Commentary

Michael Shank: Moving to action on the climate front

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. He serves on Brandon’s planning commission and energy committee.

Environmentalists have long depended on good data and sound science to make their case. Climate action advocates rely largely on rigorous modeling, and the science-based estimates and forecasting that follow, to substantiate and legitimate their efforts. The National Climate Assessment, released last week by 13 federal agencies in the Trump administration, is no exception.

This strategy makes much sense. When advocating for a low-carbon agenda, to prevent further warming of the planet, it’s essential to have solid data on how much carbon is left in our budget (i.e. how much carbon we can still spend or use). Without good data, for example, “2 degrees Celsius” has little meaning. Thanks to our scientific community, however, we know now that warming above this temperature limit, from pre-industrial levels, would make life inhospitable and eventually uninhabitable.

Data alone, however, will not win the day in transforming hearts, minds, and our current fossil-fuel subsidized and powered society. New approaches are needed, especially in a “post-fact world,” where science is readily dismissed by some, including people at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

There are a dozen ways in which the climate community could improve upon its ability to motivate Americans to act. Their success in doing so – and society’s collective success – is imperative, considering what is at stake and the narrowing window of opportunity to make significant changes to the way we heat, cool and power our homes and our lives (see the Trump administration’s NCA for more on the economics at stake).

Twelve years is the time window that the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that we have to reduce our collective combustion of fossil fuels by about half. It’s a monumental task and one all Americans should embrace, considering it’s not just environmentalists who will pay a high cost for doing too little, too late, on this pressing issue.

But how? A recent article of mine highlights a dozen ways to move away from data dependence and toward concerted campaigning on climate. These 12 tacks focus on the art of effective communication and authentic public and political engagement. If taken in total, these steps can move us much closer to climate coherence – and greater collective action through a shared narrative – where attitudes (in which the majority believes climate change is happening) align with behaviors (in which the majority is doing something about it).

There’s little coherence currently. Climate attitudes and concern are strong, while climate behaviors and action are weak. I’m going to speak about what to do with this conundrum, and how to move people and policymakers to act on this pressing issue, during a keynote address at the upcoming Community Energy & Climate Action Conference in Fairlee, Vermont, on Dec. 1. The goal of the conference, which is open to the public, is to motivate more action at the individual, community and state levels. With strong state commitments and rhetorical support, from Gov. Phil Scott to the majority of Vermonters, we should be seeing more results. Instead, Vermont’s climate pollution has risen dramatically in the last several years. We must do something different, and there are many communications and public engagement strategies that will be key to our success. Two in particular are fundamental: different messages and different messengers.

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Messages. The climate challenge is an economic issue as much as an environmental one. It must be said often, then repeated. Beyond climate instability, we are putting the health of our economy at risk (again, see the Trump administration’s NCA for proof). The costs of inaction are significant and rising. A 2017 report showed that the annual cost of climate change to the U.S. economy alone, from weather extremes and fossil fuel pollution, is $240 billion. With more and more intense weather events this year, including the horrific Camp Fire still burning in Paradise, California, it’s likely that number will be even greater in 2018, both in hard costs and, tragically, in human life.

Doing something about climate, thankfully, is an economic boon. We should highlight that every time we talk about climate action. Free energy, from the sun and the wind, brings a formidable return on investment (up to $10 trillion every year by 2050, with a $19 trillion boost to the world GDP). But a failure to do something about climate change will keep killing us. About 6.5 million people each year die prematurely due to air pollution. Climate change continues to be a serious security risk and threat multiplier, a matter on which the rich world’s defense ministries agree, imperiling people everywhere due to droughts, rising sea levels, heat waves and hurricanes.

Messengers. We also need new messengers and more diverse and charismatic ones. There are a lot of white men on the front lines of this movement, and we need a movement around this issue that represents the look and feel of the whole of society, rich in cultural, socio-economic, gender and racial diversity. We need to engage, empower and follow a new cohort of diverse leaders who will lead this effort at all community, business, health and legislative levels.

The reality is, people care about the planet, but mostly they care about their pocketbook, their health and their own mortality. To tackle this urgent and time sensitive issue, we will need new tools and different approaches to build greater public support and political leadership. Thankfully, we have the solutions at hand to make this clean energy transition and provide an economic, public health and security benefit to all. We simply need to seize it and soon.


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