09 February 2011

Climate Change and Strategic Communications

This is how scientists prove their critics are wrong - but line graphs don't shift public opinion
The scientific case regarding man-made climate change has never been stronger.  Climate change is real, our actions are prompting it, and the failure to address this will lead to severe consequences.   (here's how it works - we burn oil and coal and gas, which belches a humongous amount of carbon into the air, which traps heat in the atmosphere, causing all sorts of weird weather and other nasty stuff.  It's more complicated than that, but that's basically it.  It's actually pretty intuitive.  Pour enough crap into anything that supports life and eventually bad things happen.)

The political position of those who would fight climate change has never been weaker.  Last year the US House of Representatives (under Democratic control) passed a "climate bill" that was widely regarded by pundits as the absolute most that could be accomplished politically - and widely panned by environmentalists as not nearly enough to turn the tide.  The Senate didn't pass anything.  Last year's UN meeting on climate change - the overblown farce known as COP 15 - saw a lot of speeches that said "the time for talk is over, the time for action is now" but produced an "accord" that basically said climate change is a bad thing and maybe someday someone should think about doing something.  Maybe.  Even though the "scientific" arguments presented by climate change deniers are absolutely pathetic (as outlined in Dr. Gleick's piece at Huffington Post), they're still winning on Capitol Hill.

This year, House committees (now under Republican control) will hold hearings designed to smear climate scientists.  A "climate bill" isn't even under serious consideration in the House or the Senate.  (We will see, however, a debate on abolishing the EPA.)  Companies that profit from burning oil, coal and gas have funded all sorts of "think-tanks" and hired a bunch of PR guys to work together to confuse the issue and make sure John Q. Nascar remains focused on the things he can see, like President Obama's birth certificate from Kenya.  (it's on the internet, you know.) The UN meeting on climate change that took place in December (COP 16) thankfully wasn't overhyped, but didn't really accomplish much more than COP 15. And I'm not the only person who noticed that the words "climate change" mysteriously disappeared from the State of the Union address this year.

The problem is simple: those who support the status quo have a coherent, coordinated, and well-funded communications strategy.  Those who support real change (and sound science) do not.

So when I see someone like Chris Mooney - someone who is smart and actually trying to fight this battle - point to a form letter written by a group of scientists addressed to every Member of Congress and suggest it "teaches us a thing or two about communication" - I have to sigh.  Chris clearly has an optimistic viewpoint on this and says he wants to encourage more scientists to get involved in the political process.  He's right about that.  However, since the pro-science (and actually pro-business) message on climate change comes in uncoordinated and often random spurts, it has very little impact.  And when scientists make the observation that their valuable time and effort on outreach like this is being wasted, they are less inclined to try it again.

So my advice - start working more closely together and agree on a strategy, a message, and a set of tactics.   And if all you want to do is criticize how others are doing this, or say it's not worth doing because it's not perfect, STFU and go away.   Here's an outline of what I'd do, as promised in an earlier post.

Topline Strategy: Position your side as the solution, the way forward.  Associate supporters of the status quo with the salient problems of the status quo more generally, and position them as opponents of progress.  You saw something resembling this in the most recent State of the Union Address. The President didn't mention the words "climate change" but he did talk a lot about "winning the future" and the economic benefits of clean energy technology.    Then develop a range of strategic and realistic policy goals and attack.

Identify your audience.  "Everybody" is not an audience. "Members of Congress" are an audience, but the way to reach them isn't a letter.  You need to have face-to-face meetings with them and their staffs.  More importantly, you need to have face to face meetings with the people who influence those Members of Congress most.   I think that means the real audience is the media, business leaders, trade associations, and political donors.   As for consumers - and they're also important, because they vote - Mom is unquestionably the household decision maker for basically everything, so you need to develop a coherent message for moms.

Messaging.  Have a backgrounder available for the paleo-clima-anthropomorphi-techno stuff, but scientists and environmentalists aren't losing this fight on the science.  They're losing on the economics. Right now, the message from the other side is simple: capping carbon = less energy use = less economic activity = less profit = fewer jobs for John Q. Nascar.   But to buy into their mindset you have to believe that we won't or can't change the way we use energy, that efficiency doesn't really move the needle, and that wind power is crazy-looking. I think it's time people realized that we don't have cap-and-trade, and the economy sucks anyway.  While messaging should always be in the authentic voice of the person speaking, I think it makes sense for everyone who's speaking on the pro-science side of the topic to assert the following general points:
  • The people who deny climate science support a status quo that works for no one but them. High energy prices hurt the entire economy - except maybe a handful of companies and individuals.  We're looking forward but they're clinging to the past.
  • Climate science deniers also deny consumer choice.  The technology exists to give us electric cars, energy-efficient appliances, and so on.  Polls show millions of people want them.  But the people who say climate change is a "hoax" also oppose policies that would make it easier for consumers to get them.
  • Climate science deniers oppose innovation.  They've gone all-in for a 20th-Century energy strategy that says "dig it out of the ground and set it on fire." They work hard to make sure the rules favor this strategy, and they're holding on to their advantage for as long as they can.
There are other points to make, but if you notice, these general arguments (opposing the status quo, supporting choice and innovation) are largely generic arguments that "test well" with the public and with policy elites across all sorts of issues.  They're also relevant and truthful.  This sort of thing has to be THE message - not "the sky is falling," not something about tree rings, not something that must be measured in parts per billion.  

I'm sure some scientists are thinking "we've said all that already."  Not really, no. These messages haven't been forcefully, clearly, creatively, and repeatedly delivered to the people who matter.  They haven't been built into a coordinated campaign that includes earned media, paid media, social media, and lobbying.  

As for policy issues, there are plenty of options - but what's most important is going on offense.  A really smart political operative once told me "if you're not on offense, you're on defense - and if you're on defense, you're losing."  If you're looking for specifics I recommend my pal the Ecopolitologist for ideas.  Start with battles you have a good chance of winning, build momentum, and keep pushing.  And stop it already with the "it's not for scientists to decide policy, our role is only to share data and analysis."  Everyone has a right to participate completely in the political process. Everyone.


George said...

Never mind "climate change" or "global warming" strategic communications, just claim the nom de guerre "pro-growth" and then defend it.

After all, growth is optimized when it takes place in an environment optimized for predictability.

And the "pro-growth" community could benefit from insights into the cognitive processes of those it seeks to affect. The best seed won't grow if it's strewn onto barren ground.

Recommended view: Noah Goldstein, UCLA School of Management, links to podcast/articles on environmental action and social norms

4rx said...

It is clear that the so call "global warming" is not because of us or our pollution, it is because of the sun, not only our planet is heating up, the entire planets are warming up. Some amazing things are about to happen very very soon.