‘Opportunity’ through clean energy initiatives may be a key to bridging the divide and getting more engagement for climate action.
After four years of widespread climate despair over inaction, and worse, in the Nation’s Capital, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is about to mark a 180-degree change on federal climate policy, prompting renewed optimism among climate crusaders. While there are steps the incoming administration can take through Executive branch actions, with control of the Senate still up in the air, optimism about aggressive climate policy remains qualified.
Even if Democrats squeak out a narrow majority in the Senate – and as much as the climate-concerned would like to move climate policy through Congress – Biden will most certainly need support from lawmakers across the aisle, and also from Democrats whose voters are still employed by a more traditional economy. Winning over some of these politicians – think here Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia – and their home-state constituents, will be a key to success, making strategic climate communications more vital than ever.
Decades of climate communications have shown some basic realities, one of which is that all the scientific facts in the world don’t on their own amount to a winning communications strategy. And while a broad “solutions-based” communication emphasis is helping make progress, sweeping climate and energy policy clearly is by no means a certainty.
In this context, a more pointed “opportunities-based” communications strategy is needed, one highlighting the various opportunities which empower people by addressing their very real individual needs and the needs of countless disaffected, and traditionally underserved, communities.
Over the past few years, this opportunities-based communications strategy has gotten a huge shot in the arm by renewable energy interests and their proponents. It’s now low-hanging fruit, just waiting to be harvested. That’s because the hoped-for green industrial revolution is no longer pie in the sky, it’s real and happening in broad daylight for everyone to see. Renewables are now the cheapest form of energy, the result of technological advances and economies of scale. Renewable energy jobs are now the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. and fossil fuel jobs are declining. As seen in a recent CBS News story by the author of this post, this reality is becoming evident even in states traditionally among the most reliant on discovering and exploiting fossil fuels.
Biden: When hearing climate … he says he thinks ‘jobs!’
To the credit of the Biden-Harris campaign, this is a message they have embraced. “When I hear the words climate change,” then-candidate Biden told a nationwide TV audience, “I hear the word ‘jobs.’ Good paying, union jobs that will solve our jobs crisis while addressing our climate crisis …’ Good-paying union jobs that put Americans to work.” This is a perfect example of a frame to entice people outside the climate change bubble to indirectly care about climate action.
So, while it’s clear many Republican lawmakers still may feel no sudden desire to tackle climate change, the more their constituents are convinced of the benefits of a clean-energy economy, the more willing their elected GOP senators and representatives will be to support action. This is where strategic and repetitive opportunity-based climate communications become vital. (Let’s not forget the reality too that trusted, local messengers are ideal.)
Chris Shaw is the research program lead at Climate Outreach. It’s a climate communications non-profit based in the UK that conducts climate communication research all over the world, looking to find effective strategies to engage people based on their identity and values. In a recent conversation, Shaw stressed that engaging political moderates and conservatives is vital to foster the sustained climate action necessary to solve complex and long-term climate change challenges: “I tell you, I don’t see how we will build and sustain support for the changes needed, some of which may be radical, drastic and urgent, without them buying in; it won’t work,” explains Shaw, “So we have to find a way to bring them onboard.”
Avoid inadvertent put-downs … show empathy with targeted audience
Shaw says focusing on the language that many traditional philosophical conservatives speak – economic development, jobs, and rebuilding what has been lost – is the most effective way to bridge the divide. Research shows that highlighting the beneficial economic outcomes of combating climate change is effective at encouraging conservatives’ climate change support, and that their willingness to engage in climate change action is related to beliefs about potential co-benefits, or win-wins, especially when it relates to economic development.
But advocating for solutions-based communication can come across as a lofty and academic concept, far removed from the day-to-day lives of hard working people. Instead, we must speak directly to the immediate need of many to put food on the table. That’s critical, but as President Elect Biden has emphasized, a job is about more than a paycheck: It’s also about pride, dignity, and respect.
It’s true. For many, economic development represents more than just a job opportunity: It’s also about shared pride in their community, country, and their pursuit of the “American dream.” A dream powered by a system of free-market capitalism, and the hard work, innovation, and ingenuity of its people – precisely what freed many people from poverty, created the modern society so many enjoy today, and amassed a wealth unmatched by any other nation. Ignoring, minimizing, or erasing these contributions in our climate communication is callous and counterproductive. It means not acknowledging, and even worse dismissing, the large population that prides itself on these very achievements.
So while it may be true that unfettered free-market capitalism and the overconsumption that goes along with it bear substantial responsibility for the existential threat of climate change, that claim feels like a direct indictment of what it means to many to be an American.
When someone feels their ideology is under attack, not only are they not hearing your message, but you can be sure they’ll double down on their own ideology.
Getting beyond your own climate ‘bubbles’
This framing may feel somewhat offensive to some progressives, but making progress on climate action will require that they leave their safe climate “bubbles.” Multiple studies have shown that reframing climate communication to match what an audience identifies with can mitigate resistance and lead to updating beliefs.
Shaw explains further that vilifying the fossil fuel industry is a prime example of a message bound to generate disdain among conservatives: “We built this country … now all of a sudden you’re turning around and saying we’re the bad guys?”
At the risk of being chastised by climate crusaders, I cringed when then-candidate Biden mentioned gradually transitioning from oil during a late October debate with President Trump. Sure, I understand that renewable energy support is through the roof nationally and that fracking support in Pennsylvania is only lukewarm. And as an atmospheric scientist, of course I agree that we need to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as humanly possible. But to be effective communicators we must also understand and appreciate that the mere inkling of losing one’s income is a very threatening prospect for someone struggling just to feed their families and provide for their well being.
Avoid fossil fuels ‘bashing” and threatening jobs, livelihoods
“Don’t ever threaten a person’s livelihood” is a lesson my father taught me many years ago, and to this day it is ingrained in my brain. Even though the inevitable movement away from conventional energy supplies is becoming more and more apparent to fossil fuel workers, it’s a conversation that still should be approached with empathy and compassion.
So instead of attacking the fossil fuel industry and belaboring the already obvious job losses associated with it, far better to focus on individual and collective or community opportunities as a welcome and inevitable part of a new green economy. Shaw says in conveying these opportunities, it’s important to not be overly optimistic, and to be forthright that the transition will pose its challenges. He also advises acknowledging the realities of an understandably anxious working class feeling that those very families that helped build America have in too many ways been left behind in terms of equitably sharing the benefits.
“What’s creating anger in America is this loss of community, this loss of security, this loss of stability – this is what people miss,” Shaw emphasizes.
Shaw says it’s exactly these economic concerns that a flourishing clean energy economy – let’s call it a “Green Industrial Revolution”? – addresses: the promise of a stable, skilled, good-paying job and an injection of vibrancy back into now-struggling communities. Shaw also advises putting these opportunities into context. “Giving people pride and a sense that they are building something new, rebuilding what was lost, and building America again in creating that new middle class …. This is the route through to it. With the decline of the old industries, new industries can offer that.”
He makes a case for framing these opportunities as a continuation of a life style in which many Americans take great pride: “Talking about this as a continuity of how hard-working Americans who have learned the skills to build, engineer, and create a prosperous world … that those are exactly the skills, and this is exactly the future we’re talking about for their children and their grandchildren.”
In 2018, Shaw and his colleagues at Climate Outreach conducted a series of workshops to engage the public on how to best communicate climate change and energy in Alberta, Canada – a province where much of the population has strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their findings were eye-opening.
People were more receptive when there was acknowledgement of the positive contributions oil and gas have made to prosperity and the “good life.” They acknowledge that over-dependence on oil and gas leads to insecurity, thus the need to diversify and gain more energy independence. Shaw stresses that energy independence is a frame that works well among conservatives. And rather than saying clean energy will replace dirty fossil fuels, talk about how renewables will offer new opportunities and positive challenges – the next “boom.” Overall, Shaw says a respectful and hopeful approach resonates best.
And there truly is reason for optimism. Climate change is among the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced, but it is also an enormous opportunity to recreate a better life for ourselves and for all life on Earth and the planet itself. Just as the urgency to address the climate crisis reaches a make-or-break phase, we now have exactly the ammunition we need to address the challenges. That ammunition includes “opportunity,” and that is exactly the message that needs to be conveyed to bridge the political divide on climate change.
Ammunition for climate communicators
Below is a small sampling of research supporting how effective such a “green industrial revolution” can be in winning support from those fearing only negative impacts from a move away from fossil fuels.
One hears that “Episodes of ‘creative destruction’ are often associated with innovation, job creation and growth.” Research shows that per unit of energy, net job creation in renewables is at least two to three times that of fossil fuels: Many more jobs will be created than lost in this transition.
According to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind and solar technicians are now the number one and number three fastest-growing job occupations in the U.S. A Brookings Report shows the clean energy hourly wages exceed national averages by up to 19 percent and the positions have lower educational requirements, with 50 percent of workers having no more than a high school diploma, revealing that clean energy jobs are available to a majority of Americans.
With more than 3.3 million workers, clean energy now accounts for 40 percent of America’s entire energy workforce. And while these job gains are spread through all 50 states, “red” states have a lot to gain. For instance, Texas is the largest producer of wind energy by far, generating 25 percent of U.S. capacity. In fact, the American Wind Energy Association points out that Republicans hold all of the seats in the top seven U.S. House of Representatives legislative districts with wind power across the U.S.
And the beneficiaries are not just the people who are employed directly in wind power. The association touts that wind power supports economic growth especially in rural areas because 99% of U.S. wind generating capacity is found there. Communities and landowners receive an economic boost of $1.6 billion per year in payments from wind projects, and there are 530 domestic manufacturing facilities producing components for the wind industry.
A 2018 report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, managed by the World Resources Institute, concludes that acting on climate change can deliver a direct economic gain of $26 trillion globally through 2030 compared to a “business-as-usual” approach, and may generate over 65 million new low-carbon jobs globally. And a recent report by Rewiring America, a newly formed non-profit, projects that electrifying all aspects of the U.S. economy over 15 years will produce 25 million good-paying jobs and save average households up to $2,000 per year in energy costs.
The supporting materials forming the basis of an opportunities-oriented climate change communications strategy are there for the asking. Now it’s up to effective communicators to champion those messages.
Jeff Berardelli is CBS News Meteorologist and Climate Specialist in New York City, and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections.