David Goldstein, a climate activist who was shocked and angered by Heartland’s bizarre ad campaign, decided to do something about it. He single-handedly launched his own campaign, renting another Clear Channel billboard in Minneapolis for 24 hours and $300. The sign he put up in response to Heartland asks viewers: “Guess who believes in climate change?” and then directs them to the website where they can read about the multitude of scientific academies, military personnel and key influencers worldwide who support climate science. I spoke with him to get the full story.
Just over a week ago you took a stand against climate deniers. Why did you feel compelled to respond to the Heartland Institute’s ad?
The Heartland Institute and similar fossil fuel-funded organizations have actually been doing a pretty effective job generating confusion, controversy and a sense of “non- urgency” in the arena of climate change. They muddy the waters with nonsense science and paint a picture of uncertainty where, in reality, there exists very strong and broad agreement.
I felt that they had made a strategic error with their billboard campaign equating belief in climate change with the craziness or insanity of someone like Ted Kaczynski or Charles Manson. In fact, it is the most credible members of our scientific and military organizations that believe climate change is happening and that human activities are causing it. In so doing, Heartland unintentionally exposed the nonsensical logic behind their entire organizational approach. They got careless. I thought somebody should put up a billboard to take advantage of the situation – to set the record straight. So I did that.
What inspired you to become a climate activist?
I have firsthand experience with avoidance and denial and the consequences. In the past 25 years I’ve experienced two significant diseases, four major surgeries, countless medical procedures and 18 hospitalizations. I’ve received 60% of my youngest brother’s liver (a “live donor” liver transplant — he is now doing fine), contracted extensive cancer of the bile ducts and gall bladder, undergone a dozen liver biopsies, post-surgical septic shock … and so on. For many years, while my personal body systems were being pushed out of balance, I had avoided taking the actions suggested by the medical experts. By my refusal to listen to, much less act upon their prescriptions, I had brought upon myself much unnecessary suffering and had ultimately, and needlessly, placed my own life in jeopardy. I finally learned that avoidance and denial do not prevent suffering, they only make it worse.
In climate change, I see the same thing happening. We are avoiding and denying the “prescriptions” of the scientific experts. We hope it will all just go away or we hope that the scientists are wrong or … we just choose not to think about it. I did all these things myself. It doesn’t work! The first thing we have to do is to decisively get beyond the denial stage. It is time to, at least, put the non-science behind us so that we can get to the very real and very challenging choices that need to be made. That is why I am taking action. That is why I put up the billboard.
Why do you think the deniers seek to make climate science so controversial?
For some it is probably simply about protecting their profits. If there is uncertainty or confusion about the effects of carbon in our atmosphere from fossil fuels, then it is less likely that policies will be enacted to curtail carbon (and methane) emissions. For others, it may align with their political or economic ideologies. For others still, I believe, there is a deep desire to NOT believe that something upon which we have based our entire way of life – plentiful use of fossil fuels – is also inexorably pushing our “home” climate out of a workable balance. This is an extraordinarily “inconvenient” setup; I believe someone has used the term before!
How does the media we consume – from billboards to TV shows – affect our perception of the climate crisis and the urgency for action?
It seems to affect us quite deeply. There is maybe 20% of the population who is already on board with the established science. The media doesn’t affect them much. There is some percentage of the population who is “dead set” against accepting the science. The media also doesn’t affect them much. But there is the 60% or so in the middle who generally understand that there is or, at least, may be a problem, but have not prioritized it as an issue in their lives. This is the crucial group who may be influenced by misleading or lazy headlines or advertisements. Sound science is, of course, essential, but so is getting the message out in an effective manner.
What did you hope to accomplish with the billboard and how is that reality unfolding?
My “pie in the sky” vision is to have it “go viral” as the Heartland billboard did. My website that goes with the billboard provides a list of quotations from every national science academy, the Pentagon, various admirals and generals from all branches of the armed forces supporting urgent policy action on climate change. I want people to see this! I would also love people to read my personal health story of coming full circle from denial to embracing constructive action – however inconvenient! I am hopeful that a personal story of health challenges and healing can “speak to” people in a way that hard science may not be able to. I would love to take my presentation to groups around the world – the clock is certainly ticking.
Thanks to David for infusing the climate community with some enthusiasm. We are indeed inspired by your story and hope to hear more like it!