Paper: Promoting Workplace Conversations about Climate

The International Journal of Sustainability Communication is an important new open-access outlet for research and practitioner essays on environmental communication. In the latest issue, communication strategist Tom Bowman suggests that the workplace has been overlooked as a central place to engage Americans on climate change:

How can communicators engage the public in social learning and dialogue? The most obvious answer is to focus on places where social interactions already occur and where
groups of people would be predisposed to form new collective narratives and social norms.
The workplace is one such environment, and it has been woefully underserved.
Most Americans work and a growing number of businesses and institutions are making
efforts to "go green." These organizations tend to form project teams that identify
technology and process changes (Esty & Winston, 2006; James, Smith, & Doppelt, 2007).
Their work often leads to new behavioral norms among co-workers and create new
corporate values with which workers can identify. As new norms and values take root in
organizations and become public, they are likely spread to workers' families and other
social situations as well. Business organizations also respond to champions: risk-takers who
succeeded. Their examples tend to become "best practices" in their industries. So, the
positive effects of successful communications with businesses are likely to become widely
known and widely copied (Arroyo & Preston, 2007). Changes in the business community can also send signals to other parts of society. As Arroyo and Preston note (2007), "Although the scientific community is associated with greater credibility, when businesses go public about integrating climate change into their bottom lines, it sends a powerful message about the realities of climate change and the means of addressing it" (p. 335).


Bowman's proposals are in line with what communication research would suggest would be effective. He suggests using so-called "top down" interventions to sponsor "bottom up" engagement among publics who are currently disengaged. Moreover, these interventions cut across levels of social organization, with strategies focused on the individual, social settings such as work, and the larger community.

Bowman's focus on the workplace is especially important. Research in political communication (including several studies I have co-authored), finds that as a social setting, the workplace serves as a natural "network of recruitment" for civic engagement, a place where people receive information or requests to participate in a campaign or on an issue from respected peers and friends. This research shows that on average, the only social context more effective for political recruitment are churches.

Workplaces, however, do have an added benefit over churches when it comes to facilitating discussions on a political issue such as climate change. Specifically, these studies show that people are more likely to encounter political disagreement at the workplace than among their typically politically like minded fellow church-goers, friends and family.

Birds of a feather flock together in American life, but this is less so at work. The greater diversity of viewpoints encountered at work is more likely to lead people to common ground than the type of polarization fueled by blogs, talk radio, and cable news.

Facilitating such dialogue is also an invaluable source of recruiting opinion-leaders into action. Though the use of opinion leaders and influentials are widespread today in marketing, politics, and health campaigns, they have only recently started to be applied to climate change. A recent paper I published reviews the 60 years of research in this area and outlines key ways that opinion leaders can be identified, recruited, trained, and used as influencers on climate change.

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