2012 – With More Storms, the Public Awakes and Starts Doing the Math

We may look back at 2012 as the year where things shifted toward action in addressing climate disruption. Let’s hope so any way.  With one extreme weather event after another, we unfortunately have no choice but to ask how can we bring the climate conversation home and motivate political representatives, community and business leaders, as well as ourselves as individuals to act to protect our communities and lower the risk from even more climate impacts by reducing carbon and other harmful greenhouse gases.

So what have we learned over the last year when it comes to moving the climate conversation forward? Through our work with many of the more than 1,280 Climate Access network members who represent the top of their fields in academia, nonprofits and government, last week’s Climate Engagement 2012 roundtable and the Climate Access year-end survey (member login required), we have gained insights into the top trends from research as well as from climate outreach campaigns. Here are some of the big takeaways:
The Public Connects the Dots and Concern Rises
Research from George Mason and Yale universities shows that public opinion has rebounded nearly to the highs seen in 2007/2008 when it comes to issue acceptance over global warming as well as concern over its relevance. From a summer of droughts and fires to a devastating hurricane on the East Coast in the fall, unprecedented climatic events are becoming more frequent and bringing severe consequences to many regions of the country. For those who are “Alarmed” about climate change, these events reinforce existing beliefs and concern, and they exercise “motivated reasoning.” For those who were more on the fence about their climate concerns, experiencing extreme weather events can build awareness and a sense of priority. This means that there is an opportunity to not only motivate the alarmed but also to create engagement efforts aimed at reaching those whose views have shifted through experiential learning.
Although most prominent political leaders in 2012 largely ignored this concern, from the silence in the U.S. presidential election to the lack of progress in negotiations at the Rio +20 and COP 18 summits, the calls for climate preparation taken by leaders such as Mayor Bloomberg in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy could be a sign that leaders are ready to lead—or at least follow. Hopefully U.S. politicians will take advantage of the Climate Solutions playbook for civic and business leaders released earlier this fall by Betsy Taylor’s Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions.
Literacy Matters But So Do Values
It is critical that the public understands the basic mechanisms of global warming and connects that understanding to the need for solutions. Particular segments of the public, such as students or decision-makers have a clear need for increased climate literacy. At the same time, research from Dan Kahan with Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project indicates that a person’s values and worldviews cause people to interpret information in a way that reinforces their predispositions; this explains why a scientific consensus on climate change doesn’t resonate with large segments of the American public.
Some organizations are catching on to the need to address the values side of the equation and as a result, in 2012 it becoming increasingly common to see references to the need for a moral call to action on climate. How these efforts evolve within both faith-based as well as secular communities and the role they have on movement building and policy support will be interesting to watch moving forward.
Finding the Pathway to Action
When it comes to motivating action, 350.org’s Do the Math tour of public rallies and related campus divestment actions has been applauded by many Climate Access members and others for its willingness to be frank with the public about the magnitude of the challenge we face. Bill McKibben and others argue the public is actually hungry for information not just about what we are facing but how best to address the problem. During last week’s Climate Access year-end roundtable, Joe Romm of Climate Progress told us that part of why this campaign is working is that it offers a scale of action that is in between changing light bulbs and changing the world. While 350.org’s approach doesn’t appeal to everyone, it is clear that they along with their partners are achieving success when it comes to motivating people to move beyond online petitions to very high levels of engagement.
2012 also marks the year of pipeline protests, from the Keystone XL to Enbridge's Northern Gateway and other pipelines being proposed in Canada. While the long-term implications are not yet clear, in the short term these protests are the most significant seen on any issue since the 1960s and have at least stalled some developments. Making the leap from concerns over backyard environmental impacts to climate change is not easy and often groups shy away from associating daily quality of life issues with climate; however, there is growing evidence that it can be done.  For example, the Defend Our Coasts rally in British Columbia brought together First Nations with environmental, community, business and other voices, sending a strong message the citizens in the region are united in their concerns over pipelines and Tar Sands.
Another notable area of activity was around fracking, as practitioners wrestle with issues of how much to talk about climate, and how to turn NIMBY concerns into a broader climate and sustainability awareness.  Complicating the issue is the argument that liquefied natural gas is an important transitional fuel that will allow us to move away from coal and oil to a lower-carbon alternative. This issue is likely to be an ongoing and as a result, calls for clear solutions narratives that illustrate choices, impacts, and benefits.
Going Local
While action continues to be stalled out at the federal level in the United States and Canada (and many other countries not named Germany), climate action has progressed at the state/provincial and local levels. For example, the World Wildlife Federation adopted many climate communication and engagement best practices in creating the Earth Hour City Challenge, which is motivating local leaders to race to the top in being the community most prepared for climate impacts. The campaign focuses on tangible, community-based impacts and solutions and incentivizes action with both financial as well as public recognition rewards.
Making the issue tangible to people’s communities and lives is critical but not without its challenges. In 2012, many city and state leaders in the United States faced fierce attacks against local climate and sustainability planning thanks to groups involved with the Agenda 21 conspiracy effort. As the climate conversation becomes increasingly localized and we get further into the solutions, this type of opposition is to be expected. At the same time, some leaders, such as Angus Duncan of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, are finding that creating the space for the climate conversation to happen at the local level is critical and that using peer-based dialogue approaches can help overcome skepticism.
Break Down the Silos and Coordinate the Choir
In the practitioner community, 2012 will be marked as key year in which the scale of the human dimension of addressing climate change was more widely discussed. Numerous institutions such as the University of Michigan and organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation brought researchers and practitioners together to discuss what is known in the social sciences that should be applied to climate engagement. Climate Access, along with colleagues at the Garrison Institute, USCAN and others, are working to connect leaders across organizations and networks to better leverage research, identify best practices and work together to scale successful programs.
We, along with the practitioner community, want to see more coordination so we can break down the silos between our efforts, develop more concise and repeatable messages, and motivate a choir of concerned citizens to be more vocal and demanding of climate solutions. This may sound like a tall order for 2013 but given the trends from the past year, a tall order is precisely what we need to take on.