I got to represent the SJVCEO at the Climate Leadership Conference (CLC) in Seattle this month. The CLC brings a wide group of business leaders, government staff and officials, academics, and non-profit representatives together to discuss policies, innovations and solutions for mitigating climate change.
This particular CLC was important. Why? Because so much happened in the last year: Pope Francis’s second Encyclical not only widened the audience for climate change messages, but was a call to action for advocacy for religious leaders; the Paris climate talks, or COP21, negotiated the Paris Agreement, an agreement among nearly 200 nations to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels; President Obama’s Clean Power Plan outlined standards for power plants and goals for the United States to cut carbon emissions as well as setting a precedent for other nations to address climate change.
I had a few big takeaways from this conference. Firstly, a lot is riding on this November’s presidential election, and even though more and more Americans believe climate change is real, fewer believe the government should do something to combat it. Second, despite the recent Supreme Court block on the Clean Power Plan, CLC attendees were extremely hopeful that not only would this block not last, but that a national climate action plan would be passed and implemented relatively soon.
These may seem like combating statements, but I heard many points made this week assuring that a national act on climate may not be unreachable. We just need to make sure our message reaches wide audiences and the right audiences.
Unfortunately, many messages that push for an act on climate are both very negative and too overarching to truly comprehend: “natural disasters will become more frequent and more catastrophic”; “sea levels will rise to eventually displace entire communities”; “strains on resources will threaten homeland security.” While all of these points are extremely valid and must be kept in mind, throwing these statements at people who either don’t believe in climate change and the science behind it or don’t care enough to do anything will not decrease the number of skeptics, deniers and complacent bystanders. Fear won’t change anyone’s mind and science may not either. You need to meet your audience where they are.
Concentrating on messages of improving public health, economic solutions and ways to save money, and policies with tangible benefits are far more effective. CLC speaker Andy Hoffman, author of How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate and Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, maintains that the climate debate has become a fight for victory over contrasting, deeply entrenched worldviews rather than CO2 emissions, air quality or climate modeling. Having an inspiring and civil discussion over this issue never happens anymore because each side looks for statements that support their previously determined ideas and heartily rejects any statement that contradicts or diminishes them. He says, “cultural identity can overcome scientific reasoning. It doesn’t mean we’re stupid, but our emotions kick in really quick.”
What clouds this debate is high economic and ideological stakes. None of us knows everything about everything and so we all make decisions based on what the communities we trust tell us. In order to have a true discussion and not a violent discourse, we need to build trust with the “other side”. You don’t want your audience to feel small or feel judged. So, how do we build that trust and truly engage our audience?
Andy outlined three paths forward:
1. Optimistic path Technology gets developed so neither lifestyles nor values are compromised and no one has to change what they do or how they do it.
2. Pessimistic path Each side tries to change the worldviews of the other and we talk past and demonize each other.
3. Consensus based path This best path encourages people to move past positions and concentrate on interests.
The consensus-based path requires brokers to come forward so that an audience is hearing messages from those they trust. Messengers must understand the power of language and choose messages that are personally accessible by their audience. Messengers must acknowledge and identify a commonly desired future, presenting tangible and positive solutions that preserve the “American way of life”.
Once we can have discussions about our commonly desired futures, we can discuss how to efficiently and effectively get there. Once we engage both horizontally and vertically, we can frame questions and issues in each audience’s expertise and language, making any lack of knowledge or interest in climate science irrelevant. We can leave the science to the scientists. We can leave entrenched opinions behind. We can start thinking about how to be cost effective, improve the public health of communities, create preventative measures rather than reactionary measures, build resilient communities, and turn innovation and storytelling into action.
Thank you, CLC, for inspiring action and making me optimistic about the future. We may have a long way to go, but we certainly have a better understanding of what it will take to get there and a myriad of examples of companies, governments, schools, and non-profits already acting and fighting the good fight.