A gettysburg address for climate change?

December 21, 2013, 9:37 am

JohnShepardClimateConversation_featured_image500pxThe recent coverage of the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address got me thinking, could there ever be a Gettysburg Address on climate change?

No doubt, there’s a lot that we can we learn about that speech’s ability to resonate with the American public, across multiple generations, that might assist in efforts to communicate about climate change.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting parallels between slavery and climate change. What I’m talking about here is good communication – something climate science sorely needs. Many commentators and historians have noted the Gettysburg’s brevity (270 words), simplicity (mostly two-syllable words, no jargon), and how it relates to some of our nation’s founding principles (freedom, democracy, a perfect union).  Others pointed to the speech’s structure (addressing the past, present, and future) and its final call to action.

From a speech writing standpoint, duplicating these hallmarks is do-able.  Probably the most challenging aspect would be figuring out which principles to touch on that would speak to the widest audience and galvanize them to action. Would these be drawn from our founding documents, elements common to multiple faiths, or another global set of values?

What I struggle with is the right timing and context, and who the messenger would be. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take one or more dramatic and destructive weather events to galvanize public attention and someone who can speak to our better natures to garner the political will and mobilize action at the right scale to really make a difference.

When that time comes, I hope that someone, somewhere, will have an opportunity to demarcate a moment when our nation, and perhaps humanity in general, will see fit to unify, this time for different reasons, in order to meet a different kind of challenge, but one that is just as important, if not more so, for human history.



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John Shepard

John Shepard

An environmentalist, John Shepard has lived with his family in Tucson, Arizona, since 1995 . His work takes him throughout the American West and Northwest Mexico, giving him a first-hand look at how climate change is impacting the region’s landscapes and communities.

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