Americans and Climate Change: Problem summary
"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.
Below the fold is an executive summary of the problems conference participants identified.
THEMES FROM PART I
We are only aware of climate change as a human-induced phenomenon because of science. Given this scientific "origin," the default tendency of those who seek to propagate the issue throughout society is to preserve its scientific trappings: by retaining scientific terminology, relying on scientists as lead messengers, and adhering to norms of scientific conservatism. Such practices can cause profound disconnects in how society interprets and acts on the climate change issue, and they deserve our remedial attention.
From Science to Values
Given the challenges with propagating the science of climate change throughout society, many people now favor shifting to a values-based approach to motivating action on the issue. Religious communities, in particular, are increasingly adopting the climate change issue in fulfillment of their stewardship values. Yet a science-to-values repositioning, whether religious or secular, carries risks of its own that need to be understood and managed.
Packaging Climate Change as an Energy Issue
Frustrated by the inability of climate change to break through as an urgent public concern, many believe it is best to finally admit that the issue cannot stand on its own. Climate change can be packaged with other issues that have generated more public concern to date — and energy security is a leading candidate. This is a promising strategy, but it also risks deemphasizing climate change mitigation as an explicit societal priority precisely when it needs to move up on the list.
It is tempting to reduce the challenge of promoting action on climate change to matters of communications and strategic positioning. Yet this will usually only take us part of the way. Translating awareness into action depends on identifying — and selectively modifying — the deeper incentive structures at play in our society. Harnessing climate change objectives to the material incentives to modify energy supply and use patterns is an important part of the equation. But a more thorough domain-by-domain analysis of career and organizational incentives yields additional levers for fashioning a broad-based set of strategies.
Diffusion of Responsibility
After evaluating the incentives operating within each of the eight societal domains represented at the Conference, it is now worthwhile to reassemble the pieces and identify patterns cutting across them. Doing so yields the sobering insight that we are experiencing diffusion of responsibility on climate change. While no single individual or domain can plausibly be expected to take solitary charge on this encompassing problem, many who could assume leadership appear to think it is someone else’s prerogative, or obligation, to do so. The result: a leadership vacuum.
The Affliction of Partisanship
Climate change is a partisan issue in today’s America. The policy stalemate in Washington, D.C. has left those committed to action uncertain about whether a partisan or bipartisan strategy is more likely to succeed going forward. For all its direct costs, partisanship has also had profound spillover effects, chilling public engagement on climate change throughout our society and compelling many people to take sides instead of collaborating to craft policies and actions as warranted by the science.
Those working to promote societal action on climate change need to do a better job of formulating goals that are capable of promoting convergent strategies by dispersed and often uncoordinated actors, and commensurate with a real solution to the problem. In order to guide and motivate needed actions, these goals should be generated collaboratively, scientifically calibrated, quantifiable, trackable and easily expressible. They should include not only emissions targets but also, given the crucial importance of "public will," attitudinal targets.
Leveraging the Social Sciences
The facts of climate change cannot be left to speak for themselves. They must be actively communicated with the right words, in the right dosages, packaged with narrative storytelling that is based rigorously on reality, personalized with human faces, made vivid through visual imagery — and delivered by the right messengers. Doing this will require that climate change communications go from being a data-poor to a data-rich arena. Social science methods have not been adequately applied to date — and that must change, given the stakes.