Spurred at least in significant part by souring public opinion polls in the wake of a half-year of controversies over leaked e-mails and snafus by the international science community, major domestic environmental nongovernmental organizations are gearing up for what they hope will be a more cohesive and more professional climate communications program.
Organizations ranging from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the World Wildlife Fund, often fiercely independent of each other even while working collaboratively, are moving to shore-up their climate communications activities. It’s both a sign of the challenges they face in the wake of a continuing outreach blitz by their climate change adversaries. And it reflects their recognition that their disappointments over the past half-year may have exposed some communications vulnerabilities that they now need to address more systematically.
In a sense, the groups see the more coordinated and more professional communications strategies they hope will emerge as the silver lining emerging from the dark clouds of so-called “climategate” e-mails and accusations of factual errors on the part the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In one such effort, the World Wildlife Fund, NRDC, and the United Nations Foundation are underwriting an outreach campaign that also includes involvement of UCS, EDF and some other nonprofits. Acknowledging the adverse public relations impact of the hacked e-mails fiasco, WWF’s Nick Sundt said the effort is being driven also by “a relatively weak public understanding of the need for action on climate change …. There’s no question that the intensity of public support has shifted.”
As do others, Sundt pointed to continuing anxieties, an impasse on Capitol Hill in moving forward with climate legislation, and the past few months’ weather anomalies as factors in the seeming fall-off of public concern over climate change.
“Frankly, it’s the weather,” Sundt said, accepting the inevitability that cooler winter temperatures across much of the eastern U.S. chilled public anxieties over a warming world, at least temporarily. He said likely changing weather events across the western U.S., amidst the forecast for a La Niña rather than an El Niño year, soon could reverse those common, though not scientifically supported, views.
Summarizing the new WWF/NRDC/U.N. Foundation public relations campaign, Sundt said a principal goal is to “make sure, as events unfold, that the best science is represented by someone” able to communicate climate science both authoritatively and effectively. He said the effort, with the help of a Washington, D.C., public relations firm, reflects the groups’ desire for “a much more sophisticated effort to communicate on these issues” than he had seen previously. He allowed that building a core group of communicators sufficiently versed in climate science and scientists facile at communications will not be an overnight job, but rather will take at least a few years.
A separate but related effort is under way now with UCS to “greatly strengthen the communication of climate science to the American public.” Working with science communicator Susan Joy Hassol, of Climate Communication, the effort hopes to work though national and local media, press conferences, interviews, editorial board meetings, and other approaches to improve public understanding of climate change issues. It hopes to provide communications How-To’s to scientists. One goal: “raise the public profile of climate scientists and the diverse approaches we use to understand the Earth’s climate system in both new and traditional media.”
“We are committed to elevating the voices of scientists in the public discourse in ways that are timely, accessible, robust, compelling – and divorced from advocacy for specific policies,” UCS Science and Policy Director and Climate Campaign Chief Scientist Peter C. Frumhoff said April 5 announcing the effort.