Lions vs Hippos: Climate Change's bad Marketing
Lions and hippos can teach us a lot about how we should best communicate the dangers climate change presents to the globe community. Lions easily make peoples’ list of most feared animals while hippos’ reputation can best be described as that of a punchline. Lions serve as a universally accepted symbol of strength that deserves both fear and respect while hippos are characterized as affable and lovable herbivores at best.
Today’s news about climate change always enlists such “30,000 foot” indices as tons of carbon released into the environment and the atmosphere’s parts per million (PPM) carbon concentrations. Scientist talk about how the tons of carbon impacts everything from sea levels and storm strength to altered growing seasons and human migration but addressing such grand problems are understandably daunting for individuals, businesses and governments. How are those who are moved to action against climate change supposed to realize a tangible return on their investments when the metrics used to measure its increasing severity are so global and amorphous?
What if there was a more tangible yet correlated threat metric that could be used to better communicate climate change’s dangers to individuals, companies and governments? What if people could be moved away from being asked to save global weather patterns and instead simply be asked to improve their own health? The lion in this scenario is the malign pollution that accompanies the benign carbon emissions, aka hippo, created by many economic sectors. Pollution is the local problem whose mitigation will have an immediate and direct impact on those who live within that community or region. Would a greater percentage of people adopt energy saving practices and technologies if they better appreciated how doing so would reduce power plant pollution output and improve their health? I like to think so.
People view lions as one of the world’s most dangerous predators except those who actually live near these animal’s natural habitat. Locals know that while lions strike an imposing figure and deserve respect, hippos are actually much more dangerous. What appears to be an easy going herbivore is actually an incredibly territorial killer. They kill about 5x as many people every year than lions according to the attached graphic courtesy of a 2014 Bill Gate’s tweet.
The reason for this cognitive disparity regarding these two predators can be at least partly attributable to the fact that a lion strikes a much more imposing figure and kills in a much more graphic fashion. We can all conjure up those images of intrepid lions stalking their quarry across an arid savanna. Suddenly the lion’s meek prey spots its hunter and takes off at a dead sprint. Nature TV does an exceptional job of dramatizing the inevitable take down in which the exhausted prey is overpowered in a cloud of dust. The hippo by contrast poses the exact opposite of an imposing figure and its kills often happen suddenly and most often from below the waterline. The contrast between and global reputation of these two killers just as with pollution and carbon couldn’t be more juxtaposed
Today’s current messaging surrounding climate change is focused on telling the hippo’s story rather than the lion’s. We stir concern regarding climate change’s desperate consequences and those of its second and third order effects while all but ignoring, by comparison, this problem’s other underlying impacts. What if scientist, community leaders and individuals began to communicate the risk climate change poses as an aside to the terrible impacts pollution has on our local communities? What if people were made more aware of how such toxins as chromium, mercury and arsenic that are released everyday into our local air, soil and water by coal fired power plants hurt their health where they live? What if solar panels, Disclaimer: I sell solar in Central Florida, were seen as a way to reduce cancer rates, early deaths and asthma rather than as a way to impress a neighbor or save a buck? What if families chose where to live just as much on proximity to heavy pollution emitting roadways or water quality at their sink as weigh school districts or proximity to amenities? What if people were presented with an opportunity to improve their own health and that of their community rather than simply be faced with contributing to a Hail Mary effort against CO2 and global sea level rise?
Climate change along with its second and third order effects is certainly the overwhelming challenge facing our generation but highlighting pollution’s community level impacts represents the best opportunity to drive individuals, companies and governments to action. Governments and organizations need to expend less energy attempting to make people scared of hippos and leverage the Lion’s putative image to change the narrative surrounding these important issues facing our global community.
I stand by my proclamation that I’m not an environmentalist but an “Unfortunate Market Opportunist” though I appreciate how this post sends a mixed message. My ambition in writing this piece comes from a place of deep seated frustration that has built up over many years. Organizations and leaders sell the global community on the dangers of what amounts to the herbivore of threat metrics while failing to properly leverage the more powerful concern we all have for our own health. The first lesson in marketing, according to me, is to identify what moves people to action and leverage that information to further your objectives. CO2 does not sell well as a villain.
International readers’ notes:
“30,000 foot problem” is an expression that references commercial aircrafts’ cruising altitude. I have used it in this piece to convey the sentiment that an issue is too distant and grand to be within the scope and capabilities of those to whom are being asked to take action.
“Hail Mary” is a religious term of phrase co-opted by American football and adopted more broadly to convey a sense of heroic last chance effort. The term “Hail Mary” is used in American football to describe a throw of the American foot a long distance down the field in an effort to score points or to move your team significantly closer to the goal. These plays happen at the point in a game when a team is facing an impending defeat and has little to lose by making such a risky play.
“Save a Buck” is a turn of phrase used by Americans and other cultures to express saving money.