Eye on 2012: A Post-Partisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
With Republicans gaining the majority in the House, closing the gap in the Senate, and controlling the state legislatures and Governor offices in key states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and possibly Minnesota, the next two years threaten even stronger, hyper-partisan debate over climate change.
On one side, there will be loud challenges to climate science from Tea Party-backed Congressional members and familiar conservative voices such as James Inhofe. On the other side, there will be renewed claims of a war on science, a circling of the wagons among greens and liberals, and name calling strategies such as labeling conservatives "deniers." The claims from both sides will be repeated and amplified at cable news, in the narratives told by many political journalists, and across the blogosphere.
The result will be further disengagement and inattention from the 2/3 of Americans who fall in between the tail-end segments of climate alarmists and climate dismissives. The likely hyper-partisan rhetoric also threatens to obscure the need for substantive discussion and re-evaluation of policy solutions to climate change, solutions that can gain support from both parties and that offer clear benefits to Americans. Overlooked will also be the need to focus on regionally tailored actions related to mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable economic growth.
An Opportunity for Leadership
As an antidote to this new era of hyper-partisanship on climate change, a coalition of expert organizations needs to step forward to promote serious discussion of policy alternatives and to provide the civic education opportunities that enable a diversity of Americans to learn, plan, connect, and voice their preferences on climate and energy policy.
In a recent commissioned draft white paper to the National Academies, I described a detailed and achievable blue print for how to create these new communication opportunities for Americans. Below I offer a summary and encourage readers to respond with their own ideas and additions.
A number of promising climate policy proposals have emerged over the past several months. One example is proposed jointly by the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Breakthrough Institute. The detailed plan calls for "increasing federal innovation investment from roughly $4 today to $25 billion annually, and using military procurement, new, disciplined deployment incentives, and public-private hubs to achieve both incremental improvements and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies." The authors point to America's long-history of bi-partisan support for innovation as evidence of the plan's political promise. Another example comes from political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. in his book The Climate Fix. Pielke suggests that a $5 tax be placed on carbon, a level so low that consumers do not feel the effects, but substantive enough to pay for a budget-neutral large scale investment in clean energy development.
The challenge for these ideas and others is to gain substantive media and policy attention amidst the pending hyper-partisan noise. For advocates and journalists, the perceived "war" between the left and the right on climate change will be a distracting yet very easy story to tell, one that is likely to be self-serving by rallying the base, selling copy, and avoiding complexity.
Investing in Civic Education about Climate and Energy
Perhaps the greatest damage from the pending hyper-partisan debate will be to civic engagement and public participation on the issue. In response, what is needed is action, leadership, and coordinated investment from a range of expert institutions including national scientific societies, government agencies, universities, foundations, business, and affiliated professional groups.
The goal should not be to defend the science of climate change or to boost climate literacy, since science is not what is at issue in the policy debate, and science is not what shapes public judgment or preferences. Nor should the goal be to lobby for a particular set of policies or align with partisans on the issue.
Instead, the goals should be to promote relevant areas of knowledge beyond just technical understanding of climate science that include understanding of the social, institutional, ethical, and economic dimensions of the debate along with familiarity with the costs and benefits of a range of policy proposals. To achieve these outcomes, civic education investments necessitate promoting affective outcomes such as increased feelings of trust and efficacy; creating a new communication infrastructure and participatory culture; and recruiting citizens who can help their peers learn, connect, and plan.
Civic education and communication should be viewed as a two-way process where elected officials and the sponsoring expert organizations learn about and respond to public preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options. This is especially important for elected officials. Part of the challenge in creating the incentives for policymakers to take action on climate change and to address the issue in a serious way is to accurately communicate about the nature of public opinion.
The One Person in the Room Paradox
Currently, there is what I call the “one person” in the room paradox. When asked about a range of general policy actions on climate change, polls show majority public support. Yet policymakers—as well as advocates—tend to suffer from what communication researchers call “pluralistic ignorance”: They often have a skewed and faulty statistical sense of where their constituents stand on the issue, over-estimating the proportion of those strongly opposed to action and under-estimating the proportion and nature of support.
Instead they gauge the strength of opposition by the one guy who stands up at a town meeting and goes on a rant against climate science. Or they perceive the nature of support for action as the one guy who shows up at an event dressed as a polar bear or a fat cat polluter.
As a result, a more accurate portrait of public opinion and public preferences needs to be conveyed and communicated effectively to decision-makers.
A Regionally-Focused Strategy Leading Up to the 2012 Election
In the National Academies white paper, I propose a multi-prong plan for achieving these goals, which I summarize below. Importantly, the initiative does not take place at the national level, where communication and education efforts are likely to be lost in the noise of hyper-partisan rhetoric and are likely to be diluted by the fragmented nature of national media.
Instead I propose that civic education and communication efforts be timed and focused in the states and regions where there is the greatest need and demand.
In the 18 months leading up to the 2012 Presidential and Congressional elections, the states that will be the subject of the heaviest Presidential campaigning are also the states where many Republican and Democratic members of Congress remain undecided about climate change legislation. These states include Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona.
It is in these areas that the need for public engagement might be highest since voters should consider the climate change and energy track-records of their representatives. Moreover, presidential candidates and representatives campaigning in these states should be informed by the preferences of their constituents and stakeholders.
This does not mean that expert organizations such as scientific societies or universities would be playing the role of advocates, instead much like the League of Women Voters, they would be providing an important civic function, creating the opportunities and forums for voters and office-seekers to discuss, learn, connect, and voice their opinions about climate change and energy.
For each state, depending on size, I estimate the direct costs for the 18 month initiative to be between $500,000 to $1,000,000. This investment would also build upon the resources, expertise, and initiatives of many different partner organizations and institutions including regional universities, museums and zoos, public media organizations, religious institutions, public libraries, and other civic organizations.
The cost would not only be supported by grants from national funding agencies such as NSF, NOAA, and the Energy Department, but also supported by the pooled resources of scientific societies and other expert organizations, as well as national foundations dedicated to supporting environmental initiatives, civil dialogue and public media. In each state, funding would also be raised from regional foundations, donors, and/or regional corporate sponsors such as utilities and major companies.
Here’s a breakdown on the multi-pronged strategy:
Monthly Deliberative Forums. In each state, carefully planned, intensely promoted deliberative forums would be held each month at a major population center or across a diversity of institutional settings ranging from schools and labor unions to churches and malls. Each meeting would be framed around a different dimension of climate change in a way that might resonate and connect with the host site and intended participants. Examples might include deliberative forums on the local ecological impact of climate change; the impact on agriculture and farming; the potential for economic growth through energy retro-fitting and technology development; the national security implications of climate change; or public health.
In these public forums or meetings, recruited representative samples of approximately 100 participants from the designated city or area would receive background materials in advance, and provide input on the types of questions they would like addressed at the meeting. Importantly, the public forums should never involve a single expert lecturing to an audience about climate change, but should be structured around presentations from a diversity of experts and stakeholders followed by facilitated discussion among attendees that results in structured feedback to forum organizers (as an example see this video clip on deliberative exercises held in the run up to Copenhagen).
As I review in the white paper, research suggests a range of benefits for these types of forums, including the mitigation of ideological extremity, increased feelings of efficacy and trust, learning across dimensions of knowledge, and increased levels of participation on the issue.
Importantly, each meeting would end by the participants voting on general policy recommendations related to climate and energy policy. This vote would capture what public opinion for a community would look like if diverse citizens were to come together to learn, discuss, and debate climate action in a civil and facilitated manner. These preferences would be released to the media and to candidates and elected officials. These events would also create a news peg for the state and national media to cover substantively both climate policy and public preferences.
In coordination at the national level, these forums would be organized and coordinated by faculty and departments at regional universities, drawing on the expertise of scientists, social scientists, and professional faculty at business and journalism schools.
Monthly Surveys and Focus Groups. As second mechanism for conveying accurately public opinion and for tracking the impact of the communication initiative is to conduct and release each month state-specific polling and focus groups exploring in depth a range of questions about climate change and energy. These initiatives could also be conducted and coordinated by faculty experts at regional universities. Importantly, these surveys would highlight the same general public preferences asked at the end of the deliberative meetings, pointing to differences in where public opinion ends up after citizens have a chance to learn, discuss, and debate.
Connecting Around Art, Entertainment, and Community. Organized deliberative forums would be complimented by events and initiatives held by a range of civic organizations including art museums and organizations; churches and faith-based organizations; and ethnic and minority-based organizations. The goal of these events would be to create additional opportunities for a diversity of citizens to learn and express their opinions.
Art, entertainment, and faith are the likely content that will turn people out to events. This includes art exhibits at museums and other public libraries; writer and author talks; religious summits and meetings; and the screening of films and documentaries. Drawing upon the talent, knowledge, and wisdom of creative professionals and religious leaders will be an important part of wider public engagement. Research additionally suggests that comedy, irony, and humor should also be an important content theme. Formulas for making a focus on climate change both entertaining and substantive are needed. As one example, sustainability consultant Tom Bowman has pitched the novel idea of a traveling climate change festival or Chautauqua, featuring interactive exhibits, speakers, and entertainment.
Regional Digital News Communities. With the reduced capacity at local and regional newspapers to cover climate change, energy, and related policy issues, an important part of the civic education campaign will be to launch state-specific digital news communities that provide locally tailored coverage. These digital news communities would include original reporting and professionally edited news content, features, and commentaries along with a range of user-generated and social media functions. This content can also be shared and distributed to partner organizations in the region such as public media organizations and/or the local newspaper. (A number of models and strategies already exist for launching these types of digital news communities, as documented in a recent report I did with colleagues for the Public Broadcasting Service.)
The state-specific digital news community would also serve as the central information hub for the civic education initiative. Much of the overall campaign’s “brand” would focus in part on creating awareness, traffic, and use of the site. Not only would the deliberative forums, community events, and poll releases be covered as news and commentary at these sites, but the social media functions of the site would also serve to amplify the interpersonal connections forged at face-to-face events, so that attendees can find out additional information, continue to participate, and voice their opinions.
Opinion-Leader Recruitment. Every major marketing, public health, or political initiative includes a carefully designed opinion-leader component, yet these strategies have yet to be pursued meaningfully relative to climate change (see for example the use of “navigators” in the 2004 Bush campaign). Opinion-leaders rarely hold formal positions of authority and instead prove influential by way of their greater attention to a topic, their knowledge, their strength of personality, and their experience in serving as a central go-between for information among their network of core and loose ties. Research finds that opinion-leaders span and exist across every socio-economic group. Previous research suggests four types of opinion-leaders that are likely to be important depending on the type of climate change education initiative. Survey scales have been developed to reliably and validly identify these categories of opinion-leaders. Shortened versions can be embedded in email or web surveys by organizations, or at public meetings and events, observational strategies can be used to identify opinion leaders [see this paper for more.] The four types of opinion-leaders include:
Once identified, opinion-leaders need to be recruited and trained as peer-educators who initiate conversations with friends and acquaintances, passing on and recommending important news coverage about climate change, encouraging turn out at upcoming events, and providing advice and insight on how to participate, learn, and connect with others on the issue.
Within a specific region or population segment, recruiting opinion-leaders as part of a formal climate change education campaign may appear as risky to expert organizations which traditionally prefer that only official organizational representatives speak on their behalf, for fear of the risk of losing control of a message or promoting false information. Yet this fear only underscores the importance of training, follow-up, and monitoring of opinion-leaders. There already exists a successful model for expert organizations to consider: At zoos, museums, and science centers, volunteer docents are typically the main contact point for visitors. Well trained opinion-leaders should be considered organizational docents who are at large in the real world engaging their peers on climate change.
A Concrete Plan for Action Informed by Research
Disappointed at the failure of progress on climate policy and frustrated at the extremity of claims from polarized sides, expert organizations are only likely to see these concerns grow worse over the next two years.
But the likelihood of a new era of hyper-partisanship on climate change also affords the opportunity for leadership and progress. The plan that I outlined above is not a call for more research on how best to communicate about climate change or to better understand public opinion. Nor does it involve a narrow and misguided emphasis that either seeks to “defend climate science” or “improve climate literacy,” traditional calls for action that are seldom well thought out and if pursued, are not likely to be effective at achieving broader public engagement or at getting beyond hyper-partisan rancor.
Instead the basic plan described is informed by research and best-practices in communication, is achievable and fundable, and perhaps the best investment in resources leading up to the 2012 election.
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