Eight Core Communication Tasks for the Climate Change Movement

The roles of communication in social movements can be broken into specific tasks, depending on the movement's progress. Over the eight stages of a successful social movement described in chapter 3, the emphases, content, and audiences of these tasks will change. In this section, eight communication tasks that roughly map to each of those stages of a social movement are detailed: normal times, proving the failure of existing institutions, ripening conditions, take-off, perception of failure, building majority support, success, and continuing the struggle.

Problem Framing and Social and Political Agenda Setting The first communication task of a movement during "normal times" is to establish that there is a problem. In some social movements, of course, problems are easily identified by those who are directly affected. That is certainly true of social injustices with a clear victim, such as racial and ethnic discrimination or unjust treatment of women. In the case of climate change, however, scientists first detected and defined the problem before anyone else could clearly see it.

Who initially defines the problem has important implications for the ensuing public discussion. Issue framers—no matter who they are—are affiliated with certain societal subgroups and are thus endowed with a certain public image. Just notice the difference you experience if you're being told about the seriousness of climate change by a scientist versus a cler-gywoman versus a businessman versus an environmental advocate versus a member of Congress. For the general public, the framer's image may carry varying amounts of credibility, prestige, political influence, and legitimacy. Rosa Parks—a woman, tired, if well prepared for this moment, claiming a seat in the front of a bus, dignified, determined, and civically minded—proved to be an outstanding representative for the American civil rights movement in its earliest stages as she and other leaders framed the problem of institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.

One type of issue framer is not necessarily preferable to another: one who is directly affected by global warming's consequences need not be more effective than a scientist studying them, or vice versa. Climate activists, however, do need to be aware of the influence that different issue framers will have on the importance and relevance of the issue in public circles, on its trajectory, indeed on the shaping of the movement itself. For example, in the 1990s, when the "greenhouse effect" was far and away the dominant climate change frame, global warming discussions were dominated by scientific experts. That marked the issue as "technical" and therefore impenetrable to many (surely one needs a PhD to understand it!). This framing, together with the considerable uncertainties in scientific understanding and the size of the problem, set climate change up as a matter still up for debate. In fact, it was the perfect setup for a "battle between the experts": on one hand, climate scientists with high credibility and demonstrated track records in the peer-reviewed literature; on the other hand, the (typically fossil fuel-industry funded) climate naysayers who could easily drum up an "expert" of their own, usually a PhD-carry-ing scientist with little or no track record in peer-reviewed climate journals. Such discussions were communicated to the public primarily through the media, for whom "dueling experts" were ideal to maintain objectivity through "balanced reporting." For the public, it was (and still is) hard to discern who's right, providing a good reason to stay on the sidelines before taking sides. The point here is that the framing—through words, images, and messengers—invites some people into a movement while others keep out, and thus who is involved in the conversation shapes what it is and isn't about. Framing thus commits some people to an issue and allows others to disengage, which is why movements have to pay attention to it.

Widening the Circles through Education and Persuasion

The next task is to clearly present the causes and implications of the large-scale societal problem and what it would mean not to act. At this stage, communicators must convey that credible solutions do exist. After all, a problem without a solution, and especially one in which individuals can't see their part in it, is unlikely to attract the masses.

Until recently, this job was particularly challenging in the case of global warming because it was so difficult to see its effects. Signs are emerging now in all corners of the United States, however, and people are beginning to believe that something "odd" may be going on. Certainly the string of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 got many wondering. Was Hurricane Katrina a sign of things to come? Yet even though public understanding of the matter is improving and opinions are shifting in a variety of ways, the level of concern among Americans is actually just now, after many years of decline, back to where it was in 1989.2 Others may view a 2006 survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press as encouraging: nearly half (49%) of Americans say it is very to extremely important for the 2008 U.S. presidential candidates to state their plans to deal with global warming.3 Although it would be an enormously important shift for climate change to become an election issue, the communication challenge doesn't stop there. Because the human causes of global warming are so deeply embedded in the energy, production, and land use systems that make up our modern lives, it can be a tall order to convince any one individual that his or her actions will make a difference in this worldwide, systemic problem. The communication challenge is to convince people that their actions are part of a large-scale, collective effort to developing and implementing clean-energy solutions. Once they believe that, they are much more likely to actually do something.

Demonstrating the Failure of Existing Institutions and the Need for Political Change

Communicators must also demonstrate that those who should be tackling the problem are not doing so, or perhaps they are pretending to do so while not advancing real solutions at all. We must show how existing institutions are failing to meet the challenge before them.

For the climate movement, this task is not easy or clear-cut given the collective nature of the climate crisis. We are all—as individuals and in our businesses, civic organizations, local, state, and national governments—implicated in the problem by our own daily use of fossil fuels. The difficult conclusion actually is that we all are "in charge" and are not doing our part well enough so far. At the same time, we must not let our elected leaders off the hook simply because we are all not doing enough.

In addition, climate change has no quick fix. Building a portfolio of potential solutions will be a daunting task. We must be careful not to adopt "solutions" that don't alleviate the climate problem or that aggravate other environmental or social problems. Moreover, with climate change well under way, mitigating the problem—that is, curbing heat-trapping gas emissions—must be complemented with efforts aimed at adapting to the changing environment. It is quite possible that this complex policy terrain may divide the focus of our collective attention. Therefore, it is critical that in the next few years climate activists not take their eyes off of this ball: the national climate change policies to date have been deeply inadequate, and that must be forcefully communicated to voters, at every turn.

Crossing Boundaries Across Social Divides

Let's face it: if we only talk to like-minded people, we may feel good about having a wonderful circle of friends, but our ideas will have limited reach. A wide range of evidence suggests that even the best technical innovations are not guaranteed to spread across rigid social boundaries. Thus, the task of a social movement is to find ways to reach across the boundaries that separate likely movement members from less likely ones, including those who may have been turned off by the debate to date. As detailed by Jonathan Isham Jr. and Sissel Waage in chapter 1, we must build many bridges to engage the social capital available in all sectors of society effectively.

It is challenging for communicators to cross the divides that separate different ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, age cohorts, party affiliations, religions, or other associations of social engagement. It requires more than simply the reframing of language; rather, it requires addressing the substance, the very focus of activist struggles. In fact, this challenge has been seen lately within the environmental and progressive movement. The recent hot debate over the "death of environmentalism" between its authors and members of the environmentalist establishment and those on its fringes serves as a good example of this type of struggle. Essentially, Nordhaus and Shellenberger (see also chapter 4) criticized the establishment, "Washington-insider" environmental groups as having become too technocratic and lost in intractable policy debates rather than providing a compelling vision around which to engage the wider movement and the public. The harsh critique spawned a firestorm of defense and counterattacks by members of the environmental community and some scientists.4 Such struggles—although perhaps uncomfortable and seemingly divisive—are actually part of forming broader coalitions.

To build bridges successfully, climate activists will need cultural and political sensitivity, linguistic vigilance, and strategic creativity. It is encouraging to see many examples of that occurring as the climate movement coalesces. For example, when Bill McKibben, distinguished writer and author of this book's introduction, teamed up in 2001 with some local religious leaders in Massachusetts to launch the "What Would Jesus Drive Campaign" (www.whatwouldjesusdrive.org), it sparked a campaign nationwide. This campaign, which became one of the first manifestations of the growing concern in the evangelical community about the climate crisis, captures the importance of framing and the role that framing can play in uniting communities that have historically had little to say to each other.

Sustaining and Managing the Movement

Another critical task for communicators is to sustain the movement through the inevitable slow times of a long social struggle. Part of the explanation for the inevitable ups and downs can be attributed to the "issue-attention cycle." No one—neither movement members, nor the media, nor politicians—can sustain the focus on one thing alone, however important, for a long time. Interest waxes and wanes.

This communication task may not seem particularly exciting, but its importance cannot be overstated for the climate movement. Global warm-ing—quite different from more localized environmental struggles of earlier times—will be a problem for at least the next few generations. Quite possibly, it will seem to be a worsening problem even if the emerging climate movement puts up its best fight, even if the United States manages to reduce its heat-trapping gas emissions quickly and significantly, and even if the large developing countries such as China and India can be engaged constructively. Momentum of the movement would be hard to maintain even if there were no political opposition, and it's clear that this movement will have its entrenched opponents for some time. As communicators, we will need to watch out for these cycles and develop strategies for the uptimes as well as the downtimes.

Building Community and Countering Isolation

As members of all social movements know so well, the opposition is, in some sense, also a movement. It uses its own set of framing, organizing, and political strategies. A tried-and-true tool for any opposition is to create the impression that the movement is an unsavory collection of isolated individuals and marginalized organizations trying to push for unnecessary changes to the status quo. Indeed, divide and conquer is not only a military but also a political strategy. Climate change by its very nature seems to play into such countermovement strategies. It is all too easy as an individual to feel isolated and powerless vis-à-vis this immense problem. Everywhere we turn, we see people driving inefficient vehicles, coal-fired power plants spewing out smoke, cities sprawling farther and farther from their centers, forests being clear-cut.

Therefore, the communication task for climate activists is—over and again—to help overcome the sense of isolation that individuals may experience. As noted throughout this book, we must create communities. Communicators, as suggested by the John Dewey quotation that opens this chapter, can tap into this yearning for community, the moral sense of responsibility that goes beyond one's small self-interest. Through communication, we can creatively illustrate that, collectively, many individual actions will add up to make a difference.

There is maybe no better example of this link between communication and community than in the approach taken by the diverse youth leaders of the climate movement. As they lead the fight against global warming, these climate activists don't simply talk about social justice and clean energy: they also convey, in words and actions, how exciting and how fun it is to be part of this new groundswell. For example, each youth climate gathering—there have been dozens around the nation since the founding in 2004 of Energy Action (www.energyaction.org)—features an infectious song-and-dance routine that features these lyrics: "Shake it to the Left; Shake it to the Right; Shake it to the Left; Shake it all Night; Shake Your Bootie; Shake up the System!" This song and dance has become a regular ritual, one that creates bonds among all those young activists, and helps create bridges with the activists of 1960s vintage who are increasingly joining these young leaders in their movement-building workshops.

Developing an Engaging, Morally Compelling Social Vision

All successful social movements have an unshakable moral foundation. More than any one policy goal, any one slogan, or any one organization, it is this foundation, expressed in actions today and in a compelling vision for the future, that lifts the movement. The climate movement will need to develop a truly compelling vision for the long haul, one that connects with deeply held human aspirations. The struggle to stabilize the climate will be long and difficult and may well seem unachievable at times, especially as the visible effects of global warming get worse in the years ahead. Because movement members will therefore not get quick positive reinforcement for all their efforts, their engagement in the necessary work must be maintained through their personal convictions that they are on the right side of history. The vision will have to be believable, positive, open-ended, able to solve problems, and meaningful. It cannot be simply about avoiding a potential climate crisis. Rather, it has to paint the picture of a better future environmentally, socially, and economically, one that is worth fighting for.

Much of this visioning work has not yet begun, but first examples are beginning to emerge. Watch and listen, for example, to the video that was released on Earth Day 2006 (it can be found at www.climate counts.org).This four-minute clip depicts the United States in 2056, a point in time when the climate crisis is assumed to have been solved. In a clever faux-documentary style (including flashy headlines in familiar newspapers and magazines and a climate-friendly Martha Stewart), it optimistically conveys a clean-energy future that brings good fortune and a sense of having made history to those who took part in the "climate revolution." It echoes and alludes to the success of the antismoking campaign with its lead slogan ("Make climate change history!"). The video also conveys a most-important sense of communal purpose, a sense of community, that counters the prevailing sense of isolation felt by so many: "It took millions, but it did happen!"

Establishing and Spreading New Social Norms

Movements are not only about fixing a particular social problem. More fundamentally, they aim to change deeply held beliefs, social norms, and institutions. They can—if successful—achieve paradigm shifts in society. For example, since the Stonewall demonstrations of June 1969, the gay liberation movement has achieved changes that would have seemed impossible then. Even though the gay community still faces stubborn forms of entrenched discrimination, remarkable societal shifts have occurred. Millions of gay Americans now live and work openly in every corner of the country and in every industry; gay men and lesbians now have the right to partner in civil unions in many U.S. states and even legally marry in one (Massachusetts); leading elected officials, from the U.S. Congress to mayors' offices nationwide, are openly gay; and popular television shows and films feature popular, sympathetic gay characters.

In its most visible successes, the climate movement will—through the establishment of federal and state legislation—bring more renewable energy on line, increase vehicle fuel economy standards, change lightbulbs in millions of American households, and push the U.S. government to invest in clean-energy technologies in China, India, and the rest of the developing world. If the movement accomplishes all that, it will be able to celebrate important successes. Yet many in this emerging movement are arguing for deeper change, a rejection of the excessive varieties of individualism and a rediscovery of the communal values of responsibility and justice. Ethicists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders of the movement are asking Americans to reconsider the relationship between humanity and nonhuman nature and to redefine dearly held notions such as progress, growth, and development (see also chapter 8).

Changing values and beliefs is a long-term, intergenerational project. Educational, religious, and other civic institutions will play important roles in this deeper transformation. For communicators, however, it is important to understand how strongly behavior is driven by values and beliefs. For example, repeatedly condemning the pervasive climate-damaging behaviors of individuals or industries ends up confirming—contrary to the intent of advocates—that such behavior is (still) the social norm and hence acceptable. When an environmentalist points an accusatory finger at an SUV driver, the response may well be, "Why should I behave differently if everyone else does the same thing?"

The communicative task is therefore to help bring about new social norms by illustrating them, living them, and communicating them in every possible way so that audiences recognize them as "appropriate" and the new "normal." As these new social norms become widely acknowledged and internalized, people will be motivated not only by external pressures or incentives, but also, and more reliably, by their innermost values and beliefs.

The transformation of our values toward an ethic of responsibility, stewardship, and community feeds the hopeful vision of our future. It is that vision that can and should be at the core of communication strategies for the climate movement.

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