Lessons from the Field: Takeaways from 2013 and the Challenges that Lie Ahead

Lessons from the Field: Takeaways from 2013 and the Challenges that Lie Ahead

What do you consider to be this year’s most significant development this year in engaging the public on climate? What is the most important lesson relating to climate outreach that you’ve learned in 2013? What do you think will be the biggest challenge to building public support for climate action in 2014?  We asked these three questions to a handful of leading climate voices, and here is what they had to say:

KC Golden, Climate Solutions

Most significant development: Do the Math and Carbon Tracker have opened a lot of eyes to the looming carbon bubble, while Keystone and coal export have dramatized how desperately the fossil fuel industry is trying to lock us in to carbon dependence before the gig is up.  Meanwhile, we’re seeing a growing sense of confidence and excitement about the prospects for freeing ourselves from the tyranny of fossil fuels – from the rapid growth of the sharing economy, to the decline of cars as the central organizing principle of urban America, to the electrification of transportation, to the tremendous growth in solar and other renewable and distributed energy and financing solutions.  Real climate solutions are starting to feel possible, proximate, fun! 

Most important lesson: The imperative to act has to be married with the ability to act effectively.  “Chasing Ice” without an organizing strategy is demoralizing.  And “economic opportunity in the clean economy” is too soft, too optional.  “We must” and “we can” need each other.  Soft-pedaling the climate imperative in order to reach “swing” audiences is counter-strategic in the long run and often unnecessary.  People can handle the truth!

Biggest challenge: Overcoming the stereotype that climate action is an environmental amenity, a luxury for those who don’t have to worry about higher-ranking needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.   Otherwise, climate policy will continue to be thwarted by the self-interest of the fossil fuel interests, masquerading as concern for those who “can’t afford higher energy bills” or lifting people out of energy poverty.  Climate policy and politics need to merge with the policy and politics of social justice.

Nathaly Agosto Filion, US Climate Adaptation Program at the Institute for Sustainable Communities

Most significant development: The American people have reached a pivotal tipping point in 2013 around climate issues.  Although I don’t have any formal citations to back up this feeling, I would simply reflect some of the key quotes from the latest iteration of the IPCC report – a peer-reviewed document notorious for its academic (read: dry) approach to describing the state of affairs: “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “human influence on the climate system is clear.” Although I don’t believe the “debate” is actually behind us, I do think individuals across the spectrum of beliefs relative to climate change are ready to come together to discuss ways we can collectively prepare our communities to respond to the changing climate.

Most important lesson: In reflecting on my own personal difficulties related to climate outreach, I’ve come to terms with two fundamental truths about my preferred approach:  First, I’ve (re-)learned the fact that talking about difficult issues (whether they’re climate-related or not) is fundamentally a conversation about values—you can’t back up value statements with findings and statistics!  Rather, you need to have the courage to cut through the crap and talk about what you really, truly believe, focusing on the why behind your actions.  I’m still working on that courage piece and working on being real in my day-to-day interactions on difficult issues.  Secondly, I feel strongly that framing is everything. In other words, it’s important to consider your audience and their fundamental values when communicating.  This can often sound like a “tactic” for engaging with “the opposition,” but I think it’s much more meaningful and powerful to think of it as akin to the age-old maxim of walking a mile in another person’s shoes. At the end of the day, I don’t think our deepest wishes and desires for future generations and the planet they will inherit are really all that different—it’s simply that we have different paradigms through which we view the world and how it works.  This cognitive diversity is something to be celebrated and uplifted as we continue building solutions to the climate crisis!  Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “us” against “them”… It will take a lifetime to build effective strategies for having those difficult conversations around the holiday table, but it’s certainly worth the work!  

Biggest challenge: Our biggest challenge will continue to be making the case for taking actions that are perceived to be costly to prepare for expected climate impacts. Basic operations and services aren’t being fully covered by our limited financial and human resources, so it’s especially hard to make the case for spending on climate preparedness. The field of climate adaptation continues to struggle with making a compelling business case for taking preparatory actions to build resilience—despite solid information on how much more expensive it is to rebuild following a disaster.   

Todd Tanner, Conservation Hawks

Most significant development: Obama standing up and providing leadership on climate during the first half of 2013.

Most important lesson: I’m not sure there’s been one particular lesson that really jumped out at me.  Perhaps the most surprising, at least from my perspective, is how many groups working on climate change outreach seem to disagree with Einstein, who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a form of insanity.  I truly am surprised that so many climate leaders act as if preaching to the choir will get legislation to the president’s desk, and that it’s okay to ignore conservatives because they’re not reasonable or persuadable.  There’s truly little-to-no coordination on climate messaging on our side, and no acknowledgment that we need different messengers and different messages to get all the necessary players to the table.

Biggest challenge: This won’t be a popular opinion, but from where I sit, it’s money.  The other side has tons of it, and uses it effectively.  We don’t have nearly as much, and we use it haphazardly – with more emphasis on following the same ineffective road we’ve taken for the last 20+ years than for implementing innovative outreach efforts.  With decent funding and coordinated messaging that focuses on the conservative side of the political aisle, we could have strong, substantive legislation through Congress and to Obama before he leaves office.  But unless we engage conservatives and show them why climate change is personal, and how it is, and will, impact their families, their friends, their finances – every aspect of their lives – and until we drive home the point that climate change is a huge threat to America, we have zero chance of changing the dynamic in DC and getting anything substantive accomplished.  

Jacqueline Patterson, NAACP

Most significant development: This has actually been a bit of a bumper year for significant developments on public engagement on climate in good and bad ways. Unfortunately the residual effects from Superstorm Sandy and dialogue around that, as well as the horrific ravages of Typhoon Haiyan have kept the specter of climate impacts and discourse around it, in the public’s eye and ear. The advancements of shutting down coal plants with major announcements occurring almost monthly have helped the public to begin to grasp the inevitability in the need to affect a major transition in how we generate electricity. The activists have successfully painted a clear picture of the perils of coal which is much more universally accepted now than it has been in the past.  Finally, the actions of the Administration from the Climate Action Plan to the Carbon Pollution Standards and the discourse around these developments, have increased public awareness for the need for action and the commitment by our government to take action.

Most important lesson: The proof is in the pudding.  For 2014, in addition to my policy change work, I am putting equal emphasis on implementing demonstration projects on energy efficiency, clean energy, just transitions from coal, and building community resilience that clearly show that models for reducing greenhouse gases, protecting communities from pollution, creating new jobs, and building sustainable communities are doable.   Those stories of success are critical to engaging the public and convincing policy makers that feasible, effective solutions exist.

Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge will be our failure as the environmental community to work more closely with communities, labor, utilities, city planners, and others to ensure that we are affecting a transition from coal and other fossil fuel energy sources that is seen as just for all concerned. There is a disturbingly continued myopic approach that talks a good game on just transition, but has not put the steps in place to actually ensure that it happens and that all are involved in defining what is “just”.  The jobs in energy efficiency and clean energy are clearly there.  However, without a real plan that takes the concerns of ratepayers, labor, communities, etc. into account, the lack of an equitable transition could be a major setback for all concerned.

Mark McCaffrey, National Center for Science Education

Most significant development: Krosnick’s state-by-state survey seems to demonstrate that even in red states, people are taking climate change seriously and accept that human activities have something to do with it. This is big news that others will no doubt dispute since it may run counter to the idea that the public doesn’t accept human impacts on climate.  Krosnick suggests that people’s self reported knowledge is high, but that runs counter to our experience and Leiserowitz’s previous research on knowledge, which shows how shallow people’s knowledge is. 

We also conducted a survey of teachers this past spring and found, much to our surprise, that the teachers–mostly biology but also other science teachers– say they are teaching climate change now, that they have had professional development around climate and atmosphere, and around 97% consider it to be an important or very important priority to teach about climate change. But this is self reported and represents mostly the cream of the crop teachers. We need a national survey to better determine whether, where and how global change writ large (not just climate change but all human impacts on planet) are being taught; so far, we haven’t found funding for this.

Most important lesson: We have been pushing for a national initiative to substantially and measurably increase climate and energy literacy in the US, making the case that young people in particular have a right to know the causes, effects, risks and responses to climate change, and to acquire the knowledge and knowhow to make informed decisions to reduce impacts and prepare for change already underway.  Here’s our report with its recommendations from last December.

There is a revolution going on in some schools– higher education in particular with the ACUPCC and other programs like Green Schools Alliance.  Next Generation Science Standards also have potential to help revolutionize science education, but adoption and deployment will take years and much can be done sooner than later. Like Jim Hansen, we take the intergenerational responsibility of climate change very seriously.  Our approach has been through a Right to Know campaign, which has yet to gain critical mass: 

Biggest challenge: One of the biggest challenges is within the climate community, which in many cases shuns education and literacy in favor of “engagement”, usually defined in primarily political terms. Funding and support for building deeper understanding and fostering knowledge/knowhow has been lackluster for the most part—there was a burst of funding from federal agencies for a few years starting in 2009 but that’s dwindled to a trickle, which is unfortunate since many of the programs were just starting to hit their stride.

In the longer term, climate and global change education will be funded, we’re confident, but currently there are still far too many students who graduate from high school and college without ever learning the basics or, worse in some ways, learning only enough to be confused and/or opinionated. We’re at a critical point in terms of building the capacity of the 76 million Americans (nearly one in four Americans) now in school; – they all need knowledge and knowhow to be able to make solid decisions about climate, energy, global change in general, whether at the ballot box, in their careers, in their communities…but often they aren’t given the opportunities to learn the essentials.

Yes, we need clearer, in a way easier options, as are offered in nations like Denmark where reducing one’s footprint is far easier than it is here, where the fossil fuel status quo still holds tremendous sway.

Joylette Portlock, Don’t Just Sit There – Do Something!

Most significant development: Honestly, the most significant development is the willingness of more and more public officials who accept climate science to finally say as much, and call, loudly, for action. President Obama’s climate speeches and plan are the best example. It’s a testament to the amazing amount of outreach that has been done on the subject in the past many years, and it bodes well for the future. The more leaders we have calling for action, the easier it will be to remind the public that climate change deserves their attention, too.

Most important lesson: This answer is not terribly academic, but I recently saw organizing guru Marshall Ganz speak about social change, and a lot of what he said really seemed relevant. If our goal is to change people’s actions, then we have to create a way for people to identify with those actions. I’m not saying we need to change people’s beliefs–the opposite, actually. We must, instead, affirm the things they already believe, as they apply to climate. 

Right now, we suffer from an image problem, where people insist you must drive an electric car, eat vegan, hate electricity (except for the aforementioned car), wear nothing but hemp, and wax poetic about the plight of toads in the Amazon at dinner parties (vegan ones, presumably the only ones you get invited to) to properly consider yourself an environmentalist. We need to expand the definition, make the tent bigger, and remind everyone that conservation is a value we all (well, most of us, anyway) share. Once the identity–that, say, of the everyday environmentalist–has been uncovered, involvement and action on the part of the public will follow.

In a nutshell, instead of saying, “Hey, American People, you’re doing it wrong!” it’s probably a lot more effective to say, “You know as well as I do that we’ve got to fix this. Are you with me?” As it applies to my own work at Don’t Just Sit There – Do Something!, where we use humor and the short video format to make climate science and news more easily digestible, there are so many exciting ways we might try to invite people to see themselves as supporters in the climate movement! I foresee at least one new public engagement campaign in our near future.

Biggest challenge: I’m surprisingly upbeat, like I said–momentum may once again be on our side. But I thought that in 2007, too. So, I would posit that our biggest challenge is in consistency and staying power. We still have to work as hard as we ever have, and work together and more strategically than we ever have, to see the job done. Even though we’ve seen the first inklings that we may be breaking through the denial, misinformation, and complacency, there absolutely will be pushback from those protecting the status quo. If we let up, then that pushback will certainly undo the gains we’ve made. And we don’t have time for that. 

Tom Bowman, Climate Report with Tom Bowman

Most significant development: 2013 was a year of enormous change. The overwhelming conclusion is that the climate is changing much faster than expected, and according to Jon Krosnick’s research, majorities in every state in the union are seeing some of those changes first hand. So the most significant development, in my mind, is a pivot from making the case for anthropogenic climate change to building resiliency (both mitigation and adaptation). 

The ScienceToGo.org campaign, which launched in Boston this year (and on which I was creative lead) seeks to engage people with three big themes in succession: reality, relevance and hope. Reality still matters because demonstrating the scale of scientific consensus builds confidence. The local/personal relevance piece is being answered by personal experience, but it too needs reinforcing. And, lastly, the communications community needs to finally turn its attention to the solutions part of the story.

On that note, I became sustainability chair for a trade association called the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association, and this week I will launch a competition called the Zero Waste Challenge. For the first time, business associations like the EDPA are recognizing that sustainability is central to the health of their industries. This is a very significant and fundamental shift. If it takes hold we will begin to see big changes in Americans’ response to the climate challenge.

Most important lesson: Two things:

Krosnick’s findings that majorities in every state accept that climate change is happening. The researchers’ hypothesis is that this shift is not based on media coverage, but on direct personal experience. Leiserowitz, et al, have expressed similar findings. This represents a sea change in public attitudes and concerns.

A study from UC Berkeley and UC Davis found that when companies publish their carbon footprint data their stock prices rise within 48 hours. Clearly, investors see proactive action on climate change as a measure of a company’s long-term prospects. 

Biggest challenge: Unquestionably, it’s the failure on the part of communicators to demonstrate that we can respond effectively to the climate challenge. When people become concerned about climate change, they ask what can be done about it. Communicators and science educators have resisted this question like the plague, and continuing to do so will be extremely counterproductive. The sharp line between education and advocacy has been drawn poorly: people need basic information that will give them hope that this problem can be addressed and that becoming engaged with the issue is worthwhile.

Courtney St. John, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University

Most significant development: I wouldn’t name a significant development that took place this year per se, but rather a gradual shift over the last few years. Only a few years ago, the climate change community was still trying to wrap its arms around the issue of communicating climate change effectively. Now I think we are in a place where interdisciplinary expertise is being utilized and sought after to develop targeted and well-informed outreach and communications strategies across a variety of sectors. For example, CRED co-leads an initiative called PositiveFeedback that pairs artists and climate scientists together to explore collaborations on the topic of climate change. Art is a really powerful way to create experiences for people that impact them in a more emotional way than just inundating people with scientific information. 

Most important lesson: It was a reinforcement of something I already knew, but began to take in a different way–to not only know your audience but also to get creative about how you engage them. There are a million different reasons why climate change is important to people, and if we can be innovative about how the information is presented and incorporated into every day lives, the more successful we will be at raising awareness. As we look toward 2014, I am thinking about how CRED can engage and excite our target audiences. For example, we are working with other researchers around the country on the Polar Learning and Responding Climate Change Education Project that utilizes games to educate people about climate change in polar regions. We need to continue to work with the game designers, artists, and other innovators across a variety of fields to open up lines of communication that have remain untapped until now.

Biggest challenge: Galvanizing citizen support and interest to push Congress toward action on climate change. Public polling shows that many Americans support climate change legislation, but the issues in Congress are preventing the large-scale action needed. Through targeted education and outreach campaigns we can get there, but we first have to help people care about it enough to want to talk to their representatives. Because we know that people are facing the “finite pool of worry,” how do we get people to care about things like energy efficiency and preparedness that will truly make a difference in how we adapt to and mitigate climate change? There are many ways to do this that are discussed frequently on Climate Access. One exciting thing CRED is doing is advancing research on participatory processes that help people work through problems in a group decision setting to improve understanding of complex environmental issues. 

Sascha Petersen, American Society of Adaptation Professionals, Institute for Sustainable Communities

Most significant development: The last two years of extreme weather events including Superstorm Sandy, the flooding in Boulder, and the continuing drought in the South Central U.S. have provided an opportunity for climate change adaptation, building resilience, and discussing climate preparedness that wasn’t as available in recent years.  The President’s Climate Action Plan released in July and the recent appointment of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience together account for a significant shift in the landscape for discussion of climate change issues. 

Most important lesson: In general, meet people where they are on the issue and then build from there.  In many cases, individuals and communities are seeing climate impacts and know that climate change is happening, they just don’t necessarily know what to do about it or why it is happening.  By focusing on the issues that are important in that particular location, the values of the individuals, and the areas of concern for the community, it is possible to make the impacts of climate change more relevant and useful.  This will hopefully help these issues resonate with the individuals and encourage them and their communities to take action to become better prepared and more resilient.  This idea is not unique to climate change adaptation in particular but can be used in communication in general.

I am using this in my work with the American Society of Adaptation Professionals as we work to build a new professional society that meets the needs of the multi-disciplinary group of people working on adaptation across the country.

Biggest challenge: For climate action in general it will be difficult due to the election year politics and the remaining potentially polarizing nature of the issue.  We can potentially work to overcome these built biases by framing the issue as one of building resilience to not only climate change but also economic shocks and building the positive productive communities that we all want.

Tom Elko, RE-AMP

Most significant development: Editorial decisions made by the L.A. Times and other publications to no longer publish the dangerous denials of scientific fact regarding climate change helped to shift the conversation to climate action.

Most important lesson: Images matter! Use of imagery is now part of our communication planning process and is discussed alongside messaging and messangers.

Biggest challenge: Making climate a priority issue in the U.S. mid-term elections.

Jennifer Hirsch, cultural anthropologist

Most significant development: An emerging focus on the importance of engagement as well as outcomes, using methodologies such as democratic deliberation and collaborative governance.[i]

Most important lesson: I have found some broad frameworks for creating sustainable communities that i believe will be particularly effective in expanding and diversifying engagement in climate action. In particular I have been using the star communities and aashe stars frameworks. Both frameworks are proving helpful in my work, with campuses, community organizations, and municipalities, in a) explaining what sustainability means–and particularly what it means to create a sustainable community and b) getting people excited about a broad vision for change.

Biggest challenge: I think the biggest challenges will continue to be a) making climate something that people are concerned and excited enough about to want to get involved, and b) linking climate action to other issues that people care about.


So, what do you think? How would you answer these three questions? Climate Access members are encouraged to post your answers and/or respond to what others have said.



Videos/Presentations of my work in this area, with City of Cleveland and ICLEI:

Putting the CAP [Cleveland Climate Action Plan] into Action: An Asset-Based Approach to Neighborhood Engagement

Livable Cities Forum, sponsored by ICLEI-Canada – What Do Daycare and Soul Food Have to Do with Climate Change? Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action (Keynote Presentation, Opening Plenary, November 28, 2012)

Research in this area:

Civic Ecology (Video-Sera Architects)

Hartz-Karp, J. (2011). Geraldton 2029 and beyond: Bertelsmann Foundation. Reinhard-Mohn Prize Finalists.

Brulle, Robert J. From Environmental Campaigns to Advancing the Public Dialog: Environmental Communication for Civic Engagement. Environmental Communication Vol. 4, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 8298

Zint, Michaela, Wolske, Kimberly S. “From information provision to participatory deliberation: Engaging residents in the transition toward sustainable cities.” In Mazmanian, D. & H. Blanco (Eds.)  Forthcoming. The Elgar Companion to Sustainable Cities: Strategies, Methods and Outlook. Edward Elgar Publishing. Northampton MA

Sirianni, Carmen. Can a Federal Regulator Become a Civic Enabler? Watersheds at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Published online in Wiley InterScience National Civic Review, DOI: 10.1002/ncr.146, Fall 2006

Leaders as Host: A New Approach to Leadership in the Age of Climate Disruption