What Happened in 2013?

What Happened in 2013?

The doors opened for new ways to engage the public on the climate issue.

This has been a year for new opportunities. The overwhelming evidence that our climate is changing quickly seemed to hit home everywhere. According to Jon Krosnick’s research, majorities in every state are now convinced they are witnessing some of those changes first hand.

Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz notes that people’s first-hand experience with extreme weather seems to be driving increased concern.

While our national leadership remains hogtied, rising public awareness seems to be paving the way for local and regional action.

This suggests that the time has finally come to pivot away from the senseless debate about the reality of human caused climate change. If nothing else, the IPCC’s latest climate science assessment effectively shut the door on the reality question.

The new frontiers will involve making the case for managing risks—including extreme risks—and building climate resiliency in every sector of society.

The ScienceToGo.org campaign, which launched in Boston this year and on which I was one of the creative leads, seeks to engage a swath of the general public with three sequential themes: reality, relevance and hope.

The reality theme helps increase public confidence in the unprecedented scientific consensus on the issue. As Ed Maibach’s research shows, careful messaging about the scientific consensus has a transformative effect.

And the message is simple: “Based on the evidence, more than 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

In some ways, the relevance of climate change to families and communities is becoming apparent through personal experiences. But its context and implications need reinforcing with information about the extent and timing of impacts, including the potential for “large scale discontinuities.”

I was fortunate to participate in a workshop about drafting the next assessment report on climate change and cities. While research experts work on scaling climate assessments to urban concerns, those of us who work on climate education and communications have a job to do in helping communities interpret and address the challenges facing them.

Which brings us, at long last, to the next big theme in climate change messaging. The time has come to turn our attention to the solutions phase of the climate story. Perhaps in the coming year we will begin to see widespread work on this question, which has been top-of-mind for the issues’ most amenable issue public. Their question is simple: What can we do to reduce global warming?

We’re all familiar with discussions about our energy infrastructure, cap and trade, a carbon tax, regulation, and technology innovation. Pulling these diverse elements and others together into a coherent story about our collective efficacy will be an important undertaking.

An equally important angle involves enhancing people’s sense that their own actions at the personal, family, and organization scales can make a difference.

One aspect of the personal efficacy story involves businesses. Businesses matter because we spend so much of our time at work. And we work for businesses and institutions that are, by their very nature competitive, problem-solving organizations.

The time has come to help many more people turn their concerns about climate change into effective action in the workplace.

Green to Gold authors Andrew Winston and Daniel Esty note that corporate sustainability efforts frequently break down at the middle management level. This is where we find already overworked people being tasked with yet another goal— improving environmental performance—which is something they know little or nothing about.

With that in mind, I agreed to chair a trade association’s sustainability committee last year. The Exhibit Designers and Producers Association is a network of trade show exhibit builders who serve a middle management clientele in virtually every industry in America.

At the end of 2013, we launched a year-long competition for this highly creative group of companies. It’s called the Zero Waste Design and Build Challenge. With this—perhaps for the first time—a trade association will engage with its middle-manager customers in a competition to identify and promote better environmental practices.

Competition works in the business community. So does knowledge, meaning decision-specific knowledge that can help managers make effective low-carbon choices as they do their jobs.

This is why I am now consolidating five years worth of sustainability research for this industry into a carbon-cutting guidebook. My goal is to focus the best available science on the choices that working professionals make day in and day out in order to enable action and, potentially, build momentum within this energy-intensive industry.

These efforts and those of many other people are part of a bigger effort: demonstrating that we can respond to the climate challenge effectively. As more and more community and organizational scale initiatives take hold we’ll build momentum for societal change.

But we’ll need to knit many initiatives into a coherent and compelling story too.

We have resisted this question for too long, in effect leaving the solutions phase of the climate story to policy advocates. The sharp line between education and advocacy has been drawn poorly: people need to trust that solutions are viable and affordable.

Perhaps 2014 will be the year in which we begin to tell this important story.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Mr Magoo ICU via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.