In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the election, U.S. political leaders including President Obama, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg are directly calling out the need to address climate disruption, both in terms of reducing use of carbon-based fuels as well as preparing communities and individuals to better respond to extreme weather events and other climate impacts.
This is a good sign and I hope it will last with action to match the words. We need the discourse to continue in this direction so we can finally move away from a public debate based on whether global warming is real and whether there is enough certainty to act, to one focused on what leaders, communities, and individuals are doing to address climate impacts and what the benefits are of taking those actions, such as safety, security, job creation and health. Many efforts to reduce carbon and prepare for impacts are underway; however, solutions have not dominated the communications space.
The climate solutions space is currently a murky one and new narratives are needed that focus on security as well as possibility. This task has its own set of challenges that should be considered.
1) Communicating Interconnectedness: Media coverage of extreme weather events tends to not focus on the underlying causes of the storms. It is somewhat new to see clear connections made between shifting weather patterns, the use of carbon-based energy and other GHG-intensive behaviors, and the need to prepare for impacts. The fact these elements are coming together is a good sign but does require jumping through some mental hoops for those not as close to the issue. Most people are not skilled in thinking about “systemic causation” so the more climate leaders can connect the dots and illustrate how the systems fit together and relate to the solutions that are needed, the better.
2) Sorting the Solutions Grab Bag: Climate disruption needs to be addressed through a range of approaches by every sector; this makes the solutions landscape quite complex. In addition, there is not agreement over the best and most important courses of action to take. Wind power is great, yet can kill birds and block views. Energy efficiency is considered the “first fuel” by many, but others caution about the “rebound effect” (and for a countering view) of savings leading to consumption elsewhere. Some tout nuclear power as “clean,” while others point to waste problems and risk of an accident? Geo-engineering sounds interesting but are we just experimenting with planetary fate on even a larger scale with those approaches? As a start, organizations focused on communicating solutions could hone in on a few priority items and develop robust storylines that carry through over time. Audiences often only begin to hear stories when the storytellers start getting sick of telling them.
3) Defining the Path: Most Americans support clean energy development; however, the path from our dependence on fossil fuels and corporate-dominated political system to the alternatives that will be better for our communities, families, wallets, etc., either does not seem clear, scalable or even possible. Polling shows that only five percent of Americans feel optimistic about our ability to address the challenge.
Priority solutions need to be determined but then the path to those solutions needs to be mapped out. States such as Oregon have developed roadmaps to share with the public on how carbon reduction goals will be achieved and the role for government, business and individuals within that.
4) Going Beyond Two-Degree Solutions: Adaptation is key and is now being actively discussed in the climate solutions space, which is an important trend. At the same time, there are still significant questions to ask about what it means to aim for community and ecological resiliency when we are facing at minimum a two-degree (Celsius) temperature change.
Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented event that gives some insight into the fact that thinking about solutions needs to be expanded to be on par with the potential impacts. Space needs to be carved out to allow for an open debate on the tradeoffs associated with reducing climate risk, particularly when the tendency is to want to rebuild after a storm hits as some of the more effective solutions may require us to examine our connections to particular places and lifestyles. These conversations will likely be made at the local level and requires the examination of frames to use around ideas like resilience and livability.
5) Closing the Partisan Gap: Public opinion has long been split on climate along partisan divides. Yet climate disruption is impacting everyone’s lives, not just those who voted for Obama. In some communities, climate is such as polarizing issue that is has become uncomfortable to talk about. Water management and storm preparedness may be better entry points for the conversation for those with conflicting political ideologies, but at some point, we need public discourse to get to the heart of the matter.
Efforts such as the Energy and Enterprise Institute and EnergyGOP.us that are aiming to bridge the divide and bring conservatives into the conversation are encouraging. This will likely result in difficult discussions that pit government versus free-market solutions against one another but better to have the debate and a chance to come to some sort of resolution than not. In this context, developing a solutions narrative that includes a path forward may require honing some serious listening skills.
6) Considering the Role of Sacrifice: The benefits of climate action need to be communicated but emphasizing personal gains may not provide the best source of motivation. Faith-based movements and social values research indicate that the motivation to act can come from feeling a moral responsibility to act, having a sense that one’s efforts can make a difference, and feeling part of something larger than oneself. Emphasizing cost savings, for example, may get attention, but tying it to deeper values related to responsibility and stewardship seems a must.
7) Rewarding the Solutions Pioneers: Holding government and business decision makers accountable is critical but so is showing up to support those leaders willing to move on plans to lower carbon emissions and prepare communities for climate impacts. This means adding voice in support of efforts at hearings and during public comment periods, as well as directing purchases towards climate-smart businesses.
The time has come to define the solutions narrative. Let’s take a network approach to doing such that the path forward becomes clear for the majority of Americans who want to see climate action made an ongoing priority. Join the conversation and share your solution stories.