June 27, 2018
In December of 1953, the CEOs of the United States’ top cigarette manufacturers came together. Their goal was to figure out how to maintain cigarette sales in the face of mounting evidence showing a link between smoking and lung cancer. What followed was a revolutionary marketing campaign, which would attempt to make smoking’s risks difficult for consumers to decipher. Shortly after the December 1953 meeting, The Tobacco Industry Research Council (or TIRC) was founded. Publicly, its goal was to conduct independent and unbiased research on the health effects of smoking. But behind closed doors, the real goal of the TIRC was to encourage controversy around the idea that smoking was connected to lung cancer. The tobacco industry had moved from manufacturing cigarettes to manufacturing doubt.
“I think that there could be a similar narrative in climate,” says Grace Nosek, an Allard Scholar Graduate Fellowship recipient, who recently received the prestigious Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship. “Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes (Department of History of Science at Harvard University) recently analyzed several decades of ExxonMobil’s communications on climate change and found that the company expressed significantly more doubt about climate change in advertisements to the public than it did in internal company documents. Exxon’s scientists have known for a long time that climate change could be potentially catastrophic and yet the company has funded the obstruction and undermining of climate science and action for decades.”
Nosek (who received her JD from Harvard Law School and her LLM from UBC) is nine months into her PhD in Law graduate degree program at Allard Hall. Her research focuses on analyzing how law can be used to protect climate science from manufactured doubt. Despite evidence of industry manipulation, Nosek remains hopeful about our ability to decrease climate skepticism and mitigate global warming. Many of the scientific and technological strategies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions exist, Nosek says. But do we have the social and political will to implement those strategies?
This is where Nosek’s activism comes in. This past year, Nosek was one of the principle organizers of the inaugural UBC Climate Town Hall. The event, which was attended by over 350 students, faculty, and staff, focused on the idea that climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue. “I think in a lot of people’s minds you think of polar bears, and it’s like no – it’s communities that are already struggling, that don’t have the same resources for addressing climate change, that have done the least to contribute to it, that will be profoundly more in harm’s way.”
The Town Hall was organized by a student-run organization called the UBC Sustainability Collective. The Collective is a coalition of more than twelve student groups from across UBC who work together on environmental justice issues. The idea of implementing systemic change can be incredibly daunting, but Nosek and her team of student advocates have received the support of UBC with space, training, mentorship, and funding. Spurred by students, UBC President Santa J. Ono recently pledged $25,000 to support the creation of a Climate Hub on campus. But convincing people that climate change is an urgent threat is just the first step. Once people believe that climate change is happening, it’s important to make sure that they are aware of their ability to make substantive change. That’s where storytelling comes in.
“I know the impacts of climate change, but I also know that 300 people might read my law review article. We need to reach so many more people than that. Stories can spread,” says Nosek. “They can be viral.”
Nosek has witnessed the power of storytelling through her own work. She is the author of the Ava of the Gaia trilogy, a young adult ecofeminist series which follows 17-year-old Ava, a member of an ancient order tasked with protecting Earth’s magic. The books engage with research Nosek drew from in her LLM thesis, which suggests that positive emotions like pride, hope, and gratitude are more likely to serve as a catalyst for action than negative emotions like shame or guilt. According to Nosek, climate change is no exception: when we feel guilty about our ecological footprint, we are more likely to pretend that climate change does not exist. This is especially true when we feel like our actions don’t matter. Our tendency to ignore a problem gets worse when we feel like there is nothing we can do to make it better.
Since the first book’s release in 2011, Nosek has spoken with more than a thousand students across the United States and Canada. She hopes that these conversations help young people to realize that there are things they can be doing right now to fight climate change. And it sounds like Ava’s story is doing just that.
Following a recent book talk, Nosek received a message from a former colleague who had brought her thirteen-year-old to the event. “She said it was one of the best nights of her daughter’s life, that she had been feeling so hopeless about climate change. So now I’m actually going to go speak to the whole class of sixty thirteen-year-olds to again, give this message of hope.”
Classroom by classroom, book talk by book talk, person by person, Nosek is aiming for critical mass. “What we need more than anything else is the political and social will to take bold action at the national, provincial, and international level. And that’s just people talking to one another.”