Americans and Climate Change: The risks of packaging climate change as an energy issue
"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 the last bit of the report’s third chapter, "Packaging climate change as an energy issue." It’s quite short! It discusses the risks of tying climate change too closely to energy concerns.
The Risks of Issue Packaging — Manageable But Not Trivial
There are clearly benefits to strategically packaging the climate change issue with energy security and other co-benefits. At the same time, there are a handful of cautions to observe:
First, there is no guarantee that steps taken to reduce oil imports will also mitigate climate change. Energy efficiency investments often will. But certain energy supply choices may not. For example, a race is now on to accelerate the exploitation of U.S. coal reserves and northern Alberta tar sands. Both will reduce our dependence on oil imports from unstable regions of the world, and yet they will exacerbate climate change — unless costly ancillary steps to capture and sequester carbon emissions are also taken. This is an inherent risk in any agenda that lists climate change as an objective, but a subsidiary one — many of the existing bipartisan energy initiatives referenced above list climate change in the third or fourth slot of priorities, if at all. If climate change science is not in the driver’s seat as far as calibrating the speed and level of our future emissions reductions, we run a significant risk that packaged prescriptions will be inadequate.
Second, energy issues are high on the public agenda today but could subside, as they have in the past. This seems unlikely, given signs of heightening geopolitical risks and evidence that oil prices have ascended to a new and higher equilibrium. But if cheap energy should come again, or we are able to pull American troops back from the Middle East, energy could become less of a preoccupation, taking climate change down with it as part of that package. Moreover, it is exactly when energy prices fall that energy overuse becomes more likely, further exacerbating climate change.
Third, subsuming an issue like climate change in a larger narrative means that one inevitably sacrifices some amount of awareness-building on the climate issue itself. To the extent that such awareness would otherwise grow cumulatively through time, it is costly to interrupt that natural process of issue maturation and growth in societal understanding. At a very basic level, doesn’t a problem need to be well understood, and explicitly so, to be solved?
Fourth, climate change is a multi-faceted issue whose causes and consequences can be portrayed from a variety of angles and in relation to many constituencies. This makes it amenable to audience segmentation and messaging flexibility in a narrowcasting world (e.g., pitch farmers on the agricultural biofuels part of the greenhouse gas reduction equation). Yet this very plurality can be the enemy of public understanding: if an issue comes to mean many things to many people, how can the distracted citizen or legislator keep track of it, wrap their mind around it, and propose to do something about it? This is where goal-setting becomes important. If the goal is to create a portfolio of sector-specific strategies to address climate change, then this kind of segmented approach makes great sense. If, on the other hand, one is seeking a concerted national strategy — such as a stringent cap-and-trade regulation — a greater level of strategic and messaging coordination is required. This is not to say that different constituencies cannot have different reasons for supporting a common policy — they almost always do. But it does suggest that those managing the packaging exercise described in this Conference recommendation must be cognizant of this need for a cumulative and reinforcing focus on climate change among otherwise disparate initiatives.
Fifth, some contend that it is simply premature and risky to concede defeat on communicating the climate change issue on its own terms, since we have not yet applied our best talents to the task. We have not yet assembled the best data we can on how public attitudes form, change and persist on climate change (see Conference Recommendations #25 and #26 about the need to leverage the social sciences). We have not yet tapped the enormous marketing and creative talents in America on behalf of this high-stakes issue. Given this, the climate change issue should not be packaged with others lightly or out of a sense of resignation, but only after determining that the benefits of doing so outweigh the negatives. The various energy initiatives discussed above should, and will, go forth. The distinct question we are considering here is the extent to which those pursuing societal action on climate change should join forces with and devote resources to the energy independence bandwagon, versus sustaining parallel efforts more explicitly focused on climate change per se.