One of the consequences of climate change is the threat and potential extinction of animal and plant life. An article published in February 2014 in Nature detailed the threats of extinction by 2100 for certain species of amphibians. Without climate change, the risk of extinction for these animals would be 1%, but with climate change it nears 30%. The Nature Conservancy is even less optimistic, noting that by 2050, nearly 1/4 of animal and plant species will be nearing extinction. The mounting evidence for climate change and the preponderance of information about the negative effects may sound like a broken record. These types of statistics are still widely needed, however, because there has still been little political action to mitigate carbon emissions. But, is information about animals and plants the best motivation for action?
It’s easy to see how direct threats to our own well-being are more persuasive than threats to the well-being of others, especially non-human “others.” Rhetorical tropes may help us understand why projection onto non-human animals is a difficult persuasive step. Indeed, the classic image of a stranded polar bear was once a poignant reminder of what’s at stake and now possesses a mere “iconic” status.
Enargia are tropes that are meant to excite emotional responses to persuade us to act. Enargia means to use vivid language to make things palpable and appeal to pathos and our emotion state. Instead of being encouraged to engage in fear for our own lives, we are asked to engage in empathy. One ground-breaking example of this vivid language is Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” The description of a barren world tries to motivate us to divert our course to prevent it. O’Leary argues in “Arguing the Apocalypse” that timing is extremely important in creating motivation. Time a catastrophic event too far in the future and people will not engage. Time it too soon and people will feel helpless and vulnerable. This could by why many advertisements and activists focus on making the world a better place for future humans, specifically our children. Though we may not directly feel the effects (but perhaps might), those we care about are more likely to live through them.
Caring for others (especially ones apart from ourselves and loved ones) is a difficult rhetorical task that groups such as creation care advocates and non-profits are trying to harness. People may be drawn to the bystander effect, where it is easier to allow others to act, or they may feel that animals and plants are not influential in every day life. Without experiencing the direct effects or being able to understand them, the potential risks of these threats may be lost.
Perhaps one solution is to highlight the effects of disrupting nature as a whole, especially the food chain, will eventually effect human life. There is a great episode of the Wild Thornberrys where Eliza, the daughter, gives a struggling finch a needle so that it may better capture grubs in trees. Though originally seen as a beneficial act, Eliza quickly realizes that she’s destroyed the food chain in the Galapagos. Too many grubs were eaten, so there were fewer insects to be consumed by fish, causing them to die or leave the island. Thus, the purpose of the family’s visit, to see the Galapagos turtles, ultimately failed as they did not come to the island due to the lack of food available.
If people directly relate threats to animal and plant life with their own safety and well-being, the enargia about non-human life may be successful in promoting action. These links are not always very tenable, however, and each logical point is an opportunity for skepticism, rebuttal, and loss of attention. These are all important points to think about when crafting influential, attention-grabbing, and meaningful climate messages.