The View from the Climate Crossroads

The View from the Climate Crossroads

The first challenge of global warming has been getting the masses to accept the reality and the threat it poses. That was difficult enough, but seems to have been achieved. However, the second, much bigger challenge, is getting people motivated to take action.

A new report, "Climate Crossroads: A Research-Based Framing Guide for Global Warming" aims to offer a first step towards a unified conversation on global warming. The study is a summary of what is known to date about the most effective communications approaches, what works and what won't work to move the ball on global warming. Executive Editor Joel Makower recently spoke with Cara Pike, the lead author of the report, about how to get people to care about global warming.

Joel Makower: So Cara, tell me first why there was a need to write this guide?

Cara Pike: Well, Climate Crossroads was really intended to take a long picture – a big picture, long-term view at public opinion and global warming.

So rather than just looking at one study in time and what the public thinks, you know, on this given date, we looked at about five years of public opinion research and commissioned some original research to really try and get at where are the big cognitive blocks in the public's understanding of the challenge of global warming and how do they see their role in addressing it?

So we felt there was a lot of great research that had been done about how opinion was changing, but we really wanted to get a better sense of where are the big barriers in understanding that we need to overcome to really engage the public in a way that supports policies but also promotes individual behavior change.

JM: And when say the "public," you were talking about the U.S. public?

CP: Exactly. The American public.

JM: So what's been the biggest problem to date in terms of getting public understanding and buy-in on climate change, global warming -- and we'll get to what we call it in a minute.

CP: Well, there's actually quite a bit of good news, and I think that's probably the place to start. What we saw in particular in looking at about five years of data is that the conversation about whether global warming is a real problem is in many ways done. Yes. There still are some voices in the public who are denying that it's a reality, but for the most part, most people accept that it's a real challenge that we need to deal with. And acceptance of that is very high.

But now the challenge is really about a sense of urgency -- is this something that we need to deal with now or can we wait until we get a few other things in order? And then the other big challenge -- and this is actually being picked up in other studies, not just ours -- is that there's a low sense of efficacy. And what that really means is that the public really isn't sure what the best solutions are and whether or not they really have a role to play. So the solvability issue is quite key.

JM: So speaking of that, our listeners and audience are business people primarily, and I think one of the challenges that companies face stems from what you were just talking about, which is that companies are trying to figure out how to be part of the solution and many and are doing many impressive and sometimes even bold and audacious things.

And one of the challenges they face is having a message that to a public that isn't even sure it understands what the solutions are, let alone how to think about companies that claim to be doing the right thing -- or at least better than they were doing before.

CP: Well I think the challenges that many of the work that's been done on messaging has leaped ahead and is many ways at an expert level. What we found is that even with segments of the public who are highly educated and very aware of global warming, there is a very low understanding of what the problem really is.

So what we found even in talking to people who are members of environmental organizations or who identify themselves as environmentalists, is they often thought global warming had to do with the problem with ozone holes.

The other thing that you find is that most people don't really have a sense of the connection between energy, the economy, and climate, and so most people wouldn't be able to tell you, for example, that their energy or great majority of their energy might come from coal, for example.

So a lot of the discussion and in particular, in the media, has leaped ahead into this somewhat elite conversation, but even those who are trying to follow that conversation very actively are missing some fundamental information. So what we really found is that you have to go back and fill in some of those holes.

So for example, "green energy" doesn't mean anything to anyone. "Alternative energy" sounds too marginal. Or even needing to make sure that people need to understand that in many ways, we're dealing with the problem with too much carbon building up in the atmosphere.

You have to go back and fill in some of these more, what my seem to people working in clean energy or in business trying to tackle this problem, some basic ground that they don't need to pay attention to.

JM: So there's a huge education component here that companies and others, of course, need to engage in.

CP: Exactly and, you know, I think another big issue for business is often, the conversation around energy choices and global warming is very focused on cost. And while cost is obviously a huge factor and the public generally worry about rising gas costs and their personal costs, what we found is that there's a higher level of concern about the economy and energy that really has to do more with the United States' role in world and whether or not we're really being innovative leaders, whether or not we're really working towards a more secure world where we'll be less dependent on fossil fuels.

So while people do want to know where they can save money and how different solutions that businesses might be offering are much better for the economy, you also have to make sure that those messages are connected to conversations and frames about those higher level values regarding our place in the world.

JM: I know your report doesn't necessarily evaluate company communications but have you seen any good examples of companies that you think are doing it right or "righter," I guess?

CP: Well, you know, I think that there have been some good examples when people can really connect some of the individual level choices people are making to the solutions that they offer.

I think one of the key things is really making sure that in the consumer choices area, people have a sense of how their choices are making a big difference. I actually can't think of any sort of outstanding example of, you know, stellar models that I have seen where a lot of the communications is quite fuzzy around how the options or the alternatives being offered to the consumer are really going to add up and make the kind of difference that individuals are hoping to see.

JM: You know, my sense is that if this is like other environmental issues that I've been watching over the past two decades that consumers are saying, "Yes, I'm concerned but I want the problem to be solved for me. That I want change but I don't want to have to change myself." In other words, they love the noun "change" but they don't really like the verb.

And soI'm curious. Is what you saw with climate -- that people are concerned, but they don't necessarily want to make personal changes or see that their personal changes make much of a difference -- and if so, how do you get around that?

CP: I think a growing number of Americans really do want to engage and do things that will make a difference. I think that it's very confusing what really will make that difference and in particular, given how busy people are, how pressed the feel financially, they really want to know if I only have time to do a handful of things, what are the things that are really going to have the biggest payback and biggest impact on solving the problem? I think there's been a bit of a scale issue around solutions where many of the things that the public are being asked to do, don't seem to match the scale of the challenge. So, you know, how can you really solve a global complex issue by changing light bulbs?

So once again, back to those feedback mechanisms and really ensuring that we're connecting those individual choices up to the kind of systemic and larger scale change people are interested in, the better.

JM: Well, and it also strikes me that even when companies do this well that a lot of this can be done simply be a few skeptics casting doubt and that feeds into people's instincts that they're being sold a bill of goods -- that this isn't really going to do anything. It's just a way to sell more light bulbs.

CP: Well, some of the market mechanisms and consumer options are very confusing They are hard to understand. So I think some of the skepticism is there for good reason. For example, we found that most of the public really are skeptical about the idea of cap and trade. It sounds confusing. They would like to see something a little bit more straightforward where there's a clear limit on pollution being emitted that's creating global warming. They want to know who's responsible for dealing with it, who's going to pay for it, and I think around who's going to pay for it, they're, of course, extremely concerned that they're going to be footed with the bill.

But at the same time, when questions are asked around some of the details of a cap-and-trade system and where revenue generated might go, what we found is that most Americans don't want that returned to consumers. They want it going into investments and a new energy infrastructure – a cleaner, safer, more reliable energy infrastructure.

So, you know, it gets a little tricky where I think that increasingly, people really do want to get engaged. But we have to make it a little bit more clear as to where the best place is for them to plug in and what those actions result in.

JM: Do you have any sense of how Americans are different in their attitudes and their climate communication needs than those in other countries?

CP: Well, I don't know from a solid research sense. I've looked at some research but not to a great extent. But more just from my own opinion and instincts, I think that some of the desire to see America's place restored in the world to regain that sense of innovation -- the sense that we can really push and come up with the technologies to solve these problems and that will bring more security to the world as we reduce our energy – some of that is a very American way of seeing a challenge like this.

There have been plenty of experiences in American history that would lead the public to think that we can innovate as a way to address this issue and, in doing so, will give us a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

I don't know that other countries see it quite in that same way. I've been talking to some leaders in British Columbia who have worked on the energy policy and they're not necessarily interested in being the first. They wouldn't mind if other countries really did some of the innovation and they could see how new technologies work in reality before adopting it across the board.

So, I do think that that sense of let's solve this problem through that incredible American ingenuity and innovation is somewhat unique to the U.S. experience.

JM: So if you had the ear of some thousands of business people -- which you actually in fact do right now -- what would be a couple of takeaways that you'd want them to remember when it comes to messaging and communicating about climate?

CP: Well, just to go over some of what we've said, I think really making sure that we don't assume that the audiences are necessarily with us in terms of their understanding of the issue and that's true of all different types of audiences, even those highly educated and engaged. So to make sure we're not coming out at from that expert level.

And to make the role for the individual and the change. So for example, for a company, whatever service or product you're offering, really making the case on how this will make a difference and not just in a feel-good way but actually in terms of the larger change that will result if a person decides to choose your offering.

So I think really being clear and not promising too much. I think people do have a healthy amount of skepticism and I think it's okay to be talking about products or services in terms of, you know, "We're trying. These are our efforts that we're trying to see if can make a difference versus having to be the end all, be all and have all of the solutions."

So really, I think creating an opportunity for your customers and audiences to be part of the solutions and thinking that through and working that through with you.

JM: And finally, the question we talked about at the top: "climate change" or "global warming." What do you call it and why?

CP: There's a lot we could talk about in terms of different words that work and don't work around a number of energy options. "Global warming" is what we're recommending at this point.

It has challenges. It is not a perfect term for a number of reasons. Scientifically, it's not as accurate, for example, but it is the term that's most familiar with the public.

What I think really needs to be done though is that needs to be explained more. That we need to connect what it means for the climate to change, back to people's lives and make sure we're also connecting it back to fact that much of what we need to deal with are carbon energy sources that need to be reduced.

So "global warming" has a level of popular understanding that's its advantage, but ultimately, we need to help fill in what we're actually talking about so people don't think it's just a two-to-four degree change in temperature, which means we need to get better air conditioners.

JM: Interesting. Well, Cara, lot more to talk about here, but we'll provide a link to the report, and thank you very much.

CP: Thank you, Joel.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user IcE MaN Photography.