Diversifying the Climate Movement

New Narratives and Investments Needed to Engage Minority Communities

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Credit: Creative Commons, 350.org

January 03, 2013 | Matthew Nisbet

At Politico today, there is an important article focusing on the inability of the environmental movement -- for the most part -- to move beyond a primarily white, liberal base and to engage minority communities.  As Politico's Talia Buford reports, many greens blame the failure of the cap and trade campaign to engage minority communities on opponents who warned of the damaging economic costs to low income communities.  Yet this rationale overlooks the differential costs that cap and trade would have placed on minority communities -- one reason why some greens were pushing for a cap and dividend program.  The explanation also overlooks the failure of greens for the most part to make an issue like climate change relevant to minority communities, or to even devote significant resources and staff to engagement.

The Environmental Defense Fund's Jorge Madrid, however, has it right when he notes the importance of how the relevance of climate change is conveyed to minority leaders and publics.  From Buford's article at Politico:

Changing the way the movement speaks to communities of color about environmental issues might prove paramount to engaging people who wouldn’t normally characterize themselves as green voters, said Jorge Madrid, a policy fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund.“[Traditionally] I think the environmental movement wasn’t telling the entire story,” Madrid said. “They were focusing on issues that I think were in the purview of more well-to-do wealthy folks who have time to worry about wetlands and oceans. Now there’s a bigger focus on the public health narrative. This is something that makes it very real for communities of color.”

Madrid's observation is consistent with the studies we have conducted with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  In this case, when climate change is reframed in terms of public health impacts -- and the benefits to public health if action is taken -- this reframing broadens the scope of perceived relevance and support for a variety of mitigation and adaptation-related efforts, especially at the regional or community-levels.  Moreover, our studies show that for the segment of the public that is the most disengaged on the issue of climate change, which tends to be predominantly people of low-income and of minority status, the public health focus in comparison to a traditional environmental emphasis is signficantly more engaging, resulting in the types of emotional responses that predict perceived relevance and participation on the issue. A focus on economic opportunity is also likely to be engaging to minority communities, though these opportunities and the benefits to job creation and the economy from any legislation or policy should not be oversold, as was the case in the "green jobs" push of years past.  

But if the environmental movement is going to change, foundations and funders need to help set the agenda by investing in new initiatives, organizations, and strategies.  As I detailed in the 2011 Climate Shift report, the nine major foundations behind the push for cap and trade legislation and an international agreement -- led by ClimateWorks and the Hewlett Foundation -- invested approximately less than 1-2% of the $360 million distributed between 2008 and 2010 in initiatives related to protecting public health, equity and justice, or job creation/training and community-based economic development respectively. Less than 1% was invested in promoting the role of the government in technology development and innovation, a central engine for promoting enhanced economic opportunity.

See Also

  • Diffusing Public Anger Over Climate Change
  • Myers, T., Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E.W., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). A Public Health Frame Arouses Hopeful Emotions about Climate Change.  Climatic Change Research Letters. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E. & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Framing Peak Petroleum as a Public Health Problem: Audience Research and Participatory Engagement.  American Journal of Public Health, 101: 1620-1626. [HTML]
  • Maibach, E.W., Nisbet, M.C., & Weather, M. (2011). Conveying the Human Health Implications of Climate Change: A Climate Change Communication Primer for Public Health Professionals. Washington, DC: George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication. [PDF]
  • Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299 (HTML).
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement.Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2011. Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate.  Washington, DC: School of Communication, American University (Introduction and Overview, Chapter 2).

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About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, Boston, MA. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses, including those on Communication, Culture and the EnvironmentMedia, Technology and Democracy; and the Civic Science Lab, a short course for scientists. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.

Click here to view his recent articles.