"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 second half of the report’s second chapter, "From Science to Values." It addresses how politicians and "authentic messengers" can direct values discussions. The latter, most interesting part lists some reasons to be cautious about transitioning to values talk. I must admit to sharing some of these concerns.



Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Politicians and Values

Reader support makes our work possible. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations TRIPLED!

Values are often cited in the political arena as an explanation for divisions between people — divisions that are, if not irreconcilable, at least inhibiting to convergent or bipartisan action. We will discuss the issue of partisanship and climate change more below. Here we note simply that a significant theme at our Conference was that liberals and conservatives are motivated by distinct and deeply rooted sets of values, which influence their political preferences on climate change and a range of other issues.

Others contend, however, that appeals to common values provide a promising avenue for overcoming differences and engendering societal action on issues like climate change. An example cited at the Conference was former President Ronald Reagan, who won two terms despite documented gaps between his positions and the public’s majority preferences on key issues. His success, therefore, was attributed to his ability to talk about issues as a door into a deeper discussion of values, where he was more closely aligned with the American public.

In this view, values are the key driver of the public’s decision-making and until those favoring action on climate change do a better job of connecting the issue to values — not just religious values, but lifestyle values like hunting, which may be threatened by climate change — they will not advance the issue.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A key recommendation of the Politics working group at our Conference, therefore, is to "recast climate change as a moral and faith issue, not a scientific or environmental one" and to "catalyze a broader coalition of allies around this moral common ground" (Recommendation #21).

Authentic Messengers

One way to produce societal action on the basis of mainstream values may be to find mainstream voices prepared to speak out on climate change — farmers, hunters, fishermen, rank-and-file labor union members, local TV meteorologists, soccer moms, NASCAR drivers, and moderate politicians, among others. Recruitment must be based on a genuine process of engagement, however, not an effort to find and script puppets. This is important for ethical reasons. But is also strategically sound: people have been shown, in laboratory experiments, and in real life, to be adept at detecting when they are being manipulated, even subtly. They discount scripted events or speakers and the reliability of the information being conveyed. So a key need is to find authentic messengers on climate change, those who can speak convincingly and honestly about the issue from their own perspective, outside the orchestration of a modern issue campaign.

Finding and cultivating authentic messengers will require introducing prospects to information and perhaps values associated with climate change, and permitting them to find their own voice on the issue, rather than imposing a didactic model on the exchange. BP, for example, has aired an effective series of "person on the street" television advertisements in which average citizens (reportedly not scripted actors) verbalize their own concerns about the implications of society’s — and their own — energy use, including in relation to climate change. Putting aside any debates about BP’s motives, the advertisements struck a chord because of their authenticity: the citizens describe their uncertainties, dilemmas, and concerns openly. Communicators working on the issue of climate change may be able to take a page out of the BP book by taking more time to listen to citizens’ concerns about being asked to take action on climate change — what tradeoffs do they fear, what impingements on their quality of life, what uncertainties would they like to resolve?

A recurring theme at the Conference was that the most persuasive and trusted channel for propagating information on controversial issues like climate change is peer-to-peer dialogue. News editors may listen to esteemed fellow news editors who say they’re missing the biggest story of our time by not covering climate change — hence the call for orchestrating editor-to-editor dialogues (Recommendation #7). Religious congregations may listen to their fellow parishioners speaking about the spiritual imperatives associated with climate change (Recommendation #13).

Many concerned with advancing climate change messages believe that novel voices must be recruited and deployed in order to jolt people awake and prompt them to take a fresh look at the issue. On the surface, this point is distinct from the call for authentic voices. And yet, look again. One way to read this is that novelty can be a surrogate for authenticity. It is precisely when a speaker deviates from a predictable script that we are compelled to take notice, in part because it forces us to at least consider that the person is speaking authentically from the heart. This may, in turn, induce people to take a closer look at the issue they’re talking about.

Observe Caution in Moving from Science to Values

Despite all the recommendations in its favor, we should observe caution in moving too quickly from science-based communications to moral and values-based appeals, recognizing not only the benefits but the risks of doing so.

  • First, while many values are socially constructed, some are personal and may not allow for the level of commonality needed to achieve a societal consensus for action. Even social values often emerge in an oppositional sense, whether in conscious or unconscious distinction to the values of others.
  • Second, values are subjective — by definition, they do not lend themselves to objective verification. Thus a prominent elected official at the Conference cautioned against the recommendation to recast climate change from a scientific to a moral issue, because he believes that the scientific rigor associated with climate change science, once recognized more fully than it is today, can serve as an objective basis for eventual convergence among officials from different parties.
  • Third, people tend to apply extra scrutiny to individuals whose assertions are made using the language of values. In this sense, values may be less susceptible to influence from outside than is recognized. The pathway to influence through "information" that is less value-laden may be comparatively more open.

One might counter that the recommendations call less for changing values per se, than for tapping into deeply rooted values already held by the person one is seeking to influence. That may be valid in theory, but the distinction in practice can be hard to draw. If you are seeking to tell someone what the implications of their values are, you are in well- defended terrain and the obstacles to your success may be higher, as they should be. Yet the gains, if successful, may be greater — and more enduring.

What can be gained, by contrast, through an information-based approach, rather than a values approach? An anecdote from the Conference is telling, though certainly not conclusive. One of the participating religious leaders said he had come to embrace climate change as a spiritually crucial issue, but had done so by being exposed to the science and undergoing something akin to a "conversion experience." In other words, it was the science, not the values per se, that were most persuasive to him, which only then led to his spiritual interpretation of the issue.

It turns out that the person who exposed him to the science and prompted the epiphany was a religious scientist, so we cannot in this particular case cleanly distinguish the scientific from the religious influences. Yet it’s clear that the science was an important ingredient in the persuasive mix. This leaves us with the insight that we may not need to frame science and values as mutually exclusive alternatives, but rather as considerations that can work in tandem. This anecdote also implies the value of recruiting more such dual-identity individuals to build these bridges in our society: religious scientists, politician-scientists, journalist-scientists, religious politicians and other permutations. We had several such rare individuals at our Conference and they provided crucial connective tissue.


Meaningful discussions about values are usually about tradeoffs, not stand-alone commitments. It is one thing for someone to agree that climate change is a serious problem, or even to say their values call on them to do something about it. It is quite another for them to give climate change a privileged place in a forced ranking of values — or to demonstrate behaviorally that they are willing to sacrifice something for it, including through a demonstrated "willingness to pay."

This was evidenced earlier in our discussion of the perceived climate/poverty tension. Putting aside potentially overlooked evidence of the linkages between the two issues, they are frequently perceived as requiring hard tradeoffs (and they do, in relation to intergenerational implications). This and other value tradeoffs complicate the application of values to action in the case of climate change. Economists bring their arsenal of quantification tools in an attempt to reconcile these as much as possible into one integrated account, but the most intellectually honest among them concede the limits of their method in quantifying non-marketed goods and intangibles, and in accounting for potentially irreversible issues like climate change.

Political scientist Arthur Lupia, a participant at our Conference, has done celebrated research that relates to this issue of value tradeoffs. He conducted experiments to ascertain what causes a messenger to be perceived as credible. In simplest terms, the answer is that speakers perceived as both knowledgeable and trustworthy are the most credible. Trustworthiness, however, is not simply a function of character, but rather the existence of institutional or other contextual penalties imposed on an untruthful speaker. Listeners are sensitive to the conditions under which speech is uttered, not just the content. If the speaker is perceived as facing adverse and probable consequences from lying (i.e., a tradeoff), then the listener is more likely to give credence to what they say. (See Arthur Lupia and Mathew D. McCubbins, The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? Cambridge University Press, 1998.)

This finding was exhibited at our Conference in the following way: One religious leader noted that business leaders are much more credible messengers to his parishioners about climate change than environmentalists. Whereas environmentalists are often perceived as oblivious to the tradeoffs by which climate change policies may produce job losses in some sectors, business leaders are seen to be clearly measuring their position on climate change in relation to exactly this job loss risk. In other words, the business leader’s expression of concern about climate change carries real costs and is therefore more credible.

Building on this insight, Recommendation #15 calls for new dialogues on climate change between business and religious leaders and their respective constituencies.