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In the world of energy and climate legislation, communication is the key


Supporters of federal climate change legislation are frustrated with a public that has tuned out. Scientific data supporting regulation of greenhouse gases are lost in a sea of misunderstanding and minimal public engagement. Mid-term elections and a Republican monolith unified against greenhouse gas regulations makes it vital for proponents for energy and climate legislation to re-engage the public and secure their support. To do this, they must open the discussion between scientists, policymakers and the public –because communication is the key.

Effective communication has resulted in successful legislation to address environmental hazards historically in Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which established a sulfur dioxide cap and trade system. Scientists presented evidence on the connection between sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants and the acid rain that was destroying aquatic ecosystems and literally etching the paint on automobiles around the United States. Policymakers, armed with scientific evidence that showed the root cause of this problem, were able to collectively design a system that would address the problem while minimizing negative economic impacts on the public. Can we replicate this process again for carbon dioxide emissions and their link to climate change?

Topics rooted in scientific facts and quantitative arguments are difficult to widely discuss. At the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego this February, multiple sessions were devoted to methods of discussing these topics.  Within one of these sessions was a jewel – a panel organized by Professor Lewis M. Branscomb, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard who currently teaches at UCSD.

Presentations by panel members quickly led to engaging discussion on the transfer of knowledge and understanding between scientists, policymakers and the public.The relationship between these disparate groups was aptly dubbed the “Wobbly Three-Legged Stool.” Dr. Branscomb’s panel included Jean Johnson and Daniel Yankelovich of Public Agenda and Dr. Neal Lane from Rice University. These four panelists discussed how to establish effective communication pathways between the public and scientists regarding topics that are the center of policy debates today, for example climate change and energy. Global climate change is a scientific fact that has already resulted in countless debates regarding the appropriate role (if any) of public policy. These debates have left us with a public who has tuned out, scientists who do not know how to articulate the topic to the public in hopes of regaining their attention, and policymakers who are caught in the middle. How can one foster effective discussion in the midst of this “Wobbly Three-Legged Stool”?

Ecientists who wish to be better participants in this process must first understand that the public learns in a manner that is that is not simply linear, or even exponential in profile. According to Mr. Yankelovich, the public’s learns along a S-shaped curve with three distinct regions: consciousness raising, a working-through period (by far the longest portion of the curve) and a resolution. This public travels this curve in both directions and is rarely stagnant in any given position.

How can scientists encourage the public’s progression along this curve to a resolution state where they are an informed group?

Step 1: understand where the public is today

With regard to climate change, Public Agenda reports that the public is just passing the consciousness raising stage of the learning curve. They realize that something is going on, but have little understanding of what it is. This leaves them far away from a place where they will descide how they feel about climate change and then make decisions based on their conclusion.

Step 2: meet the public where they are

As Representatives Waxman and Markey spend hours on CSPAN talking about the importance of passing a cap and trade bill like The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, the public they represent does not understand if the topic even matters in their lives. Before they will support an energy and climate legislation movement, they must understand how these emissions will impact their lives.

Step 3: encourage understanding through communication

In order to get the public to a place of understanding and informed support – or opposition – for climate change legislation, there must be more effective communication between scientists and the public as well as between these two groups and the policymakers. By shoring up the legs of this wobbly three-legged stool, we can create a more level and strong foundation for better policy making. Communication is the key.

Author: Melissa C Lott

Originally published (full edition) in the Baines Report on March 3, 2010.

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Categories: Energy Policy
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