In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress and states to take steps to reduce carbon pollution while also improving our ability to manage the climate impacts that are already being felt at home. With limited prospects for action in Congress, however, Obama is likely to pursue administrative action, with the Environmental Protection Agency implementing rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

In the coming months, Obama will be taking to the road, talking about climate and energy along with other policy priorities. At his New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin suggests to the President: “Most Americans, even many unconcerned by global warming, want energy thrift, safe gas drilling, more science and resilience to climate extremes, whatever the cause. Why not tour the nation to enlist this force and overcome edge-driven politics?”

Revkin’s focus for Obama is the right one — a strategy that attempts to blur and blend discourses about a set of interconnected issues that matter to a broader diversity of Americans, making these issues both national and local.

But there is another element to Obama’s engagement strategy that is needed, an element that should also be deployed by the many organizations that want to recruit more Americans to work together on the issue. The strategy starts with making the moral case for why climate change matters.

Research suggests that efforts to motivate and empower Americans to get involved will ultimately depend on appealing to a greater diversity of moral intuitions and values.

Rather than identify climate change as an issue that involves considerations of right and wrong, blame and responsibility, most Americans still view climate change as a politically gridlocked, partisan fight and a highly technical and complex problem that has limited bearing on their daily lives.

If they do perceive a moral dimension to climate change, it is relative to care and stewardship of the environment — an intuition, however, that is easily overlooked in the context of economic concerns, limited job choices or feelings of insecurity relative to health care costs and gun violence.

Recently, Ezra Markowitz, a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University; Jon Kotcher, a doctoral student at George Mason University; and I took a closer look at what research could tell us about strategies for overcoming the many barriers that prevent more Americans from becoming involved in their communities and in the political debate over climate change.

Among relevant work in the social sciences, research suggests that efforts to motivate and empower Americans to get involved will ultimately depend on appealing to a greater diversity of moral intuitions and values. In his research, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt draws on surveys of tens of thousands of individuals to develop and validate a typology of six commonly held “moral foundations” that structure and guide feelings, opinions and policy preferences.

Haidt’s typology offers a valuable diagnostic and planning tool for understanding the limits to past efforts at public engagement on climate change and to identify several paths forward. These commonly held moral foundations include:

  • care/harm – concerns about the caring for and protection of others
  • fairness/cheating – concerns about treating others fairly and upholding justice
  • loyalty/betrayal – concerns about group membership; loyalty to one’s nation and community
  • authority/subversion – concerns about legitimacy, leadership and tradition
  • liberty/oppression– concerns about personal freedom and control by others
  • sanctity/degradation – concerns about purity, sanctity and contamination

Liberals and many environmental leaders tend to communicate about issues in ways that mostly activate the moral foundations of care/harm and fairness/cheating. This reflects their own intuitive mechanisms for making sense of issues and the vocabulary they share with like-minded colleagues, friends and supporters.

For example, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth appealed to liberal intuitions of care/harm, but focused mostly on the harm to the environment, rather than on threats to human security and well-being. Later, during the debate over cap-and-trade legislation, Gore’s We Can Solve It campaign and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cap = Jobs campaign lacked an obvious moral call to action, focusing instead on economic benefits.

As I’ve previously written, in the context of the recession, this emphasis turned the debate into one over ”some economic benefits” as claimed by advocates for action versus “dramatic economic costs” as claimed by opponents. Given the economic context, the balance favored the opposition.

In response to the failure of the cap-and-trade bill, environmental leaders called for new approaches to communication, asserting that it was time to invest in building networks and partnerships in the Midwest and other regions. “We will have to reach out to new partners, make new allies and engage new constituencies,” wrote the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fred Krupp in 2010 in The Huffington Post

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.

Such efforts are easily localized since state and municipal governments have greater control, responsibility and authority over climate change adaptation-related policy actions. In addition, recruiting Americans to protect their neighbors and defend their communities against climate impacts naturally lends itself to forms of civic participation and community volunteering.

In these cases, because of the localization of the issue and the non-political nature of participation, barriers related to polarization may be more easily overcome. Moreover, once community members from differing political backgrounds join together to achieve a broadly inspiring goal like protecting people and a local way of life, then the networks of trust and collaboration formed can be used to move this diverse segment toward cooperation in pursuit of a diversity of national policy goals. View Ensia homepage

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