Spend the equivalent of nearly two days on the phone interviewing a range of selected national, regional, and local “leaders” on climate change, and you’ll likely come up with some interesting insights.

That’s what Eugene, Oregon-based nonprofit leader and frequent public speaker and climate change columnist Bob Doppelt did in assembling his nonscientific qualitative analysis of “key themes” emerging from phone interviews with some 65 individuals representing a span of generally progressive interests.

Bob Doppelt of The Resource Innovation Group

Doppelt’s interviewees included representatives of climate, environmental and energy advocacy groups, policy analysis, faith, labor, national security, business, finance, and climate justice interests working at local, state, and national levels. He also interviewed five individuals he identifies broadly as “climate scientists” and eight staffers representing U.S. congressional offices of the Obama administration. Hoping to “allow people to speak candidly,” Doppelt in the report does not identify individuals or specific groups he interviewed, a point certain to raise some questions of credibility.

Doppelt says he asked each interviewee five specific questions on these topics:

  1. Greatest achievements and failings so far in dealing with climate change in the U.S.;
  2. Greatest obstacles to further progress;
  3. Top priorities for going forward in next 1-2 and 3-5 years and strategies for achieving them;
  4. Whether preparing for and adapting to climate change should “now become a high priority”; and
  5. Kinds of new information, tools, or models needed to make progress on the priorities identified in #3 above.

In a Word … ‘Demoralized’

“Demoralized at this time” is a phrase Doppelt used in his 22-page narrative report to characterize the mood of what he called the “climate protection movement.”

“Most respondents listed twice as many failures as they did successes in dealing with the issue,” Doppelt summarized. And “many respondents said the list of failures were ‘too long to describe’” and added that successes they could identify were largely “tactical and may not provide a sufficient platform for the major ‘transformation’ that is required.”

In a phone interview, Doppelt said he draws six broad conclusions from his interviews:

  • A broad lack of understanding among the general public about climate change and humans’ role in it and how serious it is.
  • Very poor communications about the issue. “I continually heard ‘No one knows how to talk about this issue.’”
  • “We really allowed a disinformation campaign to take foot and really to go unchallenged, which confused a significant portion of the public, adding to those first two problems.”
  • It wasn’t just poor communication and poor education, but the policy itself [a reference to the legislation tabled by the Senate last summer] was a problem because there was lack of support for it, “and that led to the lack of a strong unified coalition to push for it.”
  • Lack of leadership from the Obama administration — from the President himself, on down; “Few elected officials or business and community executives at any level were out talking about this issue, really a lack of leadership.”
  • A failure to realize that climate change is much more than a technical or scientific issue, that it’s really a moral crisis, a crisis of thought, “and we really failed to engage people at the values and spiritual level, leading to a cultural schism in the country.”

Next Steps: ‘Build … Challenge … Defend’

In his paper synthesizing his interviews and his recommendations for moving forward, Doppelt outlined what he called a “Build, Challenge, Defend” approach:

BUILD a deep and wide movement that demands aggressive action on climate change. Building this movement will require an extensive long‐term effort to help people from every demographic group and every economic sector, in every part of the nation, understand the causes and risks of climate change as well as the solutions and their many benefits (that is, sufficient tension, efficacy, and benefits must be built). Building a powerful movement will also necessitate creating a compelling vision of success and making clear links between climate change and the things people value and deal with on a daily basis. In addition, it will require vastly improved communications and new social narratives. Climate change must become ‘everybody’s issue’ and everybody must have a meaningful say in what should be done about it.

Challenge the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Whether it takes the form of a values‐based social or a policy‐based political movement, building a groundswell of motivated supporters will take time. In the meantime opponents are certain to escalate their efforts to create doubt about the science of climate change, scare the public with stories of huge financial costs and job losses, intimidate those who advocate for climate programs or policies, and seek to block every policy that unduly affects their interests. These tactics cannot go unchallenged. An aggressive campaign must begin to directly confront the fossil fuel industry and their allies, including right wing ideologues, whenever they make false claims, skew the truth, or attempt to coerce or silence people.

Defend existing emission reduction policies and the most vulnerable. Laws currently on the books, including EPA’s authority to regulate CO2, state Renewable Portfolio Standards and many others must be aggressively defended. They are the only tools available to secure emission reductions. Equally urgent is the need to significantly upgrade efforts to defend the regions and communities that are most vulnerable to climate change, and the most vulnerable populations within all communities. Defensive measures must also be taken to help ecosystems and biodiversity withstand and adapt to climate change. Also important will be concerted efforts to defend climate scientists from politically motivated attacks.”

Doppelt in his paper also outlines ideas “for pursuing a major change in thinking and behavior among Americans”:

Generate And Widely Communicate New Social Narratives.

… every society adopts parables and morality tales that define their collective identity, clarify what they stand for, and help people decide right from wrong.

… We use them to define problems and identify solutions. They consequently shape our politics and policies.

… Through constant repetition our social myths and metaphors become deeply embedded and highly resistant to change.

… The recent litany of economic, social, and environmental calamities — from the damage caused to Hurricane Katrina to the economic meltdown, to the Gulf oil spill ‐‐ has left many American’s adrift. Their long-held beliefs about the world no longer seem adequate to explain current events, credible alternative viewpoints have not emerged, and people don’t know what to think or how to respond.

… we must generate and relentlessly communicate narratives that turn today’s dominant narratives on their head and make clear that addressing climate change is not about eliminating problems but about creating a new, vibrant and sustainable future that will benefit everyone.

Initiate Conversations In Every Community and Social Network Nationwide About How People Want Their Future To Look.

… conversations [should] be held in every community and within every social and professional network across the nation about how people want their future to look and function. Climate change should be a core element of these conversations. But greenhouse gas emissions are merely a symptom of much deeper problems. The primary focus should be to engage people from all walks of life and in all professions in designing the sustainable, healthy and vibrant communities, economies, and practices they want in the future. Strong leaders will need to be involved to pull this off — but it is essential to have an open, honest and vociferous debate community‐by‐community about our future.

Put Opponents On the Defensive By Forcing Them To Respond To The New Social Narratives And Positive Visions.

The best defense is a good offense. The interviews revealed that climate advocates are on the defensive now, mostly trying to protect what they have while searching for incremental gains. Opponents are certain to sense this and press even harder.

… we can and must expect the best in humans if we are going to solve the climate crisis — and a tremendous amount of positive activities are happening to build upon. We must stand up, be aggressive, and put opponents on the defensive.

… leaders from every segment of society aggressively [must] shine the light on the thousands of households, organizations, communities, and states that are successfully implementing new, sustainable low‐carbon alternatives. Opponents must then be challenged to tell the public why more of these successes are not possible. They must be challenged in the media, within professional organizations, and within all types of social networks. Public pressure, legal challenges, and many other strategies should be employed to put the fossil fuel industry and their allies on the defensive. The new social narratives should reinforce the successes.

Doppelt’s paper, “Making Progress on Climate Change in Challenging Times: Findings and Recommendations Based on Interviews with 65 National, Regional, and Local Leaders,” is available online here.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...