What's Next for Climate Communicators?

What's Next for Climate Communicators?

After four years of Trump, the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to prioritizing climate change is a welcome new context given how essential it is to accelerate climate action. On December 18th, Climate Access Executive Director, Cara Pike moderated a roundtable conversation with three experts, Tamara Toles O’Laughlin (Advocate for People & Planet), Anthony Leiserowitz (Director, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication), Dominique Browning (Co-Founder and Associate Vice President, Moms Clean Air Force). Here are some of the insights shared by panelists as they discussed what lies ahead for 2021 and ways to mobilize support for equitable climate solutions. 

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin:
We need the next administration to come out swinging. 

  • The Georgia Senate runoff will have serious implications for climate legislation that’s focused on jobs and infrastructure and human health. The new administration gives us ground for rebuilding, which means full use of presidential powers over the Federal government to bind the nation in intergovernmental spaces, re-engage on the U.S.’s outsized role in emissions and next-generation solutions for a justice-centered transition.  
  • The Biden-Harris administration has signaled that we’re going to have to get into better global conversations, such as the idea of building a World Climate Summit that will be convened in part by the US, thinking keys to success for the rebuilding process, sticking in the promises we made to build back fossil-free and investing and environmental justice communities. The U.S. needs to set into motion a climate emergency declaration, end corporate welfare to the fossil fuel industry, stop extractive leases, and focus on human health and jobs.

Anthony Leiserowitz:
We need to create the conditions for Biden to succeed. 

  • This issue has soared in priority as a voting issue among Democrats, but among Republicans, it’s flatlined. Liberal Democrats cited climate change as voting issue number 2 out of 30 issues, that’s unprecedented. 
  • The Alarmed have dramatically increased over the past five years and at the other end of the spectrum, the Dismissive have decreased. Today there are almost four “Alarmed” to every one “Dismissive”. Record levels (73%) of Americans understand climate change is real, 62% understand it’s human-caused, 66% are somewhat worried, yet only 26% are very worried. 
  • We need to be smart about how we engage and both push the progressives who are increasingly strong within the Democratic party to demand bolder and bolder action while also not doing so in such a way that makes it impossible because you’ve lost support from swing voters that you’ll ultimately need to get anything passed. 

Dominique Browning:
If you live in a low-income community and if you are a person of color, you are not breathing the same air as wealthier white people.

  • One of the things we have seen in the last four years is a shocking hostility to the Clean Air Act and a ruthless deregulatory agenda. 
  • People have woken up to the fact that we cannot take for granted our right to clean air and clean water.  It’s something that the EPA is going to have to take a hard look at figuring out how to solve.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin:
The best way to determine whether or not we’re looking at a false solution or a real solution is whether impacted communities can understand it and see themselves in it.

  • “1.5 Keep Us Alive” isn’t just a thing that we say, real communities will be crushed if we don’t move towards that goal.
  • False solutions include things that rely on technology we don’t have yet or that don’t include listening to people who are currently impacted by climate. 

Dominique Browning:
State and local level work will be even more important over the next four years.

  • Even while we can celebrate where we have gotten, there are so many state-level problems from providing jobs to keeping people, it’s our job to make sure that we are pushing in the right direction.
  • We’re in the process now of seeing a new sacrifice zone created as the petrochemical industry builds out in the Ohio River Valley in order to be near more sources of fracked gas. In Pennsylvania and in Ohio people are demanding change and there is a serious effort underway to make polluters pay.

Anthony Leiserowitz:
One of the most powerful motivators is seeing other people who share your values taking action.

  • There is no single public, communicators need to be smart about who is your audience, figure out their stage of engagement and then help them walk along their own path. Barriers to action include not being asked to join a campaign or not knowing what to say. 
  • Common motivators include concern about future generations and accountability from fossil fuel companies. Other communities are more engaged around racial justice, jobs, energy independence, health, or religion. Climate change is all-encompassing and we ought to be able to welcome every type of person, including political diversity. 
  • Seeing role models that share your values, either directly or through storytelling, is a powerful motivator.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin:
If you do not have Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the room when you’re creating strategy, they won’t be there when it’s time to test the waters for political relevance.

  • If we cannot run our work with a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion lens, we will fail at building the broad movement that’s necessary to win on climate. 
  • We need to inspect the design that we made and redesign, watch where dollars go, figure out how we communicate, and who’s excluded by virtue of the terms that we use, and take a race forward lens that allows us to bring everybody into the conversation. 
  • The idea of building back assumes that people want to go back to what was normal, and for many people that included being made sick from exposure to toxins and fossil fuels that destroy your community.  We can’t erase these things without a just transition platform, without a conversation about recovery, or the fact that we’re in a moment where people are waiting in line at food banks hoping not to catch COVID-19.

Dominique Browning:
We need to train people for hands-on engagement with state and local level climate plans.

  • We haven’t created enough ways for people to engage, for doors to open and tear down that facade of white male entitlement, authority and power, we can’t underestimate the level of intimidation and fear that has been built into the system and we have to work our way through that. 
  • We haven’t had a massive jobs program with a massive infrastructure program like we did with the interstate highway system. We need to start seeing scale in order to see an increase in jobs and economic benefits.

Anthony Leiserowitz:
There is a fundamental moral imperative to bring a racial equity lens to this work.

  • There is also a pragmatic reason to invest in bringing impacted communities out front, because we see support for climate action from BIPOC, young people and women. 
  • Americans are polarized on climate, but around clean energy, there’s a social consensus across politics. 

Looking ahead to 2021…

Anthony Leiserowitz:

  • It will be a challenge to make even incremental progress, but don’t lose sight of building political power for the long term. This is a generational struggle.  

Dominique Browning:

  • The system is broken and yet we need to use the system to system to fix the system, so that’s an incredible challenge.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin:

  • We need to use a care and repair lens with solutions rooted in community care and justice, reparations for climate harm, fossil fuel non-proliferation, popular education on how climate is impacting our lives, and better policies.

Watch a recording of the full conversation.