Americans and Climate Change: Diffusion of responsibility II
"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.
Yesterday we heard that no organization or institution bears responsibility for taking action on climate change; everyone’s waiting for everyone else to act. Today, we hear about some tentative solutions to this problem.
Dialogue as an Antidote to Diffusion
One of the key benefits of our Conference format was that it permitted mutual and simultaneous recognition of inaction on a domain-by- domain basis. Put simply, it becomes harder to tell yourself that someone else will lead on climate change if you’re in a room with them and they’re looking back at you saying the same thing about you.
What this showed is that innovative dialogues can help counter the "diffusion of responsibility" phenomenon. Such dialogues will not always be enjoyable — to succeed, they probably need to contain explicit and uncomfortable discussions about past buck-passing as well as a readiness by all participants to consider expanding the boundary of their responsibilities at a time when Americans are already famously time-starved. Unlike many of the Conference recommendations calling for the launching of campaigns or new entities, the diffusion of responsibility problem requires a more open-ended type of activity in the form of organic, unscripted, and authentic dialogues between people who don’t normally connect. The organizers of these dialogues must be prepared to let unpredictable dynamics unfold. Some of the proposed dialogues should be public, others private.
Along the way toward new assumptions of responsibility, such dialogues could help break down the long-standing stereotypes so prevalent in debates about environmental issues today. E.O. Wilson, in writing about the lack of public will to tackle the biodiversity problem, has lamented "the total-war portraits crafted for public consumption by extremists on both sides" (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life: 152). Yet he suggests that they are not an insuperable barrier to success: "The stereotypes cannot be simply dismissed, since they are so often voiced and contain elements of real substance . . . But they can be understood clearly and sidestepped in the search for common ground" (ibid).
The Conference recommended a number of dialogues and interfaces (religion-business; religion-science; science-news media through the bridging institution, etc.) that could help counter the diffusion of responsibility and create new kinds of connective tissue in our society in relation to climate change. Moreover, there is no reason to limit future such meetings to the permutations recommended by the Conference. Nearly every one of the domains represented at our Conference could usefully meet bilaterally or in multi-domain groups, as well as with other domains that were not represented — all with a focus on finding new forms of collaboration on climate change, and clarifying who will lead.
One of the participants who joined us in Aspen looked back on the Conference with a couple months hindsight and said, echoing Marshall McLuhan, that the "meeting was the message" — meaning that the diverse assemblage of representatives from different segments of our society working together to candidly diagnose their own accountabilities for a major problem, and to propose remedies, was unusual and inspirational. Indeed, the Conference modeled a kind of integrative behavior that often seems scarce in an era of heightened partisanship and specialization. This participant suggested that "mini-Aspens" could usefully be convened around the country, modeled loosely on our Conference and drawing in a diverse group of predominantly local representatives to address climate change.
New Coordinating Mechanisms to Counter Diffusion
Dialogue can serve as an important catalyst to joint understandings and action — while no panacea, its status in our solution set should be regarded as secure. Dialogues that recur over time may, as well, become candidates for at least loose institutionalization, as in the multi-domain Leadership Council discussed earlier (Recommendation #36).
The enormity of the climate change issue and the need for action on all levels precludes a single, umbrella-style approach to coordinating all concerned individuals and entities in America. It would simply be too unwieldy. But in a tacit admission that the different elements of American society have not played "team ball" in addressing climate change to date, the Conference recommended that new kinds of coordination be tried. These range from the bridging institution that would coordinate and translate scientists’ voices on climate change science (Recommendation #1) to the proposal for a new overarching communications entity that would help overcome the fragmented communications efforts on the issue to date (Recommendation #25).
In each case, the Conference participants debated whether a new entity is required or whether existing ones should be augmented. Building a new entity can be a resource sink and a way to defer real action. And, of course, any development plan for a new entity must begin with a thorough evaluation of the capabilities of existing entities that currently perform some part of the newly proposed mandate. For example, how distinct is the proposed Leadership Council from the existing Apollo Alliance, a broad coalition that has formed a 10-point plan to produce 3 million new jobs while promoting adoption of clean energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions? The American Association for the Advancement of Science and other organizations, including advocacy-oriented NGOs with a scientific focus, already perform some of the key functions of the proposed bridging institution, though rarely with a singular climate change focus.
Duplication must be minimized. At the same time, the very real bureaucratic obstacles and other challenges of kick-starting new initiatives within existing institutions must also be acknowledged.
Along the spectrum from the loose coordination of a council to a centralized institution exist many intermediate formats capable of enhancing the level of societal coordination on the climate change issue. Recommendation #29, for example, calls for a mechanism that could allow strategic diversity to flourish while also providing the minimum required level of coordination so that the various strategies being pursued might cumulate to a larger total impact. It urges the organization of a mass grassroots educational campaign to create specifically local narratives around climate change impacts and solutions. An important strategic innovation embedded in this recommendation would be to initiate the campaign with a National Climate Week that would recur on an annual basis, possibly in September during the hurricane season. This week would then serve as a focal period of activity, which would reduce the burden of top-down orchestration of the grassroots campaign since all organizations could be urged to independently plan events during this week but otherwise be left largely to their own devices.