September 18, 2012 20:00
We were in New York City today at a conference, Cooling on Climate Change: Designing the Message, sponsored by the Urban Green Council. The conundrum to be unlocked was: how come something as serious as climate change doesn't have politicians and the public standing in line to solve the problem? The answer is obvious to trial lawyers: even with the most compelling facts, if you don't have the jury emotionally, the result is likely to come out wrong. Similarly, and the point of this article, clients may be very concerned about certain effects caused by climate change, but if the effects are wrapped in the gospel of climate change, you may be ineffective in communicating your ability to serve them.
Opening the conference was Jim Hansen. His credentials as one of the first scientists to sound the alarm and his dogged advocacy (even in the face of some heavy-handed muzzling by the second Bush administration) make him an advocate emeritus in some climate change circles. Dr. Hansen noted that there is a huge gap between what scientists know and what the public knows. There can be no dispute that the planet has warmed 0.6 degrees (C) in the last 30 years; that recent extreme summer heat events have covered 10% of the earth's land area, where previously it was only .2%; that Arctic summer sea ice is reduced in extent by 50% and that the incidence of wildfires has increased 30-fold in the last 30 years. He concludes that the fossil fuel industry is subsidized in that it does not pay for all the costs associated with the use of fossil fuels. He proposed a fee and dividend system where all fossil fuel producers are taxed at the production site and the tax is rebated directly to every citizen; the government would not keep a penny. His system is transparent, market-based, stimulates innovation, does not enlarge government and leaves energy decisions to individuals. He described his plan as conservative. We think some will differ on that, perhaps because his compelling facts do not (as we will explain) compel.
Next up was Elliott Diringer, of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which was characterized by the University of Pennsylvania as the world's leading environmental think tank). After explaining the fundamental characteristics of the climate issue (among other things, it cannot be solved by one nation; most severe impacts are not here and not now; and the precise impacts and costs of action or inaction are not known), he noted the messages of both sides. Those wishing to take action highlight the risks of inaction and promote the benefits of taking action such as "green" jobs, improved American competitiveness and national security, improvement in public health and intergenerational fairness. Those opposed to action have discredited the science as politicized. They exploit the uncertainties in the science and the uncertainty of future benefits. They argue for fairness as China and India are not limiting their emissions and hold up the spectre of a world government and threats to national sovereignty. After discussing the role of scientists in communicating the climate change message (he advocates for trusted non-scientist validators) and criticizing the media for always seeking "balance" when objectively there is no debate on many climate change topics, he came up with six "messages to the middle":
1. Climate Change is here and now.2. The costs of climate change are here and now and are growing.3. Prudent risk management requires both mitigation and adaptation.4. The upfront costs are sensible investments.5. Acting now can have real benefits for public health and energy security.6. The transition to a low-carbon economy is an economic opportunity.
Lisa Fernandez of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication spoke next. She offered the statistics on public perception of climate change. Since 2006 polling shows a sixteen point decline in the public's belief that climate change is happening. Public support for addressing climate change was highest in 2006, the time of An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC's continuing work and a robust economy. Moving forward four years to 2010, the economy had tanked, "ClimateGate" had occurred and the vaunted Copenhagen summit had failed to deliver. Ms. Fernandez noted the perception that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists -- even though there is no debate among the majority of scientists. There is a 98% consensus among scientists that climate change is happening and is in part anthropogenic. She stated that research shows that in order for people to support action they need to be convinced that climate change is real, needs action, is solvable and is caused by humankind. She concluded, however, that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. A striking statistic was that the proportion of respondents denying or dismissing climate change rose from 7% in 2006 to 26% in 2010. Ms. Fernandez closed with more surveys on the need to tailor any message; one size certainly does not fit all.
All of which set the table for David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception, communication and management. Mr. Ropeik laid it out quite simply. There are multiple features of thinking that determine how we perceive risk. Most of these are in the subconscious. From the most basic neural pathways (responding to fear is hardwired into our brains) to our need to belong to our community to mental shortcuts that "fill in the blanks", each and all of these stand in the way of a rational response. Until we understand that, we can have all the facts in the universe and may still fail to take action or even deny that action needs to be taken.
That you are reading this article demonstrates the validity of Mr. Ropeik's approach. Our title is something a sideshow barker might announce, triggering your preconceptions, hopes, and curiosity. Maybe you had some views about the veracity or utility of the author's perspectives. One thing you certainly did not have was any factual information about what the article would contain. But here you are anyway looking for what to "do" to get more climate change clients.
Maybe the right way to sell climate change services is not even to mention climate change. A speaker on the second panel, Daniel Probst of property manager Jones Lang Lasalle, completely agrees. His clients are doing many of the things advocates for climate change action support but their incentive is not to save the planet. They are improving the environmental performance of their buildings (the source of 40% of US CO2 emissions) because doing so saves them money, allows them to charge higher rents, reduces turnover, improves employee productivity and makes permitting easier. Approaching clients on those topics unloads the controversy associated with climate change. For some, that is exactly what will be needed to close the sale. But for others, they will want the big picture and will value the "marketing to the middle" promoted by Mr. Diringer. Neither approach will be right all of the time, but all of the time is not the metric.