Ro Khanna, Congressman Ro Khanna—
[00:16:56] Ramanan Raghavendran: Who is my Congressman!
[00:16:58] Genevieve Guenther: I think in Congress, they are doing an excellent job communicating that the climate crisis is a result of... Is in part, in large part, the result of actions taken by oil and gas companies and their trade groups, which these stakeholders are trying to cover up with disinformation. I think that is the sine qua non, the ground zero for climate communication. They're actually getting that out there by holding hearings, talking about it on social media, making it front and center in their own personal campaigns.
I was slightly disappointed to see Rep Khanna come out for further oil and gas production in response to the crisis, the war, Putin's attack on Ukraine. I would've preferred a kind of Bill McKibben-esque plan, which is to invoke the Defense Production Act to have American industry produce millions of heat pumps and train electricians in Europe to install them quickly.
To me that would've been a much better route. That said, I think they're doing a good job. I think that Amy Westervelt, the journalist Amy Westervelt and the journalist Emily Atkin, are both telling the climate story as a corruption story, which is the right way to tell it. I think they're doing a fantastic job. I think all of the children across the globe who are striking on Fridays, every Friday, to get their governments to take climate change seriously and stop greenwashing their policies with empty net zero pledges, they're doing a great job. I think that it's hard actually to articulate universal principles for climate communication, because I think rhetoric has so much to do with the assumptions of your listeners, their priors, as it were, how much they trust you, what their education is, what they know, what they don't know. It has to be much more segmented and certainly improvisational. I will say that I think that the project of trying to convert climate deniers is just a complete and utter waste of time.
[00:19:01] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah. Well, we would agree a thousand percent with that statement.
[00:19:04] Genevieve Guenther: Oh, good. I'm so glad. I think the most important thing that everyone can do right now is try to connect with people who know themselves to be concerned or even alarmed about the climate crisis, but haven't yet committed to taking ongoing action in this domain. I think those people really need to be mobilized and mobilizing those people will actually make a difference. I would focus your communications efforts on the friends, the colleagues, the groups, the institutions that you see as having that kind of level of concern, but still haven't translated concern into action. I have some ideas about how to do that and they haven't been focus group tested, and I don't feel too bad about that because focus groups themselves are these weird artificial constructs that don't always tell you what you need to know.
[00:20:00] Ramanan Raghavendran: Can you hold onto that thread because we're going to come to that in a specific question?
[00:20:06] Genevieve Guenther: Okay.
[00:20:06] Ramanan Raghavendran: You've spoken before about the ways that the global fight against climate change is really not the same everywhere. This is obviously especially near and dear to me, because I was an immigrant to the United States and Amasia's work is truly global in nature. We invest around the world and so we see things in lots of places. You've pointed out that the global north and the wealthiest around the world, which are not a congruent group, by the way, an entire completely congruent group, because you have a lot of wealth in emerging markets, is the best way to put it, they have different responsibilities.
[00:20:36] Does that affect the tone and style of communication you might use with these different groups and communication as a proxy then for substance underlying?
[00:20:46] Genevieve Guenther: I mean, to be perfectly frank, I think that if you tell someone affluent that their discretionary consumption is burning the planet and they need to stop doing it immediately, you've lost them entirely. You will have lost them entirely. I don't think that most people who aren't already deeply involved with the climate crisis, who have grappled with the kind of emotional fallout that I think is inevitable once you start realizing how much danger that we are in and how late in the day it is to actually halt global heating and how complicit literally all of our institutions really are, I think until you've done that work, to use therapy-speak, it's very unlikely that telling someone directly that they need to reduce their consumption is going to do anything except have them shut you out.
I think if you are appealing to someone who is affluent or extremely wealthy, and let me be clear that most Americans in global terms are affluent, the global 1% are people who make over a $103,000 a year. Of course, a lot of Americans who make over $103,000 a year are still living paycheck to paycheck and working as hard as they possibly can just to keep it all going. You also have to be very, very clear about who is struggling, who, no matter how affluent they seem in global terms, who is locked in to fossil fuel consumption. You actually don't want to make those people who are more stuck feel helpless or overwhelmed, especially because really individual action for those people is the thing that comes last, not the thing that comes first, though that will come out of systemic political change.
But I'm talking about the people who take 12 and more flights a year, who maybe own planes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I think the best thing to do if you're addressing those people, most of whom think they believe that the climate crisis is real, is talk about what you are doing. Just talk about what you're doing, why you're doing it and how good it is, how much better it is and just leave it there. That's how I would address people who are very affluent.
[00:23:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: I'm obliged to say that I've written an entire book on this topic and it basically says what you just said. I could have replaced the book with three sentences, which I will now remember. Sorry, please continue.
[00:23:33] Genevieve Guenther: I also think that in fact, fixing global heating and transforming our economy into a more circular, sustainable version of itself that isn't driven merely by GDP growth considerations is actually going to make the majority of people's lives better. It 100% is. Once we've made the transition, everybody is going to be spending less money on electricity, on transportation, and on healthcare costs. There was one study by Drew Schendel at Stanford that showed that even if the United States decarbonized its economy and the entire world continued to use fossil fuels, we would come out ahead economically just from healthcare savings costs alone.
That would translate into having more real income in your wallet. There is a huge constituency who needs to know that their lives could be a lot better if we save their children's future. That seems like a win-win to me. Then of course there are people on the front lines of the climate crisis, impoverished people, African American communities, Native American communities, and indigenous communities, all these people, and even rural communities are increasingly starting to feel the climate effects. These people can be built into a coalition, who is messaged by this idea that the climate crisis, your lives are being destroyed. I'm sorry, I'm pounding on the table and shaking the camera. Your lives are being destroyed for totally unfair reasons.
Are you telling me that your kids are not going to have a future so that these people over here can fly to Milan for the latest collection in their plane twice a year? I think that there's a really powerful message about fairness and safety and security that can be circulated. It's slightly complicated by the American ideology that anyone could be hyper wealthy if they just work hard enough and live their dreams and make their dreams a reality. I think a lot of people draw on that and love that idea a lot. That is slightly complicated, but fundamentally I think people just want a better life for their kids. They want a system that's fair and they want just a little more money in their pocket so they can exhale and decarbonization will give them that. I think we can target the consumption of the rich in movement building as part of this message of consumption equality, climate justice, and making most people's lives better because we've decarbonized our economy.
[00:26:23] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, as you can imagine, we agree 1000% with everything you've said. One of the things I say to those in my network and friends who would qualify as affluent by any definition, that subset of my social group is my issue here, the battle I'm fighting is not with your wealth, that is a different battle. Other people are fighting it. I don't want to get in the middle of that battle. I'm not quite sure what my exact position is in that battle. The issue I have is with how you behave and perform your wealth.
[00:26:56] Genevieve Guenther: Right. Exactly.
[00:26:58] Ramanan Raghavendran: If we can fix that, we got something going. All right, I'm going to move on to our last question.
[00:27:02] I'm sure that'll spur one or two additional questions, which is, there's communication in the moment, but obviously for those of us who have a long term interest in this topic, how do we ensure that communication spurs sustained effort and actual change?
Maybe this touches at the core of activism broadly defined. Is it a matter of eliciting certain kinds of emotions? Keeping the crisis top of mind or something else entirely?
[00:27:30] Genevieve Guenther: I think it's really, emotions are ephemeral. Emotions can catalyze certain behaviors and actions, but they're ephemeral. I tend to like to cultivate anger, especially—
[00:27:47] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, please don't be angry with us. We'll be very sad.
[00:27:54] Genevieve Guenther: —not with you. Especially in the face of despair. I find it helps me to start thinking about the fossil fuel interests who are trying to block the transition that will ensure a safe future for our children, my son, and his friends and all beautiful children. I just become enraged. I get this sort of galvanized sense of duty that I can't let them get away with it. For me, at least personally, and maybe I'm just a wacko, but for me, really trying to take my attention away from the kind of climate crisis itself, hot weather, rainstorms, droughts, whatever it is, and even not focusing as much on the victim of the climate crisis, as you would imagine, but really trying to keep my attention, laser focused on the people who don't care and are blocking the solutions, helps me get up and get to work and stay in the fight every day because that, I feel hopeful that real political change can happen and that justice from struggle can prevail.
But to me, that kind of righteous outrage is actually what keeps me in it all the time. But again, everyone is different. This might not work for someone else, although there is a lot of social science research that suggests that righteous outrage is an emotion that fuels social movements. But again, everyone is different. Ultimately, I think it comes down to two segments, two domains, the news media and our politicians. If the news media covered the climate crisis with the frequency and the urgency it deserved and our elected officials didn't just campaign on the climate crisis when they wanted to get youth and African American voters on their side, but actually messaged it once they were in office and built entire policy packages around it, it would stay on the agenda.
People wouldn't be talking about anything else. It's people with a platform and people with power who have the responsibility to keep it front and center. Scientists and activists, I mean, we're doing everything that we can, but we don't have that kind of reach. We have to just try to push the news media and push the stakeholders to do the job. So far they haven't done it, but on the day that they do, then it will stay top of mind.
[00:30:36] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, as you can imagine, we have a platform. It is a very tiny platform, but it has some interesting people that float around it. By platform, I don't just mean the platform in which we put out our research interviews. It's the totality of how we communicate in that measure. We have no power regrettably, but we do have a platform. In fact, I have no power in any domain of my life, but we have a platform.
[00:31:00] Genevieve Guenther: I sincerely doubt that.
[00:31:02] Ramanan Raghavendran: It's true. You haven't met my children. What I would say is your voice will now be out on our platform very much with not just 'Here's your voice.' It's, 'Here's your voice and we agree with it 1000%.' I think all of that lies ahead. I'm going to wrap us up here. Thank you for the time, for the wisdom, for a viewpoint that is depressingly absent from the circles in which Amasia operates in the worlds of VC and tech. Hopefully this won't be the last time we speak with you. Thank you.