Communicating climate change: A Republican spin doctor has it right?

Spurious (?) image of Lubetkin’s wonderful, now redundant, Penguin Pool, London Zoo, Joe Smith, Nov 2012

[Edit 18.42 13th Nov: It has been pointed out to me that I exclusively mentioned climate researchers but didn’t mention climate bloggers/tweetters that I’ve benefited from engaging with. Apologies. I’m learning a great deal from to-and-fro on social media with various people, and omission on my part not to make space to acknowledge that. I’ve particularly swapped notes (and arguments) with @BarryJWoods and @clim8resistance but been challenged and learnt new things from following @omnologos @clim8resistance @etzpcm and @aDissentient too. Thanks all]

Does climate change need more explaining – and if so which bit of it? A recent report that will be debated tomorrow investigates how climate science might be better communicated. I can’t be there, but there is a good group of contributors and bloggers going. It is one response, commissioned by government departments and research bodies, to the ebbing tide of public and media engagement over the last two years. In the preface to the report Lord Stern suggests that ‘The quantity and quality of coverage of climate change has undoubtedly declined’. Indeed: Painter and Boykoff and Mansfield offer good empirical evidence on this. And if I’m to read this as suggesting that climate contrarian voices are having a very good run of it I’d agree with that too. But should we be surprised? The last quarter of 2009 saw an inflated bubble of (monotonous) climate-worrying stories. Even in June of that year you could more or less book a ticket to watch the media bubble bursting in the days that followed COP15 that December. It didn’t require an intriguing Climategate or a disappointing Copenhagen conference: editorial and public boredom would have dished the news value of climate change with no further effort from anyone.

I do think it matters that people are invited into a good understanding of climate change science, but I think it matters far more that there is some good quality debate on the politics of it. The fact is we might have already had sufficient of the former in order to do an adequate job of the latter.

Alongside the report my screen is peppered with coverage of Hurricane Sandy and the last days of the US elections. Obama has chosen to dodge mention of climate change throughout the course of his presidency, let alone the campaign. A good call I say, but deeply frustrating for US environmentalists and many in the environmental research and policy communities around the world. George Monbiot emotes on the topic today in the Guardian. Whether Obama’s team has been directly taking the council of former Republican spin Surgeon General Frank Luntz or not, they are certainly following the same line of thought. After supplying Bush with tactics for delaying action (‘focus on doubt’) Luntz took an about turn and presented anyone that would listen with a line that is designed to work for people who have ideological wax blocking their ears: ‘don’t get het up about communicating science – talk about clean American energy and jobs in a new efficient, competitive economy’.

An interview with Luntz in in the Daily Beast quotes him thus: “It doesn’t matter whether it exists or not… What my position is on that issue and what anyone’s position is actually doesn’t matter when it comes to legislation.” Putting aside the science he spotlights  “the economic benefits, the health benefits, the national security benefits…” The whole interview is worth a read, but the closing paragraph suggests that government departments may be looking in the wrong place if they think communicating climate science is the route to a solid public base for policy action:

Smerconish: I feel that the bigger headline would be a headline that says Republican pollster Frank Luntz believes in man-made climate change and global warming, and is making the argument that even for those who don’t, there’s a case to be made that we’ve got to make changes. But it doesn’t sound like that headline is yet to be written.

Luntz: You can write that headline. The only problem with that headline is that it emphasizes what I believe —

Smerconish: —Right, but you’ve got credentials on the right side of the aisle. I for one would pay attention to what you say.

Luntz: Well then write that headline. There you go.

In other words, explaining a complex body of science, and extruding novel ethical compounds from it isn’t really going to cut it in a Sheboygan diner. A similar ‘no regrets’ framing of climate change is offered by an Oregon school teacher’s magnificently simple home produced 9 minute video: ‘The most terrifying video you’ll ever see 2’  (6 million views and counting for 1&2).

I suspect Obama and team don’t need to labour the point about Hurricane Sandy being at-the-least an example of what climate change threatens with those already primed to listen. But those that can’t hear about climate science (or evolution or…) can hear about American energy security and competitiveness. Monbiot calls for statesmanship, but Obama has been investing in statecraft. With very limited political space to act on climate change my guess is that Obama has used it as best he can. A win tomorrow for Obama should open up more room to engage with the question of what a green economy in the US might look like. Naomi Klein and other currently frustrated commentators will have plenty of advice on how to move more briskly away from fossil fuels.

But how could that policy and political debate move forward with a broad base of support? On another occasion Luntz argued that if you want to talk about climate impacts and actions – you must locate them – very locally. This calls to mind one of my favourite pieces of climate communication: a lolly (candy on a stick) produced by Manchester council that was printed with ‘Lets Lick Climate Change’. It was part of the Manchester Is My Planet initiative, a bundle of activities that took the issue seriously and shared ownership of the challenge, yet that also worked subtly to suggest that acting on climate change can also bring some very positive local and personal outcomes.

These kinds of approaches were informed by social science that showed that policy and political debate needs to start from where people are and what they’re currently doing, not from an assessment of what scientific knowledge they lack. Plenty of research over the last decade points in the same direction. Some of the most revealing work is subtle and fine-grained qualitative research undertaken within and with households and communities. Take Russell Hitchings writing on gardening and uses of air conditioning, or his collaborations with Rosie Day on older people’s energy uses and needs for example.

It is no bad thing to get more people aware of the basics of this or any science (more on a positive response to this at the end), but I think it’s a mistake to think that that is where the problem, or any kind of ‘solution’, to political action lies. I suspect that the authors are themselves well aware that their conclusions could have been drafted at any point across the last fifteen years (:‘The results of the focus groups have highlighted the value of involving the public in shaping communications strategies. This provides evidence supporting a broader approach to public engagement with science’ – yes please…).

But my point is: lets not get stuck on the science. Climate change is a vast and widening body of investigation and debate: science is now barely the half of it, and in terms of political outcomes it is not the thing that counts. In the last month I’ve read new articles or books in a mad mix of fields, including philosophy, poetry, politics, psychoanalysis and electric vehicle charging points. I wouldn’t be able to prioritise a reading list for people amongst these (but for a variety of reasons recommend you start with Nick Drake’s wonderful Farewell Glacier – above all the voice of the future).

Communicating climate change requires that we greatly expand the pool of commentators from the research and policy community. On the whole the relevant voices should come not from the science community but rather from technology, design, social sciences, industry and the arts. And these research, business and policy communities need to have much more plucky and urgent exchanges in public. For their part, most journalists need to work harder to expand their contacts book and also their sense of the scope of the issue. This morning’s coverage of the WCL Blueprint for Water report is a nice example of a media treatment and policy literature that allow climate, land use and resource management to come together in ways that connect everyday and very localized concerns to long term horizons. It can be done.

But the report also prompts a heretical thought: might it simply not be useful or necessary to worry about the fact that nearly half of the UK population may be ‘uninformed about and uninterested’ in the science of climate change? How interested are they in actuarial science when they pay car insurance? Or in the biology of cancer when they shift to eating more fruit and veg? If you frame the IPCC process as a steady ongoing review of scientific understanding that informs a policy risk management process (albeit on a grand scale) then you really can afford to skip taking people through the detail, and get them on to talking about the ‘doing’.

Admittedly that doesn’t really address the finding that ‘one-third of the UK public do not trust climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change’. But might those be the same third that don’t trust scientists to tell the truth about anything? The report goes on to make precisely this point, but doesn’t this only confirm the fact that we’ve already invested too much in ‘communicating climate science’ and not enough in debating the politics of global risks of all kinds – whether they be environmental, economic or military. Those debates need a different cast list, a different set of questions and a different kind of invitation to the media than a discussion centred on ‘communicating climate science’. There is good news in this last bit: political, business and social action to address climate change sits within very mainstream and constantly sustained storylines about tax, well-being, competitiveness and security. Hence fewer bubbles and bursts of interest.

And there is also already evidence of ‘a broader approach to public engagement’ in the science. Increasing numbers of top rate climate researchers are discussing their science in public, including Richard Betts @richardabetts, Chris hope @cwhope, Mark McCarthy @markpmcc and Doug McNeall @dougmcneal.  Tamsin Edwards (@flimsin) went a step further with her blog All Models Are Wrong and actively invited climate contrarian engagement in her work as a climate modeller. I’m also a big fan of social scientist  @AliceBell’s blogging on science, communication and society. My Open University colleagues Mark Brandon (@icey_mark) and Vince Gauci (@MethaneNet) invest plenty of time and effort in ‘showing their working’ as climate scientists. They have found various ways of leaving open the lab door through their work supporting TV, web projects and their tweets and blogs. And I defy anyone to leave a popular talk by my OU colleague Stephen Peake on climate leadership and not think that climate change is important and urgent, but also difficult, funny and, well, just interesting. But these remain relatively rare examples of scholars who eke out some space in the gaps of very busy professional lives to do this kind of work. Institutions need to support these practices.

At the Open University we have designed a platform that makes it easy and quick for environment researchers to offer a public and dynamic account of their work and why they feel it matters. The Creative Climate project is a way of telling environmental change issues as unfolding stories, where anyone can hold their own account of how they’re trying to understand and respond to environmental issues. In 2010 and 2011 we co-commissioned a very diverse mix of radio, TV and online material to kick it off and it all appears, along with a few hundred other entries on the Creative Climate site. After a quiet twelve months we’ve regained some energy and are going to have another burst of activity in coming weeks and months, and will be inviting plenty of researchers and indeed anyone else engaged in environmental change issues – from whatever perspective – to  come and share their story in their own words at Creative Climate. We also put some top-quality free learning materials within easy reach. It is less a public understanding of science programme; more of a practical experiment in public understanding of scientists and vice versa.

(Lordy: sorry this was such a marathon. Meant to be a quick note, but y’know – just flooded out… Thanks to Mark Brandon and Alice Bell for comments and links).

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