Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 4

Diversifying Policy Options and Promoting Public Debate

This week's release of the U.S. National Climate Assessment report has sparked headlines at news outlets across the country. Much of that coverage has highlighted what specific states, cities and communities can do to defend against climate change-related risks and impacts.

This past month has also brought increased attention to nuclear energy, natural gas fracking, and carbon capture and storage as important technological options for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, points strongly emphasized in the latest UN IPCC report.

Yet in contrast to the recent focus, these two policy paths -- investing in climate adaptation and promoting innovation in "hard" energy technologies -- were virtually ignored as part of national debate during the period 2007 to 2010.

Instead, environmentalists and their allies pushed to pass cap and trade legislation and a binding international treaty; strategies designed to put a price on carbon and promote solar, wind, and energy efficiency as solutions.

The recent shift to include a broader menu of policy actions and technologies is representative of the necessary role that the expert community must play in balancing the well intentioned efforts of environmentalists, who historically as advocates have restricted debate on climate change to just a few politically favored policy actions and technologies.

As Roger Pielke Jr. argues in his 2007 book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Politics and Policy, in the face of intense lobbying and political mobilization on climate change, experts and their organizations can act independently as “honest brokers” to expand the range of policy options and technological choices under consideration by elected officials and the public.

As I review in this essay, we will also need experts and their organizations to take the lead in convening debate about the actions best suited to protecting local communities against climate impacts and the technologies that can enable a cleaner, more abundant energy future for specific regions of the country.

This essay and others in the series are adapted from a forthcoming chapter that I contributed to the Routledge Handbook of the Public Communication of Science and Technology.

The Expert Community as Honest Brokers

In his 2010 book The Climate Fix, Roger Pielke Jr notes that polls show the public for several years has favored action on climate change but at low levels of intensity, suggesting that it is not a lack of public support limiting policy action.

“The challenge facing climate policy is to design policies that are consonant with public opinion, and are effective, rather than try to shape public opinion around particular policies,” he argues. “A broad portfolio of technologies and practices should be supported…despite the fact that no one energy technology will be universally popular."

Eventually, tough choices will be needed politically about what technologies to deploy, but that “should not preclude innovation, lest we limit our options before those options are even available."

In this case, Pielke argues that once next generation technologies are available that make meaningful action on climate change lower-cost, then much of the argument politically over scientific uncertainty will diminish.

In their research on cultural identity and risk perceptions, the findings of Dan Kahan and colleagues (see previous essays in this series) strongly suggest that perceptions of climate change are policy and technology dependent and that political agreement is more likely to occur under conditions of a diverse rather than narrow set of proposed solutions.

In these studies, when Hierarchical Individualists (who lean more conservative in their outlook) read that the solution to climate change was more nuclear power or geoengineering, their skepticism of expert statements relative to climate change decreased and their support for policy responses increased.

In contrast, when the solution to climate change was framed as stricter pollution controls, Hierarchical Individualists acceptance of expert statements on climate change decreased, whereas Communitarian Egalitarians (who lean more liberal) increased.

“It isn’t the case, of course, that carbon- emission controls are the only policy response to climate change risks; technologies that furnish a substitute for and that offset the effects of greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources can contribute, too,” write Kahan and his colleagues. “Many of these alternatives, such as nuclear power and geoengineering, are likely to convey cultural resonances that affirm rather than threaten hierarchical and individualist confidence in the power of human ingenuity to overcome environmental constraints on economic production.”

If we apply Pielke and Kahan’s reasoning to the climate debate, it follows that building political consensus on climate change will depend heavily on experts and their institutions calling attention to a broad portfolio of policy actions and technological solutions, with some actions such as tax incentives for nuclear energy, government support for clean energy research, or proposals to protect local communities against climate change impacts more likely to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans.

As effective honest brokers, experts and their organizations should pro-actively encourage journalists, policymakers, and the public to discuss a broad menu of options, rather than tacitly allow (or sometimes promote) efforts by climate activists, bloggers and commentators to limit debate to just a handful of options that fit with their own ideology and cultural outlook.

Designed to Fail? Strategic Philanthropy and Social Change

I observed the dynamics identified by Pielke, Kahan, and others while conducting my own research analyzing a group of major U.S. foundations and funders who during the period 2007-2010 bet heavily on a relatively narrow set of policy goals and technologies to combat climate change.

In 2006, several of the country’s wealthiest foundations hired a consulting firm to comprehensively survey the available scientific literature and to consult more than 150 leading climate change and energy experts.

The result of this intensive undertaking was the 2007 report Design to Win: Philanthropy’s Role in the Fight Against Global Warming. Leading the report was the recommendation that “tempering climate change” required a strong cap and trade policy in the U.S. and the European Union, and a binding international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

The report predicted that passage of cap and trade legislation would “prompt a sea change that washes over the entire global economy.”

The report included little to no discussion of the role of government in directly sponsoring the creation of new energy technologies or in promoting climate adaptation strategies, nor was there substantial discussion of technological options other than solar, wind and improved energy efficiency.

The report was additionally notable for the absence of any meaningful attention to social, political or technological barriers.

Instead, the authors offered a decidedly optimistic outlook: “The good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to achieve these carbon reductions—often at a cost savings.”

To understand how this planning document shaped the investment strategies of major funders, I analyzed available records as of January 2011 for 1,246 climate change and energy-related grants distributed by nine aligned foundations between 2008 and 2010.

These aligned foundations were among the wealthiest in the country, included several of the top funders of environment-related programs, and were either sponsors of the Design to Win report or described themselves as following its recommendations.

Approximately $368 million was distributed across the 1,246 individual grants. The funding provided by the nine foundations reflected a pattern of support focused on achieving a narrow set of policy objectives as outlined in the Design to Win report that focused on passing a price on carbon and on investing in solar, wind, and energy efficiency strategies (figure below, see "Carbon Pricing & Soft Path Strategy").

In comparison, there was either very limited or no funding focused on the role of government in promoting innovation or on evaluation of technologies favored by political conservatives like nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, or natural gas fracking (figure below, see Innovation & "Hard" path" strategy).

Nor was there equivalent investment in important human dimensions of the issue, such as climate adaptation, protecting public health, or addressing issues of social equity and justice (figure below, see Resilience & Human Security Strategy).

Similarly, very few grants supported initiatives designed to better understand public opinion, to evaluate communication strategies, and/or to promote media resources across states and regions (not shown in the figure).

Investing in Civic Forums and Public Debate

The limited foundation funding between 2007-2010 to support the civic culture and public forums that states and communities need in order to debate decisions about climate change calls attention to an additional area where the expert community and their organizations -- particularly universities -- must play a lead role.

In this regard, universities can serve a vital function in facilitating public dialogue about climate change, by working with philanthropic funders and community partners to sponsor local media platforms and public forums, by convening stakeholders and political groups, and by serving as a resource for collaboration and cooperation.

In fact, cities, states and local regions are the contexts where we can most effectively experiment with communication initiatives that challenge how each of us debate, think and talk about climate change as a social problem.

In these forums, new cultural voices can be heard, new cultural framings and meanings emphasized, and innovative policy approaches and technological options discussed.

By building up our local and regional communication capacity, we can also start to set the conditions for eventual change in national politics, by rewiring our expectations and norms relative to public debate; and by forging relationships and collaborations that span ideological differences and cultural world views.

Consider a recent example of a university-led public engagement initiative on climate change that was successful in overcoming culturally motivated and group-based polarization.

Organizers at George Mason University and the U.S. Naval Academy surveyed the public in a coastal Maryland county to better understand their risk perceptions related to sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Not surprisingly, respondents’ world views as measured in terms of Hierarchical-Individualism and Communitarian-Egalitarianism were among the strongest predictors of risk perceptions.

“Local policy discourses on sea-level rise are not emerging into a neutral arena, but one in which cultural meanings have already begun to form,” noted the research team. “In this environment, traditional communication strategies of providing ‘objective’ assessments are unlikely to staunch further issue polarization."

Yet when the university organizers brought together a sample of 40 local residents to participate in a professionally moderated dialogue about sea level rise and coastal flooding, among Hierarchical Individualists their doubts about the risks posed by sea level decreased and they grew more concerned that current local government efforts were not sufficient to address the threat (see figures for pre-post change in attitudes).

For these Hierarchical Individualists, the research team reasoned that the process of skillfully moderated public deliberation focused on a local threat made community-wide membership a more salient consideration than their specific cultural identity and political outlook.

The findings based on a single initiative and a small sample size should be viewed as preliminary but they suggest that similar initiatives should be funded, carefully designed and evaluated.

Cornell University has also invested in similar strategies to engage upstate New York communities and agricultural stakeholders on the need to adapt to climate change risks and impacts.

In this case, the university has taken the lead in forging relationships among state and local agencies, corporations, agricultural interests, and NGOs to create a variety of decision-related resources and tools.

As Lauren Chambliss and Bruce Lewenstein describe in a recent article, to promote cooperation and diffusion, the university has worked through its extensive network of cooperative extension offices across the state and has actively sought to frame the relevance of climate change in ways that resonate with intended publics such as farmers.

As an example of the benefits of advanced media planning and outreach, pegged to the release of this week's National Climate Assessment, Cornell scientist and report co-author David Wolfe has provided important analysis to national and local newspapers and local TV news outlets, many of them specific to the Northeast and New England region.

Face-to-face dialogue, community relationship building, and media outreach by universities should be complemented by additional investment in new online media forums that bridge, blur and add context to perspectives on climate change and energy technologies; expanding discussion of policy options and technological solutions; and thereby offering an alternative to the moral outrage that dominates most online commentary.

This is especially important in today's media world, as regional newspapers suffer financially and cut coverage of public affairs generally and climate change specifically. As a consequence, new forms of non-profit, university-based media platforms will be needed if regions and states are to have the civic capacity to make informed decisions and choices.

At the national-level, a leading model for these state and region-focused forums is Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog, part of The New York Times opinion section. As a veteran science reporter, Revkin via his blog not only functions as an explainer and informed critic of science, but he also serves as a convener, facilitating discussions among a diversity of experts, advocates, and various publics, while contextualizing the uncertainty relative to specific claims, technologies, and policy approaches.

As I reviewed in a 2013 Harvard Shorenstein paper, Revkin explains that his ultimate focus at Dot Earth is the “broader exploration of new ways to make information work – to give ideas the best chance of getting where they are needed to help advance our relationships to the environment and each other."

Rather than frequently advocating for a position, he prefers posing questions, describing answers from experts and others, an approach that Bill McKibben has criticized as “relentlessly middle-seeking."

But as Revkin writes, he views his role mainly as “interrogatory – exploring questions, not giving you my answer … I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues is not being particularly honest."

The principles that inform Revkin’s blogging at The New York Times should also shape the design and sponsorship of media forums sponsored by universities and their partners.

A prototype for such an initiative is Ensia, a foundation-funded web magazine launched by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Guided by founding editor Todd Reubold, the online magazine’s mission is to use news, commentary, and discussion to identify and inspire new approaches to climate change and other environmental problems.

To do so, Ensia features reporting by top freelancers; commentaries by experts and thought leaders; and a TED conference-like event series that is broadcast and archived online.

Preparing for the Next Decade of Climate Debate

Across the essays in this series, I have outlined three major public engagement strategies that research suggests may be effective at softening polarization and creating the opportunity for political agreement in support of actions to address climate change.

For the expert community and their organizations, these strategies include investing in new frames of reference and cultural voices; pro-actively widening the menu of policy options and technological options considered; and investing in localized public and media forums that sponsor dialogue, diverse interactions, and collaboration around new ideas and solutions.

Pursuing these strategies also requires experts and their organizations to recognize the special attributes of the climate debate that make the issue so politically divisive and to understand how past definitions of the problem may have helped inadvertently set in motion the polarization that exists today.

Yet the application of research-based principles to the debate over climate change does not guarantee conflict resolution, no matter how much we might wish such knowledge to hold the key to reducing polarization and brokering consensus.

Research findings are often messy, complex, and difficult to translate into practice. They are also contingent and subject to revision based on new research; changes in the dynamics surrounding an issue; or in applying across issues and social contexts.

Moreover, no matter how knowledgeable and adept the expert community might be in applying research to their public engagement efforts; resolution of intensely polarized debates such as climate change take years, if not decades to resolve; and requires the different sides in a debate to give ground, negotiate and compromise.

As part of this process, efforts by activists, advocacy groups and bloggers to achieve total consensus and agreement around ideologically preferred policies and technologies are likely to lead to blind spots in planning, promote group think, and only futher inflame polarization.

Instead we will need to recognize respectful disagreement as a strength that enables us to better understand problems, identify paths forward, and broker support for those actions.

Yet on climate change the major question will be if these self-realizations and shifts in outlook will come quickly enough for society to avoid the most serious threats.

I opened this series with a reflection on the work and insights of the late sociology Dorothy Nelkin and conclude with her thoughts as we navigate the next decade of public debate over climate change.

In 1992, to end her last edited volume of case studies on science controversies she wrote: “Based on competing social and political values, few conflicts are in reality resolved. Even as specific debates seem to disappear, the same issues reappear in other contexts…. The persistence of controversy suggests that the issues described in this book are hardly unique events. Rather, they are part of a significant tendency in American society to reassess the social values, the priorities, and the political relationships that underlie technical decisions.”

Other Essays in the "Pathways to Progress on Climate Change" Series:

Part 1: Lessons from Research on the Politics of Technical Decisions

Part 2: Wicked Psychology and Ideological Message Machines

Part 3: Telling Stories about Human Security and Ingenuity

Part 4: Diversifying Policy Options and Promoting Debate


Adapted from Nisbet, M.C. (2014). Engaging in Science Policy Controversies: Insights from the U.S. Debate Over Climate Change. Handbook of the Public Communication of Science and Technology, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.