Urban Areas & Climate Change Communication Solutions

Back in February, I traveled to Rome, Italy to present at a conference sponsored by Columbia University's Earth Institute and the Adriano Olivetti Foundation. The focus was on climate change and cities. For the proceedings on that conference, I was asked to contribute a short overview on the communication challenge surrounding climate change and the connection to urban areas and populations. Below I have pasted a first draft of that contribution, as I conclude:

Solving the public opinion challenge means defining the complexities of climate change in a way that connects to the specific core values of a diversity of citizens. Not every citizen defers to science or cares about the environment, yet among climate change advocates, these points of reference continue to be the dominant communication emphasis. As a result, audiences already concerned about the problem grow more intense in their beliefs, while many Americans literally tune out the message.

To fix this problem, a fundamental communication shift is needed. Climate change needs to be repackaged around core ideas and values that a majority of Americans already care about. This means shifting the public lens away from distant arctic regions, socially remote people and places, or consequences far off in the future, and instead recasting climate change as an urban problem with local impacts and solutions. While there are unique factors to the U.S. context, similar communication principles apply across other countries.

Here is the full overview.

Communicating Climate Change:
Real People, Urban Places

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D
American University

Many observers point to 2007 as a major breakthrough for engaging the American public on climate change. Yet despite record media attention and the strongest conclusions to date by the scientific community, survey data show that Americans still remain uncertain about whether climate change is a problem, and whether or not it deserves to be a political priority.

Public opinion obviously matters. At the national level, as long as climate change remains a non-issue for the American public, it will be very difficult for elected officials to reach a consensus on major policy action and for the U.S. to participate in international agreements. Policy gridlock, therefore, is in part a communication problem.

Solving the public opinion challenge means defining the complexities of climate change in a way that connects to the specific core values of a diversity of citizens. Not every citizen defers to science or cares about the environment, yet among climate change advocates, these points of reference continue to be the dominant communication emphasis. As a result, audiences already concerned about the problem grow more intense in their beliefs, while many Americans literally tune out the message.

To fix this problem, a fundamental communication shift is needed. Climate change needs to be repackaged around core ideas and values that a majority of Americans already care about. This means shifting the public lens away from distant arctic regions, socially remote people and places, or consequences far off in the future, and instead recasting climate change as an urban problem with local impacts and solutions. While there are unique factors to the U.S. context, similar communication principles apply across other countries.

The Origins of Perceptual Gridlock

By the end of 2007, the publicity and box office success of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth had been backed up by ever stronger expert agreement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet despite all of the media attention generated by Gore and the IPCC, climate change still rested relatively modestly on the overall news agenda. In fact, according to data tracked by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, climate change failed to crack the top twenty most covered news stories of the year.

Moreover, despite the strongest conclusions to date by the scientific community, the American public still remained uncertain about whether the majority of experts agreed on the matter. Depending on how the question was asked, belief that scientists had reached a consensus view ranged from only a third of Americans to more than 60 percent. This variability reveals a "soft" public judgment that continues to be susceptible to the misleading counter-claims of many political conservatives.

Views on expert agreement are not the only areas where public opinion remains tentative. When asked in comparison to other issues, global warming scored consistently as a low political priority. And in open ended questions asking Americans to name the most important problem facing the nation, global warming registered routinely at less than 1% of responses.

Public judgments of the objective reality of global warming also vary widely, forming what I call a "Two Americas" of climate change perceptions. The divide starts at the top. In a 2007 National Journal survey of members of Congress, a mere 13% of Republican members said they believed that the earth was warming because of man made problems compared to 95% of their Democratic colleagues. The public breaks down along similar party lines. Gallup found that between 2006 and 2007, worry about global warming grew to a record high of 85% among Democrats, while the percentage of worried Republicans remained unchanged at 46%. When you factor in education, an even deeper chasm is revealed. According to a Pew survey, only 23% of college educated Republicans said that global warming was due to human activity compared to 75% of their Democratic counterparts.

So at the end of 2007, despite Gore's breakthrough success with Inconvenient Truth, American opinion was little different from when the film premiered in May 2006. Gore and the spike in mainstream media attention had intensified the beliefs of Americans who were already concerned about climate change, but a deep perceptual divide between partisans remained. As editor Donald Kennedy lamented in his end of the year editorial at Science, this continued climate gridlock rated as the "science breakdown" of the year.

What explains then the difference between the objective reality of climate change and its perceived subjective conditions? If science and mainstream news attention alone drove public responses, we would expect increasing public confidence in the validity of the science, and decreasing political gridlock. However, instead of scientific reality, ideologically driven interpretations are providing the dominant perceptual cues for the public.

Though the George W. Bush administration now accepts that human induced climate change is real and that action is needed, several conservative think tanks, political leaders, and commentators continue to hew closely to the decade old playbook on how to downplay the urgency of the issue. Moreover, even as Republican leaders such as John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger assert the need for action on global warming, the strength of these decades-old oppositional frames remain salient in popular culture, political discourse, and the memory store of many citizens.

During the late 1990s, the climate skeptic playbook was in part devised by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Based on dial groups and polling, Luntz recommended that the issue be framed narrowly in terms of scientific uncertainty and economic competitiveness. This "paralysis by analysis" strategy was effectively implemented by conservative think tanks and members of Congress to defeat adoption of the Kyoto treaty and other major policy proposals. The strategy also led to distortions in news coverage. As political reporters applied their preferred conflict frame to the policy debate, they engaged in a "dueling experts" style of false balance that added further distortion to the science.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), former chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, remains the most visible voice of climate skepticism. In speeches, press releases, and at his Senate blog, Inhofe casts doubt on the overwhelming consensus view on climate change, selectively citing scientific sounding evidence. To amplify his message, Inhofe takes advantage of the fragmented news media, with appearances at conservative talk outlets such as Fox News and Web traffic driven to his blog by The Drudge Report.

For example, in a February 2007 Fox & Friends segment titled "Weather Wars," Inhofe deceptively argued that warming was in fact due to natural causes and that mainstream science was coming around to this conclusion. As Inhofe asserted, unchallenged by the host, despite the reality of the science, "Hollywood liberals and people on the far left such as the United Nations" want the public to believe that global warming is man-made. Similar storylines of scientific uncertainty and damaging economic impacts continue to be pushed by other conservative commentators, including influential syndicated columnists George Will and Tony Blankley.

Al Gore, many environmentalists, and even some scientists have attempted to counter the uncertainty and economic development frames with their own Pandora's box emphasis on a looming "climate crisis." They pair this interpretation with a social progress narrative of modern civilization that was once in harmony with nature, but through industrialization and consumption have thrown the Earth into dangerous disequilibrium.

To instantly translate their preferred interpretation of "climate crisis," environmentalists have relied on depictions of specific climate impacts including powerful hurricane devastation, polar bears perched precariously on shrinking ice floes, scorched earth from drought, blazing wild fires, or a future where sea level rise has put famous cities or landmarks under water. With an accent on the visual and the dramatic, this strategy has been successful in triggering similarly framed media coverage. For example, a much talked about Time magazine cover from 2006 featured the image of a polar bear on melting ice with the tagline: "Be worried, be VERY worried."

Yet this line of communication plays directly into the hands of climate skeptics, only further reinforcing a Two Americas of climate change perceptions. As Andrew Revkin of the New York Times describes, given that the error bars of uncertainty for each of these climate impacts are much wider than the general link between human activities and global warming, these claims are quickly challenged by critics such as Inhofe as liberal "alarmism," putting the issue quickly back into the mental box of scientific uncertainty and partisanship. These types of environmental fear appeals, especially when lacking specific recommendations for how citizens can respond to the threat, also likely translate into a sense of fatalism on the part of the public.

New Mental Boxes and Social Locations

Despite the continued perceptual gridlock, this past year also featured important innovations in climate change communications. Several interpretations emerged that have the potential to move beyond polarization and to unite public perspectives around common goals.

For the public, a complex issue such as climate change can be the ultimate ambiguous threat, meaning that depending on how the problem is "framed" in news coverage, the public will pay more attention to certain dimensions or considerations of global warming over others. As decades of social science research have concluded, often the public will choose the interpretation of an issue that is most consistent with its existing preconceptions or social identity. These messages then activate a train of thought that lead to very specific attributions about the nature of an issue, who or what might be responsible for a perceived problem, and what should be done in terms of policy.

Activating concern and catalyzing behavior change across key segments of the publics depends on establishing the right perceptual context. The communication challenge is to shift climate change from the mental box of "uncertain science," an "unfair economic burden," or a "Pandora's box" of disaster towards a new cognitive reference point that connects to something the audience already values or understands. Over the past several years, several strategic interpretations focus attention on adaptation strategies rather than simply mitigation; recast climate change in terms of clean energy or "green collar jobs;" and redefine the debate as a matter of public health. Each of these new meanings, when additionally connected to an urban or local community focus, are likely to activate increased public attention and concern.

A focus on adaptation.
Many scientists, policy specialists, and advocates agree on the urgent societal challenge of climate change but emphasize more of an adaptation approach rather than a narrow focus on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. These strategies focus on coastal development, hurricane and natural disaster preparation, and building and community design policies that ease energy consumption. Policy experts such as the University of Colorado's Roger Pielke have long lamented the absence of this type of focus from major policy discourse. Yet as Pielke and colleagues wrote in a 2007 commentary at Nature, thanks in large part to the focus of the IPCC reports, the year marked a lifting of the two decade taboo on serious discussion of adaptation strategy.

The clean energy promise.
A second complementary frame is promoted by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger who stirred debate among fellow environmentalists with their 2007 book advocating a move away from what they call the "pollution paradigm." Their communication strategy is to turn the mental box of the economy in favor of action on climate change. As they write in an article at the New Republic, only by refocusing messages and building diverse coalitions in support of "innovative energy technology," "green collar jobs," and "sustainable economic prosperity" can meaningful action on climate change be achieved:

Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want, but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth...for that to happen, we'll need a new paradigm centered on technological innovation and economic opportunity, not on nature preservation and ecological limits.

A public health problem.
A final emerging frame is the focus on the public health implications of climate change, emphasizing for the public the connections to infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, or the specific vulnerability of children and older adults. Not only does a focus on linkages to already salient problems activate concern among new audiences, a public health frame also potentially puts climate change higher on various institutional agendas, including many policy contexts where the issue previously had not been given serious consideration. Other than the CDC, examples include the National Institutes of Health, the Surgeon General, new committees in Congress, and/or state and municipal health agencies. Finally, refocusing climate change around public health is likely to bring new organizations and interest groups to the table including medical associations, patient advocacy organizations, or social justice and minority rights groups.

Urban Areas as the New Communication Context.

Each of these new frames serves as a potentially powerful lens, bringing alternative dimensions of climate change into clearer focus for segments of the public who may not otherwise consider the issue important. However, these communication strategies also map onto urban and local communities as the new geographic focus for climate change. In the process, for several reasons, communication influence is likely to be amplified.

First, prominent state and municipal officials such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have already taken a lead with policy proposals to address climate change. When these actions are defined as relevant to economic growth or public health, it can be a very important source of opinion leadership for lay citizens while generating additional news media attention to the problem. Moreover, as has been the case with auto emissions or indoor smoking, policy innovation at the state and municipal level can spread across other states and at the national level.

Second, cities are where individuals may be the most vulnerable to the health implications of climate change. Focusing communication around this dimension can help raise the media profile of the issue while mobilizing a diversity of new social groups into action. The vulnerability and differential impacts specific to urban areas may add a new "public face" to the problem, shifting the visualization of the issue away from remote artic regions, peoples, and animals to more socially proximate neighbors and places. In the process, not only do the symbols of global warming change, but the issue begins to cut across media zones, triggering coverage at local news television news outlets and specialized urban media. In all of these cases, the public health focus likely activates concern from audiences who may otherwise rate climate change as a lower tier problem.

Third, urban areas are perhaps the most important audience for climate change communication, since their population density translates into a loud voice on policy and an equally important impact on personal behaviors relative to surface transportation, energy use, and various forms of adaptation.

Finally, because of their population density and culture, urban areas are also uniquely suited for transcending media campaigns and targeting citizens via their interpersonal and digital networks. For several decades, communication researchers have recognized the importance of "influentials" in shaping public preferences, informing fellow citizens, and catalyzing behavior. Influentials are a select number of individuals across social groups who serve as important information brokers. From movies to presidential politics, a small group of citizens typically pay close attention to news and advertising on a specific topic, discuss the issue with a diversity of others, and appear to be more persuasive in convincing individuals to adopt an opinion or course of action. On climate change, if these individuals across cities are recruited and trained to pass on carefully framed information to their peers, the impact of any media campaign is likely to be amplified. In fact, the use of influentials and their social networks is a central strategy in the advertising and media campaign recently announced by Al Gore and the Alliance for Climate Protection.


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"the mental box of scientific uncertainty and partisanship"

Think out the box! - I love this American expression...

"specific recommendations for how citizens can respond to the threat"

Exactly! Starting with simple things like saving energy turning off stand-by domestic appliances. If not be so difficult change people's habits... My family complains a lot when I insist on doing this.

Here in Brazil, there is a lot of talk of making money easily with global climatic changes through carbon credits and biofuels. This seems a distorted use of the frames "adaptation" and "clean energy promise" you mentioned. Bad intentions can hide behind of good-intentioned frames...

About the "public health problem", there is a physician here in Sao Paulo, Paulo Saldiva, who have been alerting people of the dangers of urban pollution. His research shows that people lose one year of life just living and breathing in Sao Paulo city... These results have appeared in newspapers and magazines of course, but not emphasized enough as they should.

This change of focus to urban population is vital as well as to get ride of the "green activist" stigma.

In reference to climate change, global warming and how cities can help....I think we could learn a lot from Hawaii's bus transit system. Their bus system is incredible, probably the best than anywhere else I've ever been. They try and keep the islands pristine with as few cars as possible, so they make it a point to have a good and affordable transportation system. If more cities adopted a plan like theirs, there would be less pollution in the air (but they have to make it affordable and efficient so more people will use them). We may not see immediate effects, but over time it will make a difference.