Acknowledging Our Sense of Loss

Acknowledging Our Sense of Loss

Creating community among climate communication practitioners is a critical step in being able to improve our ability to engage the public in the transformation to low-carbon, resilient communities. Communications and behavior change practitioners are often isolated in their organizations and lacking the resources and tools to achieve the transformation of our economies and communities required to address climate change.

I just had the pleasure of spending several days at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Conference in Washington, DC which is focused on building a sense of community amongst the 700 leaders from government, academia, nonprofits, and consulting firms that gathered to discuss new research, emerging opportunities, and how to overcome significant public engagement barriers. We will be sharing some of the insights and research findings from BECC over the next several weeks on Climate Access so stay tuned.

But for now, in addition to processing the volume of information I was exposed to, I’m in the midst of processing my own personal reaction to being part of the BECC community. I’ve attended three of the five conferences held to date, but this year I was particularly struck by the creativity and tenacity of this group of practitioners. Despite the failure to pass federal climate legislation in the U.S. as well as a global agreement on climate change, people are forging ahead with creative approaches and are keen to share best practices and support one another.

Good thing. On my way home from Washington, DC today, one of the first things I was exposed to were two massive billboards promoting the idea that “You are One in a Million” by being talented and special enough to land one of the great new jobs being created by the oil and gas industry. In our “Seven Reasons” the public is not engaged blog, we pointed out that the opposition is mighty and climate practitioners should expect to face clever, well-funded and well-executed outreach campaigns on behalf of fossil fuel interests.

Fortunately, my positive BECC-infused attitude did not completely evaporate in being reminded of this challenge in such a direct way.  From what I observed at the conference, practitioners are getting clever enough to realize that facing off with the fossil fuel industry by simply using compelling messages and slick ad campaigns is not going to cut it. Instead, the BECC conversations included topics such as how to apply game theory and community-based social marketing approaches to climate and energy engagement, ideas for addressing barriers around personal and cultural identities, decoupling the relationship between status, consumption and carbon reduction, and other fresh approaches.

I definitely plan to be at BECC next year but what I hope to see more of on the agenda is attention paid to the psychological issues related to climate issues (see the Climate Access collection of ecopsychology and climate resources). On my way to the conference, I read an article by Rosemary Randall of Carbon Conversations UK that laid out a very compelling case for the need to address the overwhelming emotional issues related to climate change and the loss of our carbon-rich lifestyles. Randall argues that those of us working directly on climate issues may need to perhaps address our own sense of loss and sorrow to be truly effective in our attempts to engage others.

I was reminded of Randall’s article when, after being bombarded by the greenwashing billboards, tears welled up in my eyes upon reading a headline in today’s New York Times – “Savoring Bogs and Moose, Fearing They’ll Vanish as the Adirondacks Warm.” The article focuses on Jerry Jenkins, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and his work to document ecological changes in the region: “Where a casual observer might behold diversity and continuity, he (Jenkins) projects decades into the future and finds absence and loss. “

Absence and loss.  Loss of diversity of the plant and animal species – such as black spruce trees and gray jays – that make the Adirondacks the Adirondacks.  Loss of our known way of life that is reliant on natural systems that are being radically changed by a changing climate.

Jerry Jenkins drives a Prius and heats his home with a woodstove and solar panels. When he gives climate presentations, he tries to end on an upbeat note by focusing on the potential we all have to act through personal change.  But the Times article mentions that Jenkins privately admits to pondering this moment in history “with an existential foreboding.”  Sound familiar? Put on a good face in public and then go home and cry in your supper.

I’m a big believer in hope being an essential ingredient in motivating public interest and engagement in climate issues. We need it to balance out the overwhelming scale of the challenge we are facing.  But I’m starting to think, like Randall, that relying too much on a stoic or optimistic approach is flawed.

As climate leaders, it may well be time to be honest with each other and with the publics we work to engage about the sense of loss we are all dealing with. In revealing our own struggles and fears, we may well present the opportunity for others to do the same. This may in fact, be the key to letting go of our current attachments and moving into planning for the next phase of human life on the planet, regardless of the many uncertainties we face.

Photo used under Creative Commons from footloosiety on flickr.