Closing The Climate Efficacy Gap

Closing The Climate Efficacy Gap

Last week was an exciting one at SXSW Eco in Austin (the second annual gathering of 2,500 plus eco-pioneers, tech mavens, foodies and artists), where I had a chance to check out colleagues from Climate Nexus, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Talking Climate discussing trends in climate science communications, and hear a feisty debate between Ted Nordhaus, Bill McKibben, Larry Schweiger and Bryan Walsh on new approaches in environmental problem solving and movement building. I was there to talk about one of the common threads underlying many of the sessions at SXSW Eco – the efficacy gap that blocks public engagement in addressing complex challenges such as climate disruption.

(Thanks to Pete Rafle from Spitfire Communications, Sabrina Hersi Issa from Be Bold Media and Alex Bosmoski from the Energy and Enterprise Institute for joining me for the SXSW Eco session.)

I’ve been thinking about the efficacy gap for some time now. For at least a decade, public opinion on global warming has been consistent with the majority of Americans being aware of global warming and feeling the issue requires significant attention. The problem is that few people have confidence that either the challenge can be addressed or that we have the collective/political will do it. (See the Climate Change in the American Mind survey – “Humans can reduce global warming and we are going to do so successfully.” Only 4% thought so in March 2012.) Unpacking how to close the efficacy gap is critical and something we will be addressing again at the upcoming Climate Access roundtable: Climate Policy Push and Pull: Building a Sense of Efficacy while Calling for Change, Pre- and Post-Election (on Tuesday October 16 from 1-2 pm EDT featuring panelists Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, Kevin Curtis of The Climate Reality Project and Angus Duncan of the Oregon Global Warming Commission).

Experiencing tension around climate issues without having a way to resolve it creates an uncomfortable dissonance that makes many of us want to run the other way. Most public discourse on climate issues has focused on the long list of global impacts and more recently on the increasing number of extreme weather events in the United States. The tension dial has definitely been ratcheted up yet we still do not have a clear sense of the best, most scalable solutions to prioritize and the most efficient, responsible ways to pursue them.

With a challenge as immense as global warming, the efficacy gap grows when citizens do not see national or global government action. Can it be such a big problem if it is not even mentioned in presidential debates? Is it something that can be addressed given the scale and influence of the fossil fuel industry? At the same time, the efficacy gap may also exist in part due to the ways citizen organizations advocate for change by focusing on policy and leadership failures. What groups ask of their bases can also contribute to the efficacy gap when actions do not seem on scale with the problem (i.e. solve a global problem by changing a light bulb), when guilt appeals or individual actions are over-emphasized and not reinforced (i.e. lists of the 50 things we can do to save the planet), or when commitment is minimized (i.e. save the world from the comfort of your home via Facebook).

What seems to be lacking is a sense that significant, collective solutions are possible to achieve. The funny thing is that many leaders and communities are starting to prepare for climate impacts and already seeing the benefits of their actions yet these stories don’t seem to get much airtime as we continue to be caught up in the scientific uncertainty/should we act debate.  In some cases, climate leaders don’t want their efficacy stories to get out for fear of public backlash and believe they can only move ahead if their actions are under the radar.

The failure to tout climate efficacy and solution messages is is a lost opportunity and raises key questions around they ways in which citizens and government should be working together to address climate disruption. For example:

  1. How can citizens compel governments to act and provide a watchdog function without adding to the sense that we cannot address problems collectively through our shared institutions and decision-making processes? 
  2. What can be done to motivate leaders to act in an era where citizen concerns and requests are often ignored (i.e. there was no mention of climate change in the first presidential debate despite the fact more than 100,000 citizens had sent requests it be included)?
  3. Do citizen organizations have a responsibility to set aside some time and resources to support positive government action and build demand for collective solutions, not just opposition to high-carbon emitting activities?
  4. What is the most impactful role can individuals play in compelling corporate leaders to take action to address carbon emissions or influence decision-makers? Or do we need to focus on rebuilding a shared sense of citizenship, versus reinforcing the notion of the public as merely being consumers?
  5. How can we leverage new communication technologies/systems to create more democratic decision-making processes, and promote solutions and a sense of efficacy?

As we reimagine our economic and energy systems in response to climate disruption, I believe we need a reimagining of our collective efficacy systems as well.