Similarly, in a recent essay, Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol concluded that “several years of popular organizing would be needed to build alliances stretching into most states and congressional districts. Leaders and citizen activists would have to get involved. And not just the usual suspects in the environmental movement.”  The February 17 protest held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline, organized by and the Sierra Club, is just the first of many similar climate change–related protests that are likely to appear over the next four years.

Yet as Congressional gridlock and concern over the economy continues to dominate the national political agenda, there are other important paths and investments needed if more Americans are going to become involved on the issue.

First, to empower and motivate a greater number of Americans to become involved on climate change, efforts by Obama and environmental leaders need to appeal to a broader bandwidth of moral foundations, and to be fluent in a variety of moral languages. As Jonathon Haidt wrote recently in The New York Times, “a problem that threatens only one side’s sacred values can therefore divide us, rather than unite us. It’s as though a giant asteroid is headed for the Earth. One side sees it coming and screams, but the louder it screams, the more stubbornly the other side covers its ears and averts its eyes.”

Conservatives, for example, are likely to respond to climate change appeals defined not in terms of harm to the environment but in terms of the threat to innocent people and neighbors. They are also likely to respond to appeals that evoke a sense of loyalty to their local communities, country and way of life, including arguments about the need to protect local industries and agriculture or traditions such as fishing and hunting.

Focusing on the public health risks to innocents binds together support for action while stigmatizing political leaders and industry members who dismiss the reality of climate change.

Second, and related, by recruiting Americans to participate in civic-minded efforts to protect and defend their communities against climate change-related risks, Obama and his allies can start to boost the perceived relevance of climate change as a policy priority while building more diverse networks of trust and collaboration.

Focusing on the civic rather than the political also enables a diversity of trusted organizations, institutions and partners to apply their expertise and communication capital to the problem. Examples include federal and state agencies, land grant universities, professional associations, science organizations, educators, municipal planners, civil engineers, public health agencies and churches.

In particular, research I’ve conducted with several colleagues suggests that engagement efforts that carefully discuss climate change in terms of public health and the harm to innocents and their local communities may be the type of innovation needed to intensify and diversify public participation.

The public health focus stresses climate change’s potential to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke and other salient health problems, especially among the most vulnerable populations: the elderly and children.

In the process, the public health focus makes climate change personally relevant to new audiences by connecting the issue to health problems that are already familiar and perceived as important. Focusing on the public health risks to innocents also binds together support for action while stigmatizing political leaders and industry members who dismiss the reality of climate change. One of the critical turning points in the effort to combat smoking in the U.S. involved morally stigmatizing tobacco companies and smokers by shifting the focus from personal health effects to the negative effects of smoking on innocent bystanders, namely children. Once smoking became more than just a personal consumption choice or an industry regulation issue, anti-smoking advocates were able to catalyze greater public demand for bans on smoking in public spaces, cigarette taxes and restrictions on tobacco sales and marketing.

The focus also can emphasize the need to prepare and protect regions and communities against extreme weather events, storm surges and similar risks. Regardless of whether or not storms like Hurricane Sandy can be directly linked to climate change, the storm’s devastation shows that our cities and communities are deeply vulnerable. As a result, investments are needed to protect, defend and prepare Americans for future risks and threats, human-influenced or otherwise.

In each case, the focus on protection and preparation activates the moral foundation of care/harm with an emphasis on neighbors, communities and local industries—a contrast to abstract appeals to protect the environment or promised economic benefits. Along with this focus on harm to innocents, the emphasis would also likely trigger moral intuitions among conservatives related to loyalty to their local communities, families, neighbors, traditions and way of life.