It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Maibach Public Outreach Talk

John Fleck alerted me and others to this talk by Ed Maibach on public outreach and climate change in DC this week. I managed to round up an anonymous correspondent. (If you know who wrote this, please note that the author wishes to remain anonymous. If you are the author, please let me know if you change your mind!) It all seems insightful but pretty innocuous to me, frankly. Regardless, I sincerely thank the anonymous blogger for the contribution.

Earlier this week, I attended a talk by Dr. Ed Maibach of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication titled “Climate Change Communication 2.0” in which Dr. Maibach discussed his recent research findings that identify “6 Americas” based on differences in the public’s beliefs, concerns, and motivations regarding climate change (see

Based on this continuum of perceptions and responses to the climate change issue, Dr. Maibach expressed a need to rethink the communication of climate change to engage, persuade and motivate all 6 audiences more effectively. He proposed a shift from what he termed, “Communication 1.0 which focuses on education and persuasion oriented communication aimed at individuals to Communication 2.0” that is aimed at communities or groups of individuals based on their social ecology and focuses less on education and more on behavior change through the passage of policies that will then, over time, shift attitudes. This, of course, is in contrast to Communication 1.0 whereby education and persuasion are viewed as a means for first altering attitudes that will then result in a shift in behaviors.

To illustrate his proposal, he provided and example from Europe in which both London and Stockholm implemented a congestion pricing scheme to address high motor vehicle congestion in targeted areas of the city. By charging motorists a fee to enter these high congestion areas, the cities sought to reduce said congestion while raising revenue for transportation improvements. Although not popular at the time of passage, politicians went forward with the decision and the citizenry in these areas, who have since had to change their behaviors, are now much more supportive of this change and thus have a different attitude towards the regulation.

Dr. Maibach went on, in the course of his lecture, to propose that many of the current communication strategies (Communication 1.0) that focus on individual actions aimed at climate change mitigation (i.e. reducing your personal carbon foot print) were not fully sufficient for addressing the issue of climate change. Communication 2.0 requires a message that appeals to broader sectors of the public (the 6 Americas) and should be focused on policy-oriented changes that focus on both mitigation and adaptation (and possibly climate engineering). So I’m sitting there, nodding my head thinking, “exactly, your spot on, Dr. Maibach,” when the reality sets in and I come back to the age old question of “but how do we do this, how do we make it happen?”

One means proposed by Dr. Maibach was reframing climate communication as less of an environmental issue and more of a public health and safety issue. Specifically, he noted that all 6 Americas have one value in common and that is the need to save energy and that shifting the dialogue towards energy use may be a more effective form of communication. This, Dr. Maibach noted, would allow for a more singularized, consistent message as he cited the current state of ad-hoc and atomized climate change communication due to a lack of cooperation between varied organizations has resulted in numerous messages and at times, conflicting voices in despite a common goal. In closing, Dr. Maibach recommended that climate change communication focus on changing public policy by engaging both decision-makers and the public to address climate change at the political, not individual levels.

Although there was very little time for question and discussion by the end of the talk I could feel people shifting in their seats with a bit of angst and discomfort. Some felt that shifting communication away from the environment was not appropriate because that was their chief concern and energy alone doesn’t get at the issue. Others expressed concern that Communication 2.0 shifts the focus away from the individual when it’s the individuals who will move the politicians. Many were struggling with this notion of behavior change that leads to attitude changes and one person questioned the scale (local, national, global) at which Communication 2.0 should occur. There were not answers, to these questions, per se in that despite the lack of time, the talk, as described in the beginning by Dr. Maibach, focused more on broad generalizations and less on specific issues such as the ones raised by the audience. My question, which I did not ask, for a number of reasons but would love to hear your comments on are as follows:

How do we reboot the climate change communication system in an effort to shift from Communication 1.0 to Communication 2.0?

I 100% agree with the framework set forth by Dr. Maibach. I’m personally tired of the newsletters, e-mails, and buying books that direct me to reduce my carbon footprint because in the end, I know that we’ll never have the mass shift in behavior at the individual level to address climate change appropriately at the national or global level. So I must admit that I’m biased as I believe that the only way to really enact change is through policy change. This is nothing new, Garrett Harding touted the notion of mutually agreed upon coercion in Tragedy of the Commons over 40 years ago. But how do we get there when in the end, those fighting to address climate change are doing so for a number of different interests and reasons (as noted by Dr. Maibach). Is it possible for those advocating for the need to address climate change to come together with a unified message? Can we shift from touting the “25 E-Z Things You Can Do Around Your House” (a book I was given at the Austin Step It-Up Rally) to instructing people to work within the political system?

The biggest constraint I saw in Dr. Maibach’s talk wasn’t in his proposal, but rather his example of the European congestion charge example when he stated that despite unpopular public opinion, the politicians passed the law anyway because it was the right thing to do. Is or will there ever be that type of political will regarding climate change? I have to think that there will be, we just need to get the right message out, and I think we can, but first, we have to shift to Communication 2.0.

Dr. Maibach replies as follows in email:
Many thanks to the anonymous blogger for this feedback. I realized that I had left some members of the audience a bit uncomfortable with my comments, and this posting helps me understand why.

In my talk I should have directly addressed how "Communication 2.0" can be used to grow and strengthen public support for appropriate policies and other "placed-based" changes.

My use of the congestion pricing examples from London and Stockholm was intended to illustrate how behavior change (based on policy change) can in some instances be a powerful means by which to change people's attitudes in helpful ways. In contrast, we often attempt to change people's attitudes by "educating" them (via communication and outreach campaigns), all too frequently with no effect.

I agree that it is unrealistic for us to expect elected officials to enact smart yet unpopular policies in hopes that the public will soon come around to seeing the wisdom of the change. We need to build public support for smart policies, so that they become political winners instead of political losers.

In the meanwhile, my hat is off to those brave elected officials in London and Stockholm who were willing to enact smart yet unpopular policies. Leadership of that variety is a wonderful thing.

Edward Maibach, MPH, PhD
Professor, Department of Communication
Director, Center for Climate Change Communication
George Mason University


Hank Roberts said...

> a public health and safety issue

That's the main point censored during the previous administration; glad to see it being brought up again. Watch for the same nitwits to surface fighting against the notion of people organizing together to improve their health overall.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- "Pulic"?

In your headline.

Michael Tobis said...

David, thanks, fixed in the headline. We're stuck with the URL.

Hank Roberts said...

From one of the best public health blogs:

Here's some scientific background to the climate change discussion (we refuse to call it a controversy). Basic science literacy, explaining what a greenhouse gas is....
Nothing controversial. Just basic science literacy.

Dano said...

Yes, the commenter did nail it.

I'd suggest that using 'the environment' is not changing the paradigm. It separates us from "it" and makes it 'the other'. This is the issue with the old framing and an issue with making a public health or moral issue, as folk don't think at these scales.

Surely trying to unite 6 groups with a commonality is a good idea and should be tried. I'd suggest a 'Communications 2.1' and suggest that different strategies to reach 2 or 3 of the 6 groups is desirable as well.



(word verif agrees, showing 'squableu').