Climate messaging, growth/no-growth economics

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This week I am reporting to you live from the National Council for Science and the Environment’s annual conference in Washington DC.  The conference’s theme this year is “Energy and Climate Change.”  This is my first time at this conference and I was invigorated by the speakers’ focus on real world problems from the local to global scale.  It was a very different feeling than an academic society conference, where mention of applied research and policy is often hard to find.  The meeting was also somewhat interdisciplinary: lots of engineers (maybe more so this year because of the energy theme), folks from many federal agencies (including NOAA, NASA, USDA, and USGS); academics; people who work for NGO’s; business leaders (e.g. a Toyota VP); and a few policy makers.

However, throughout the meeting I found that there was a missing (gaping?) piece of the conversation–the voice of social scientists.  The one speaker I saw who was a social scientist, Dr. Mica Estrada from UC San Francisco and the Climate Education Partnership, received the bulk of the audience’s questions and made the most meaningful contribution to her panel on “Facilitating understanding: Challenges & opportunities for climate change education in a range of sectors”.  She is a PI on an ambitious, unprecedented project funded by the NSF.  It is an education project focused on educating community leaders not students.  By integrating expertise from communication specialists, a social psychologist (Estrada’s area), and climate change scientists, they hope to build a community of people concerned about climate change so that the community has a greater capacity to take climate actions.  When asked, 90% of the local leaders in the San Diego area (study area) say privately they are concerned about climate change but they do not discuss it publicly because no one else is concerned—meaning 90% of the leaders in the area have climate change concerns in common but they don’t know it.  So, one of the group’s goals is to get community leaders to be able to list six major local climate change impact areas (rising temperatures, sea level rise, wild fires, etc.) so that when the climate change issue comes up they have fodder for discussion.
Estrada has found that effective messaging (get out your notebook):
  • is factual, reliable, rigorous science
  • provides impact areas to focus on
  • and tells people what we can do right now at the individual and community levels.
This checklist is one I know I’ll keep above my desk. Multiple speakers shared how in their experience, just presenting a “doom and gloom” picture of climate change actually withdraws people from participating in climate action, because the problem seems so immense, hopeless, and complicated—I think we all know the feeling.  Common sense would tell you that you have to scare people with the doom and gloom in order to get them to take action, but what studies are finding is that, at least in the case of climate change, people are less likely to act when presented with the doom and gloom angle only.  Positive, solution-centered information opens people up to move and take action, which isn’t to say that we should sugar-coat the severity of the situation before us.  But it may be more of a disservice to share solely doom and gloom information than to not talk about climate at all.  In a different discussion, Maria Donoso (Florida International U., Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) Program) emphasized the importance of scientists carefully considering what and how they communicate.  She gave the example of a USAID project in Rwanda she was part of.  The local government emphasized that they needed the project to include flood controls—they had had many floods recently.  But by the time the project was being implemented, droughts were a major problem.  Donoso said,
“We the scientists have a big responsibility toward countries that do not have our capacity, a responsibility to make sure that we know what we’re saying.  Do we really know how climate change will affect Rwanda?  We cannot afford for them [Rwanda] to address the wrong things.”

Furthermore, when scientists highlight the “co-benefits” of renewable energy (a form of climate change adaptation and mitigation)—such as improved public health, economic growth*, national security, literacy, and reduced fertility rates—this new lexicon reaches people in a way that cuts across the polarizing politics of climate change action.  By re-framing the discussion away from simply preventing air pollution and toward broad societal goals, we can make climate action a win-win-win for all.

I marked economic growth with a * above because not everyone agrees that economic growth is a good thing or should be part of a plan for a sustainable future.  Indeed I heard this conflict of opinion among folks at the conference, and I imagine it’s not a new dichotomy for most AGua’s readers (see this previous post).  Basically, ecologists and others argue that the earth’s natural resources are finite so an economy that relies on growth for sustenance will deplete all those resources and fail.  While a capitalist argues that economic growth is the life-blood of a successful society; a capitalist would probably also argue that technology will save us from natural resource depletion.  To which an ecologist (okay, I) would retort, “Technology does not come from thin air, it is made of plastics (petroleum), rare earth metals, and the labor of third world mines and sweat shops.”   At this meeting, the pro-growth messaging was most often coming from the stage, from figures with more to gain politically by ascribing to a pro-growth economy (and more to lose by promoting no-growth) and the no-growth voices were in the audience.  Growth-growth-growth was an underlying theme of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s address to us.  She is an exciting speaker with a lot of good ideas and clearly sees the politicking necessary to try to keep the EPA’s regulation of carbon emissions from stationary sources afloat.  In order to get businesses on board with the regulations she needs to emphasize the growth opportunities from a green economy (finance, technology, clean energy sector jobs, etc.).  Indeed the potential growth of the financial sector from a carbon market is what has put many large companies in favor of a carbon market.  Under the carbon emissions regulations, each state has the freedom to design its own plan for getting the emissions cuts required.  It is thought that many states will create some sort of carbon marketplace were carbon emissions and credits can be bought and sold.   But, many people are concerned that this regulation will disappear under a Republican administration if they win in 2016.  I wonder if the international pressure for the US to keep up the carbon emission reductions we have promised to China (and hopefully at the COP in Paris this winter) could help keep the regulations afloat in the future.  Especially if China and/or other nations leverage President Obama’s commitment to reductions against a new president aiming to cut that policy.  [The EPA can regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act as clarified by the Supreme Court in 2007, thus it does not require an act of Congress.  However, the EPA is an executive agency, meaning the president has a strong hand in its actions.]

In following posts, I will share with you what I learned from this conference about where clean energy jobs will be in the US, the water-energy nexus, and what it’s like to be a young woman at a conference.
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