Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On polar bears and politics

(cross-linked to the COEJL blog - To Till and to Tend)

At a recent meeting of the steering committee of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, on which I serve, we heard two presentations back to back, and they could not have been more different. The first, on the most-current science of climate change, was similar in tone and content to the movie, An Inconvenient Truth; the second, by one of the two evangelical members of the committee (in a room full of liberal Christians and yours truly) was about how you can’t really talk about the science in churches, because when they hear “the science” they think “Al Gore” and “partisan politics” and won’t listen to it at all. At the time it struck me as an odd (to say the least) juxtaposition, and thought that ignoring the science in a community like mine – educated, largely secular in outlook - would have you laughed off the bima.

On the other hand, of course, we all know that you can lay science and the polar bears on people all day long and not have it affect their day-to-day decisionmaking one iota. So maybe, after a fashion, the second presenter was on to something.

Today on Daily Kos, Meteor Blades linked to a report on a study by the Pew Research Center showing that, on a list of 20 voter concerns, the economy ranks first, addressing the nation’s energy needs ranks sixth, while “the environment” ranks 16th and “global warming” dead last. The same study shows that the concern of voters for environmental issues has declined 15% in the past year – roughly the same timeframe as the collapse of the economy. Given the state of the economy and the fact that we’re still in two wars, this seems unlikely to change during the term of this Congress.

So does that mean we give up on addressing the environment and climate change? No, according to Pew, it means coming at the problem from a different angle – through the things people are concerned about: jobs, the economy, and energy:

The takeaway message for journalists is that those "stewardship" frames will not be sufficient in terms of galvanizing support for clean energy. In the pursuit of public engagement, the press would be better advised to link sustainability issues to economic growth and "green" jobs.

According to Matthew Nesbit of the Framing Science blog, analyzing the Pew report and also linked from Kos:

Only by "reframing" the relevance of climate change in ways that connect to the specific core values of key segments of the public - and repeatedly communicating these multiple meanings through a variety of trusted media sources and opinion leaders- can the Obama administration and allies generate the widespread public engagement needed to move major policy action forward. (snip)

It's also time to stop focusing narrowly on remote polar impacts, looming environmental disaster, or symbols such as polar bears. These exemplars are either not personally relevant enough to most audiences, are dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or easily re-framed as "alarmism" sending interpretations back into the mental box of lingering scientific uncertainty. ...

In order to generate widespread public support for meaningful policy action, the communication challenge is to figure out how to shift the climate change focus away from the traditional frames and devices towards a new perceptual context that resonates with the values and understanding of a specific intended audience. These new meanings for climate change are likely to be key drivers of public resolve and eventual policy action.

In other words, articulating the potential remedies to climate change through the frames of what people say they are concerned about – the economy, jobs and energy independence – in an intensive, unified way, will be much more effective in getting “the change we need” than 100 slides of Amsterdam under water. That’s just effective politics, which we need a lot more of in the environmental movement, especially now that we have a Congress and president who are willing to listen to what we have to say.

And speaking of effective politics, see also this post by David Roberts on, claiming that the carbon tax, a beloved approach of climate progressives, is a dead letter in Congress, and that judging by the support it has from business and the right wing, it probably isn’t such a great idea anyway. Rather, he encourages us to return to support of cap-and-trade, which can pass this Congress, may well be more effective than a carbon tax at least in the short term, and is much more easily “messaged” (and less easily demagogued) in the ways described above.


Pokeberry Mary said...

Well you know, there is still a very significant part of the population that believes global warming is not proven--and that even if there is global warming it may not be caused at all by or at least in a significant way by humans. The thing is though--those who do belive in it--simply cannot believe anyone else on the plant is intelligent enough to make up their own minds on this. It strikes many of us as pretty darn arrogant. Another thing that I would like to point out is that global warming folks or climate change folks seem to never consider alternative explanations for things like ice cap melting--such as undersea volcanic activity. They seem to be very much married to an ideology--which to me says they are not scientists. So-- I dunno.. Maybe it is the fact that it just isn't getting warmer that has been the reason folks are not interested in spending $$ on it--even if it is renamed climate change.

rebmoti said...

Well, I know there are many people who feel that way. Obviously, I disagree - to me this is a willful and partisan decision to ignore of the overwhelming (95, 98%) scientific consensus, and that's what seems arrogant to me.

But the point of the presentation at the meeting was that if we're interested in getting buy-in on climate stewardship from people who believe as you do, the language of climate change and science simply cannot be used. It has to be framed as earth stewardship, or simply as a way to save money on church energy costs. And the overall point of the post was that even people who claim to understand and agree with the science also are not necessarily motivated to change by it either, and they also need the ideas to be reframed into ideas that they find more important, like jobs and energy. I think that kind of language might be effective in churches as well.

Pokeberry Mary said...

You may have a bit of a point--Most Christians do believe in being good stewards of the earth. However, we also believe in genuiness. Which is why we have a problem with Al Gore.

This 95% is meaningless to me though as I know this is an ideological and political thing more than a true science thing.

Most scientists at one time believed the earth was flat, they probably had a much easier time with the governments and churches at that time period than say, Gallileo. Consensus isn't always the same as truth. Actually it seldom is.

Pokeberry Mary said...

Hmm.. maybe I shouldn't have said that most scientists believed the world was flat--I think there just was a time when most at least claimed to believe that. Also--there are far more scientists than 3 or 5 % who do not agree with the current science. They simply aren't being counted.(at least not outloud)

rebmoti said...

"Consensus isn't always the same as truth. Actually it seldom is."

As opposed to, say, the willful ignoring of facts one doesn't happen to agree with?

Pokeberry Mary said...

I ask questions Moti--as you do.
The thing is I don't stop asking until I really feel satisfied. I don't feel satisfied with what I've read on climate change--or experienced--or what I learned observing the school system and politics etc.

I still believe it is arrogant to assume that anyone who doesn't agree with you must be willfully wrong. But- I will rest my case on it. There are some things we cannot agree about.

I will say I am sure that climate change and global warming are possible--and that humankind will/ maybe has-- already-- cause environmental problems --as that is actually very much in line with the whole idea of sin nature and a Biblical view of the world -- however--at this time, I don't think the science is as good as you say. If you see that as willful --so be it.