"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 bulk of the report’s third chapter, "Packaging climate change as an energy issue." It discusses how climate change can piggy-back on growing energy concerns. Tomorrow’s excerpt will discuss the dangers of that strategy.



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.

So far we have discussed the challenges and opportunities of communicating the science of climate change and doing more to connect the issue with the core values, especially religious values, of Americans.

Some at our Conference contended, however, that there is a more compelling, if indirect, path to promoting societal action on climate change. In this view, climate change has not been conceptualized or communicated enough to the general public, and even to many leaders, as fundamentally an issue of energy. As a result, it has been fraught with more baggage and complexity than necessary. Some even noted that a campaign jingle like: "It’s the energy, stupid" could help crystallize this connection.

If energy is recognized as the linchpin, it becomes possible to reframe the climate change debate as one about profit-making opportunities (for many but not all sectors) and interconnections with other valued goals like energy independence, jobs, national security and even local air quality. Indeed, the Iraq war, persistently high gas prices, and a growing awareness of the geopolitical risks associated with importing over 50 percent of our oil, mostly from volatile regions of the world, have produced a bipartisan energy independence bandwagon that climate change could jump onto. A 2005 Yale Environmental Poll showed that 92 percent of Americans see our dependence on foreign oil as a serious national problem, whereas only 66 percent regard climate change that way.

Accordingly, key leaders at our Conference crafted a summary statement that garnered broad enthusiasm among the participants though, as with all the recommendations, not formal sign-off (see box below).

A Transformative National Effort on Energy

The 2005 Yale F&ES Conference on Climate Change recognized that there is an urgent need and a compelling opportunity for a transformative national effort on energy. The rapidly changing demands of climate stabilization, international competitiveness, national security, and global poverty underscore the need for urgent national action.

The energy transformation presents a significant business opportunity for almost every sector of the national economy, including: transportation, fuels, consumer goods and the agricultural community; flexible fueled vehicles and a renewed auto manufacturing sector; a modernized national grid system, linking utilities in a more secure network; an aggressive national conservation effort, based on excellent initiatives already started at the state and local level; an initiative on green buildings; and a major national effort to explore new and far-reaching energy generation activities.

The achievement of the needed transformation will be greatly assisted by clarification by our national leadership of the policies needed for working in a carbon-constrained environment (e.g., market-based mechanisms); engaging the business and financial sectors in accelerating reporting related to their "carbon footprint;" encouraging the insurance industry to augment efforts to understand and communicate risk related to climate change; and encouraging the United States to begin negotiations with the global community on next steps under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Conference Recommendations #20 and #34 translated key elements of this vision into a proposed action. Recommendation #20 reads:

"Design and execute a ‘New Vision for Energy’ campaign to encourage a national market-based transition to alternative energy sources. Harness multiple messages tailored to different audiences that embed the climate change issue in a larger set of co-benefit narratives, such as:

  • reducing U.S. dependency on Middle East oil (national security);
  • penetrating global export markets with American innovations (U.S. stature);
  • boosting U.S. job growth (jobs);
  • cutting local air pollution (health)."

A number of important private initiatives have been launched to address the complex issues associated with American energy use, such as the Energy Future Coalition, Set America Free, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), the Apollo Alliance, and the National Commission on Energy Policy. They have drawn news media and public attention for their breadth of support, including what are widely regarded as unlikely suspects and unusual bedfellows — showing that this has increasingly become a fertile arena for cross-domain collaboration.

The initiatives are sector-specific and in many cases highly detailed in their prescriptions for action. The Energy Future Coalition, for example, has helped to forge a promising initiative called "25 x 25", which holds out a compelling vision that: "Agriculture will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States by 2025 while continuing to produce abundant, safe and affordable food and fiber." The initiative is being led by crop, livestock and tree farmers, as well as horticulturalists, and energy and policy specialists. Their primary focus is on accelerating the scale-up of biofuels production, such as ethanol and biodiesel from dedicated energy crops as well as agricultural waste residues. But their plan extends to generating energy from wind and solar installations on farms, as well as from methane gas emissions from agricultural operations.

Given the existence of so many worthwhile initiatives, it is worth asking whether a new one, as called for by the Conference, is necessary or not. Answering that requires a fuller assessment of the extent to which current initiatives are succeeding — and if so, according to what metric? Do they need to be improved? Would they perform better in fulfilling their objectives if they were more closely coordinated with one another — or even combined? Or is it better to have different initiatives mobilizing different constituencies with somewhat distinct emphases in their messages and prescriptions? Under any of these scenarios, how can we best ensure that climate change is heavily weighted in their prescriptions, actions and communications? These are crucial questions that those of us carrying the Conference recommendations forward must answer.