Getting Real About It: Interview with Susanne Moser

Getting Real About It: Interview with Susanne Moser

When she trains local leaders in how to communicate climate preparedness to their communities, climate communications expert Susanne Moser frames adaptation as more of a community building effort than a communications effort. But effective messaging is still critical and she worries that the state of adaptation communications is behind the times.

When it comes to communicating adaptation, Moser, director of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting and Social Science Research Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University (see our collection of her work), says that we are pretty much where we were ten years ago in trying to communicate climate science. This means that there is still a lot to learn, when unfortunately, the need for answers is right now. 

“Tons of people are getting interested—in all levels of government and business—in adaptation and they want to know what to do, but because of limited research in that arena, we have much less to say. I find that a precariousness situation to be in because it’s not going to get any better very quickly given our funding priorities,” says Moser, who notes that of the money spent by the federal government over the last 20 years through the U.S. Global Change Research Act—the hub of climate change funding—no more than one percent has gone into funding adaptation-related work.

Also problematic is that the research that does exist doesn’t often reach its target due to a disconnect between researchers and practitioners, Moser says (echoing a primary reason for why we created Climate Access).

“Those who know more about the communication from the research side aren’t as engaged yet or face hurdles in being more engaged and actually training those who are communicating,” says Moser, who finds it frustrating that while the research community is “reinventing the wheel over and over, trying to understand what stakeholders and decision makers need, there’s not that much capacity building to give people tools or insights. Most people who are in policy or in planning don’t have a degree or aren’t trained in psychology or in communications. This is a huge gap to fill.”

She says this has contributed to two major climate communications failures. The first is a failure to connect climate change with people’s daily lives and paint a clear picture of how our lives will be different. The second is the climate solutions have been communicated badly, although Moser says this is at least an improvement from when they weren’t mentioned at all.

“We used to just talk about the risk and assume that people would by some magic intuit what they needed to do in response,” she says. “One thing the conservative side of the issue has done really well is to connect to people that ‘you’re going lose this, you’re going to get more people invading in your life, bad things will happen to you if you’re going to take this seriously.’ They have been able to tap much more deeply into the terribleness of the solutions….What needs to happen is that people find their role in making these solutions happen. As long as we talk about the solutions as someone else’s job, we just perpetuate a particular immature way of being in life, that someone else will do the hard work and ‘I can continue to entertain myself until the cow’s come home.’”

Moser says that solutions need to involve community building (“challenges faced alone are overwhelming, challenges faced together are at least more bearable”) a compelling vision (“what the good thing is we’re fighting for”) and a path to follow (“if they can’t see how to get from here to there, they think it’s impossible to get there”).

Moser, who is not one to sugarcoat things, also advocates getting real about the emotional as well as physical impacts of climate change. She trains community leaders in how to interpret and respond to people’s emotional responses in the face of a “much less stable and pleasurable future,” support people in their grief and be willing to talk about taboo subjects as fear (without appealing to it).

“We have to name fear, we have to name the feelings we experience when we are faced with loss,” she says. “It is counterrevolutionary in this country, almost unpatriotic, to talk about our emotional responses. Whenever I do, I get these huge sighs and people are actually willing to sit with it; they feel mirrored. From that place, there is power. There is a lot more power that is freed when you recognize where people are emotionally at than if we ignore it and expend all our energy suppressing it.”

The city leaders who come to her adaptation trainings think that they need to become experts in climate science to withstand attack from skeptics, including those in recent months alleging an Agenda 21 conspiracy. But Moser starts by asking them to imagine a world without organized skepticism on climate science and simply focus on the challenge of anticipating how to manage the situation and engage with a community in distress.

“People will have to actually deal with losses and with a change in what they’re familiar with….They might even agree that climate change is  human caused but they still might not want to lose their house. How to manage that and how to help people understand that the safe future that we used to take for granted won’t be that any more is a tall order.”

Things are likely to get a lot worse and if they are going to ever get any better, local communities need to be doing strategic work now. “There will come a point in time, probably very late in the game, when there will be calls for action because things are getting too catastrophic. At that point, we need to be positioned strategically with ideas that are not just the knee-jerk geoengineering reactions, and with very strong FDR- and Churchill-type leadership,” explains Moser, who believes that by the time the public is ready to make major shifts in our energy and transportation systems, the economy may be in steep decline “because we will have overdone it” and this could lead to street riots (making “Occupy Wall Street look like child’s play”).

As a result, she says that it’s imperative that local officials and groups identify alternative ways of staying resilient and reducing energy use because national leaders—in business and government—will be looking to local communities for examples of how to respond (“the environmental policy history in the United States is that it usually starts from grassroots up”). Moser argues that it is essential for leaders to be able to draw courage from the grassroots.

“We have to realize that we’re fighting systems, not just an opposition movement,” she says. “Institutions and systems are all there to stabilize the way things are. And if you ever want change, you need to elevate yourself above the system, above the institutional boundaries and break the rules. It takes very strong people to break the rules.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user zensrokoner.