Communicating about Climate Change and Wildlife

from Wildlife Promise

0 6/6/2012 // By John Kostyack //

The folks at Climate Access have asked me to share lessons I have learned in my past decade dealing with opponents of taking action on climate change. A key lesson I’d like to share is about the importance of identifying a receptive audience and communicating to that audience with careful attention to shared values. Here is an example of how this lesson has played out in the real world.

An Expert Opinion?

It is March 2009, a time of great promise and hope. The Obama Administration, fresh off its historic electoral victory, committed itself to tackling climate change with comprehensive legislation, as did the top leaders in both the House and Senate. For the first time ever, successful enactment of legislation capping carbon emissions across the U.S. economy seemed like a realistic possibility. Given that scientists were already sounding the alarm about how climate change and ocean acidification were disrupting the natural systems that support people and wildlife, the stakes could not have been higher.

Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), on the eve of their release of the bill known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, scheduled a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 25 to discuss a key issue that would be addressed by their bill, climate change adaptation. The National Wildlife Federation was invited to testify because we were leading a coalition advocating for the “polluter pays” principle of adaptation, in which the costs of helping natural and human communities cope with the damage caused by carbon pollution are paid for by selling carbon emissions permits to polluters. I had the responsibility of preparing my boss, National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Schweiger, to appear before the committee.

One might have expected that the top Republicans on the committee, closely allied with fossil fuel interests opposed to the Waxman-Markey effort, would populate their witness slots with highly articulate experts on climate science or policy. The lobbyists fighting climate action could certainly have produced well-compensated spokespeople with in-depth knowledge of the issues.  Instead,  the Republicans put forward the Right Honorable Lord Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a British politician affiliated with the oil industry-funded Heartland Institute, and Calvin Beisner, a former theology professor now with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an advocacy group funded by the oil industry.

Both witnesses attacked the idea that global warming is caused by human activities and represents a serious societal problem, without offering any peer-reviewed scientific studies to support their position. Instead, they spoke in value-laden terms about the supposed job-creating benefits of free markets and about how wrongheaded economic policies hurt the poor. Thus, for example, Lord Monckton, criticizing the idea of setting a price on carbon emissions through cap and trade legislation, argued that “protectionist tariffs are the last resort of the economically-illiterate and the politically-desperate.”  Mr. Beisner tried to show that global warming is not an important policy problem by relying on his interpretation of scripture:

The Biblical world view sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation and providential preservation and therefore robust, resilient, and self-regulating–like the product of any good engineer who ensures that the systems he designs have positive and negative feedback mechanisms to balance each other and prevent small perturbations from setting off a catastrophic cascade of reactions.  To assume that man can control the world’s climate is a very dangerous and a very arrogant position. It reminds me of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel when man thought they could build a tower to reach God. It was in their arrogance that they thought they could do things that only God can do.

Why would the opponents of this high-stakes legislation put forward witnesses so obviously unqualified to speak about the science and policy of climate change?  My conclusion is that the Republican leaders and their industry allies were aware that no one of importance was paying attention to the hearing and so they invested little time in preparing for it.  Also, to the extent that anyone was paying attention, the messages about free markets and adherence to scripture communicated a commitment to values that are deeply held by many conservatives.

A Facts vs. Values Approach

The key lesson I drew from the hearing, and from my other experiences working to shape national climate change policy, is that sharing technical knowledge and information with policy elites accomplishes very little. Winning a national policy solution to the climate crisis requires communicating about values. And it requires aiming those communications toward people who are not already committed, through financial compensation or otherwise, at opposing action on climate change.

A recent paper by Kahan et al. provides insights on how to communicate, and how not to communicate, with the large numbers of people who are not partisans in the fight against climate change action. Using statistical analysis, they demonstrate that increased exposure to scientific data does not change the perception of risk from climate change. As they become exposed to increasing amounts of data, those with “hierarchical individualist” values are likely to choose the data points that support their worldview, and those with “egalitarian communitarian” values are likely to choose data points consistent with their worldview.

If instead we speak to these nonpartisans in terms of values that all of us share–such as making the world a safe place for the people and wildlife that inherit it from us–then we have a real chance of mobilizing the kind of action on climate change that we need.

Take action to protect cherished wildlife from global warming, and as you do, check out NWF’s efforts to connect with a core value held by our supporters and the many others concerned about the future of  wildlife: the value of protecting wildlife for future generations.