Part 5: Understanding and Engaging People on Climate Change

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If the recent elections here in the United States and Brexit have taught you anything, I hope that you’ve taken away a keen understanding that there are numerous and sometimes polarized perspectives on any issue.  In an ideal world, the science of climate change would not be seen as a political consideration – rather, the policy solutions and public response(s) would be the subject of political debate.  Unfortunately, that is not the world in which we live today.

"Six Americas" November 2016 Report Summary

The Six Americas study spearheaded by Yale and George Mason University have identified the categories of alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive.

As a practitioner working on the impacts of climate change upon your organization, you are going to encounter professionals on a frequent or regular basis whose understanding, beliefs or related motivations will your ability to drive initiatives forward.  We all need to get better at moving the needle as we need to dramatically scale up our progress on climate action – it’s easy to gravitate toward those who might fall under the alarmed or concerned category, but we need to make substantial progress in engaging the cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive.

One of the first lessons I learned as a young public relations professional was that perception is reality.  Simply put, the laws of physics are on your side, but if you can’t shift their perception in some way, shape or form, you won’t move the needle.  So, in order to inform how you engage with these individuals, here are a few thoughts toward helping you understand their motivations and understandings, and how to engage with them accordingly.

1. Fact Finding: Where Does He/She Stand on Climate Change?

A mistake we often make when engaging with people is to turn our sensors off and project our own thoughts on to others.  But if you don’t understand who the person is and where they’re coming from, how can you determine the best engagement strategy?  Ask clear questions that are conversational in nature and stop to listen the answer. Understanding the foundation of the person’s perceptions and beliefs is critical.

  • Don’t rush or jump to conclusions. Ask well thought ought questions to determine the person’s perception on climate change.  For example, there are substantial differences between someone who thinks climate science isn’t definitive versus a person who simply doesn’t relate to the implications of climate change and thus is unmoved.
  • Ascertain what sources of information have led to the person’s perception on climate change.  You’re putting a puzzle together in whatever time you have to engage this person.  It doesn’t take long to get a handle on the person with whom you are interacting.  Some areas to inquire about might include:
    • What media does this person rely upon for information?
    • If you don’t already know this, what is his/her academic, professional background and current occupation?
    • Where did he/she grow up or has he/she lived for an extended period of time?
    • Is the person generally skeptical about science (e.g. consider other similar issues such as nutrition, space, vaccinations)?
    • Does he/she have any specific conclusions or strong convictions?
    • Are they overwhelmed or defeatist? 
  • Look or listen for clues.  Climate change has become a polarizing issue, and to be frank, it should be as the future of our civilization is on the line. But that polarization is not always your ally in relating to people. Watch body language and listen to tone of voice. See if you can sense anger, frustration, hesitation, uncertainty or a general lack of interest. This sign will be a crucial key in informing your approach.

2. Exacerbating Factors: What are the Motivations in Play?

When you get the sense that you have a solid understanding of what leads to the person’s perceptions, it is time to learn about what things motivate them. You may not find the person has strong motivations about climate change, so regardless, you need to learn about the person’s other motivations. 

  • Identify the person's personal motivations: What are the drivers and guiding principles that move this person throughout life? Recognizing this may not seem like the easiest issue to address, you can usually figure out pretty quickly if a person's convictions are driven by factors such as faith, political ideology, family values, economic security or wealth.
  • Determining priority political issues: Knowing the issues that this person prioritizes is worth its weight in gold. There are very few issues that do not directly intersect with or are not significantly exacerbated by climate change. If you determine the person's top 3 or 4 issues, you'll likely have at least one or two that can be leveraged.

3. Moving the Needle: It’s Time to Engage

You now have enough information to begin to formulate a strategy for engaging with the person toward your objective.  It’s easy to think that one elevator pitch is all you need, but in reality, you need an arsenal of approaches and knowledge, and you’ll need to know what to summon and when.

  • (Re)Consider your objective: You may have had a particular objective in mind when you first began communicating with the person, but you should revisit that objective. What you learned from the person? Does your original objective still make sense or should you amend it?  For example, motivating a skeptic to consult more accurate sources of information can be a win, as can be ‘disarming’ someone who has in outright denial or an obstructionist.
  • Tailoring your approach: Align your objective with what you’ve learned about the person with whom you are speaking.  Be flexible, build a rapport and find common ground.  While your intent may be climate action, your content may be economic development, mission assurance, risk management or opportunity.
  • Summon relevant examples: You need to make this real. One of the greatest challenges with relating climate change to people is that it’s incredibly hard to see it or touch it. Think about the implications of climate change, not just the hazards. Here are some practical examples, though you may want to leverage ACCO's online training and our curated member resources:
    • National security: An overwhelming number of active duty and retired multi-star generals and admirals have cited climate change as a threat multiplier and de-stabilizing force.
    • Agriculture production: Crops that are sensitive to microclimates or are water intensive (e.g. avocados, wine).
    • Real estate value and insurance coverage: Sea level rise and related flood risk will impact coastal real estate as it becomes more difficult to insure or finance. Some lenders and insurance providers are already restricting activity in vulnerable areas. 
  • Mind your demeanor: Your tone and approach is critical to your success in moving the needle.  Make sure you mind the following basic principles in engaging with others, regardless of their beliefs and perceptions:
  • Never get into an argument with the person and never let the emotions of the conversation escalate. This is of course a challenge given your likely passion for the subject, so try to put your energy into being genuinely inquisitive and understanding.
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions and never say they are wrong or come across as judgmental.  As Galileo said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”
  • Nobody’s perfect, so when you’ve made an error, admit it – and don’t expect that this person is any different.
  • Be friendly and engaging so that your conversation is genuine and to ensure that the person wants to hear you out, consider your words and establish a rapport with you.
  • Appeal to their more noble motives based upon the motivations and drivers you learned earlier.

So you have a simple process for engaging with other individuals who may not see climate change the same way you do.  This approach should help you across most categories, though inevitably, you will run across someone who’s denial of climate change is so strong that these approaches may not be enough.  Here are a few relevant categories of those exceptions I’ve encountered:

  • Religious deniers
  • Corrupted influence
  • Political ideologists

Each of these categories of individuals requires a very different approach.  In the next chapter of this article series, I’ll cover strategies and perspectives on engaging with these individuals.

Part 4: Advancing the Occupation and Growing the Supply of Climate Leaders

Excitement doesn’t mean capacity. A growing field of practitioners are already working on greenhouse gas management, related energy considerations, and business continuity. Thousands of professionals in the public and private sectors are amongst the early members of the evolving climate change profession.

Much like the early years of other recently emerging professions (e.g. ethics and compliance officers, privacy professionals, anti-money laundering specialists), many climate change practitioners don’t yet self-identify as an occupation.  There are a variety of factors that contribute to this outlook.  Some include current broader job descriptions and political drivers.

  • We need to train and mobilize an army of capable practitioners and decision makers. This is our moonshot, or a workforce escalation comparable to that seen in the United States during World War II.  
  • We need to dramatically enhance the credibility and stature of climate leaders who have paved the way for the tremendous advances we’ve already made.
  • We need to rapidly deploy solutions, establish best practices, develop better and more informative tools and resources, forge new partnerships and build public will to support aggressive climate action.

A dynamically changing and uncertain climate policy landscape on its own makes it difficult enough to satisfy these needs. However, this condition is exponentially exacerbated by the lack of harmony of practice, consistent voice and practitioner community.

This is a clear call for our community of practice to come together to advance climate solutions and leadership.

The time is now! ACCO was conceived and designed to drive collaboration, credentialing, mentoring and advocacy. To take this next step, we need you to lead this effort with us. 

This vision includes:

  • COMMUNITY: ACCO already has convened one of the largest and most diverse climate change communities of practice in North America.  We’ll build upon that to bring thousands of practitioners from the public and private sectors together to advance their craft and careers. Members can participate in mentoring programs, access career resources, engage in standards and best practices development, exchange ideas and experiences with peers, join local chapters and other affinity groups, and shape advocacy on behalf of the practitioner community.
  • PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Our members and partners have enabled us to build more than 20 training modules to date. We’ll work with members and external partners to develop more, establish partnerships with peer credentialing bodies and establish a robust accredited provider network consisting of higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, private sector training services and professional associations.
  • RESOURCES: Our vast library of content includes online training, webinar recordings, presentations, white papers, case studies and research findings. We’ll expand upon these resources and work in collaboration with other organizations.
  • CREDENTIALING: You want to advance your career, earnings and stature. Employers need to know that they are hiring the right person to lead or work on climate related initiatives in their organization. We have already established a core competencies framework and have nearly 1,000 practitioners who have taken courses for credit under our certification program. The first wave of credentialed professionals will hit the streets in March 2017. Testing for the CCP® Designation will be launched in a few weeks.
  • ADVOCACY: Join forces with peer practitioners to establish a strong voice representing the climate change community of practice. ACCO members will enjoy opportunities to collectively address best practices, standards and certain public policy issues. Without a strong professional association, critical issues such as disclosure, metrics for benchmarking success, and raising practitioner compensation are insufficiently addressed.

There is strength in unity. If you have read this far, you are likely passionate about your work and this issue.

We are passionate about this vision. We started this effort in 2008. Our work has led to requirements in executive orders on climate preparedness training and the establishment of an occupational series in Federal agencies. Our community was instrumental in developing the EPA’s Climate Leadership Awards program. We have produced scores of industry leading events and facilitated relationships resulting in substantial

But the time is now. We need to raise the bar and exponentially increase the number of skill assets deployed to tackle climate change. You need more support and resources. We can do this if we come together as one.

Join ACCO today. We will build. We will discover. We will be the change we want to see. And we will make a substantial impact together.

Part 3: Be the Change You Want to See

We’re all aiming to put things into perspective given the shakeup of the climate change policy landscape.  It’s time for bold leadership, and to be the change we want to see.  Do we really think that other people are going to clean this mess up?  We all need to pick up the shovel, and when we do, real change will take place.  Actions drive change.

Imagine what would happen if scores of companies, government officials and university leaders dramatically raised the bar on their own climate leadership. It’s really not that difficult to create a marketplace and a policy landscape that changes the landscape considerably. 

Here are some ideas, that if you added up across numerous organizations, would become game changers:

Little Steps Along the Way

  • Big wins can also come from little projects.  Don’t lose the forest from the trees.  Identify tangible smaller projects that can demonstrate success and build confidence in climate preparedness efforts and the value they can play for your organizations.
  • Find champions.  You’ll be surprised to learn what forces might get behind your initiatives.  Step outside your comfort zone and examine whose interests intersect with your own.  Seek guidance.  Find common ground.  Propose ideas.  Activate champions who can reinforce your efforts and/or introduce them to new stakeholders.
  • Activate a culture of invested stakeholders.  Identify activities and issues that will galvanize a portion of your workforce.  Whether establishing green initiatives teams looking inward at your organization, or conceiving and driving volunteer efforts to support your surrounding community, the more engaged your colleagues and stakeholders are in these efforts, the more confident, supportive and adventurous they will be in your efforts going forward.
  • Build stakeholder, public and political will for solutions.  More than half of Americans and the overwhelming majority of the world support taking action to meaningfully address climate change.  But there is a small minority that vehemently opposes climate action.  The devil is in the details. If we figure out how to help those whom would be harmed by climate smart policies and activate those whom are indifferent, perhaps we can turn them into allies in this effort.
  • There’s No Good vs. Evil.  Making people or organizations out to be bad guys either turns them into enemies or makes them indifferent.  Neither is productive.  Let’s sit down and listen to each other’s concerns and find common ground to move forward.
  • Establish and align goals to leverage co-benefits and stakeholder priorities by developing sound metrics and achieving benchmarks for economic development, public health and other priority quality of life considerations.

Big Steps Shake Things Up

  • Establish bolder reduction goals with long-term and escalating trajectories.  There are numerous bottom-line beneficial opportunities awaiting organizations that drive sensible greenhouse gas, energy efficiency, renewable energy, water and materials management strategies.  The business case needs to extend beyond short-term gains.  Make bolder goals with transparent and aggressive glide paths so that stakeholders with long-term perspectives and decision-making process can get behind your efforts and adapt accordingly.
  • Mandate and provide climate preparedness training for key decision makers (not just environmental professionals) in your organization.  Civil engineers, facilities managers, architects, supply chain and procurement professionals, city managers, and infrastructure design and protection professionals are just a few of the key professions that can play a significant role in advancing GHG reduction, adaptation and resilience measures, thus ensuring that public and private sector organizations are well positioned to meaningfully contribute to efforts to slow down the impacts of climate change prepare for its implications.
  • Break down internal silos and establish collaborative leadership structures.  A vast range of professionals and decision-makers intersect with aspects of climate change.  This is particularly the case in large organizations.  Convene the key professionals, functions and departments and establish an ongoing collaborative leadership structure to assess vulnerabilities and opportunities and chart a collective strategic approach to responding to those considerations.
  • Consider your organization’s stance on policies and public affairs that intersect with climate change.  How is your organization positioning itself in the context of climate change?  How high is climate policy on your organization’s list of issues it addresses in the context of policy and public engagement?  Be bold, make it a top tier priority and keep it there consistently.  Sustained advocacy and public engagement is a critical tool toward affecting public and political will.
  • Think and act beyond your organization’s boundaries by forming collaborations with stakeholders and peer organizations.  The implications of climate change have no regard for organizational boundaries or jurisdictions.  Substantial opportunities to realize and achieve solutions await those who aggregate their interests and share resources.  Additionally, climate change and extreme events don’t respect organizational boundaries and jurisdictions. 

Remember, a chorus of these activities completely changes the landscape within your organization and outside its “fences.”  Rome wasn’t built in a day and it wasn’t built by one person.

These are just a few of the tangible action items we should all be thinking about.  The next few chapters of this blog series will hone in on opportunities for specific sectors and types of organizations.

Part 2: Perspective & Bold Leadership

Last week, we endured a substantial shock to the system.  Many of us have devoted enormous energy and emotion into climate action.  Now that we’ve taken a deep breath, let’s put some perspective to the opportunities that sit before us:

  • State and municipal leaders, whether elected officials or senior administrative personnel, have the opportunity to establish and implement bold initiatives that will shape practice, standards and markets here in the United States.  Those initiatives will create a groundswell and a marketplace that, in aggregate, would move the needle forward considerably.
  • Private sector leaders can echo these efforts by strongly advocating for sound climate and energy policy, establishing bold reduction goals, and partnering with public sector entities to develop solutions.
  • Higher education leaders can contemplate their institutions’ roles in driving a climate smart workforce and becoming laboratories for how communities and businesses can develop climate change solutions to issues such as financing and tax structures, building codes and zoning, new technologies and materials, economic development synergies and habitat protection.

Bold action by enough of these leaders would serve as a catalyst for a policy environment and marketplace dynamics that would shape consumption, adaptive management and preparedness efforts considerably.

The history of policy action in the United States does not reflect proactive leadership by the Federal government.  Don’t expect it. The evolution of nearly every single environmental regulatory policy stems from one of a few factors:

  1. local and state government acting first, with enough of them acting with different approaches that Congress is forced to step in and establish a common denominator enabling industry to function more smoothly across the country;
  2. industry giants descending upon Congress and advocating (with conviction) for policy enactment;
  3. catastrophe striking and action being taken in response;
  4. the Supreme Court is compelled to hear a matter and rule upon it (e.g. Massachusetts vs. EPA); and/or
  5. a populist movement so profound that elected officials are forced to act in response (e.g. Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage).

Years of activism from state governments and environmental groups resulted in the Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  More recently, local and state governments took action on marriage equality.  Legal battles ensued.  The Supreme Court was compelled to hear the case and a ruling was issued.

By 2009, nearly half of American states had signed on to regional climate change pacts.  There’s no coincidence that the Waxman-Markey bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act) passed the House that year.  Unfortunately, most state leaders chose to wait on Congress to act rather than enact GHG regulation themselves, which would have forced Congress to develop a national policy solution.  Shortly thereafter, change in political leadership further undermined the political will to act at the state level, one of the regional pacts folded and Congressional action was deemed an impossibility.

Mother nature does not care about political parties or your beliefs.  But I promise you the planet, national government and the marketplace will respond to bold and sensible action – and as it turns out, your communities and businesses will be infinitely better positioned to thrive if we pay closer attention to the dynamically changing world around us and inform our decision making accordingly.

The next few entries in this blog series will discuss specific initiatives and opportunities that public and private sector leaders can and should pursue.

Part 1: Let’s All Take a Deep Breath

Co-authored by Tom Bateman (Bank of America Professor of Commerce, UVA McIntire School of Commerce)

People who work on climate change policy and action planning across sectors are terrified – and they should be.   The election of a President and Congressional leadership that have announced their intent to turn the past 8 years of Federal agency and international climate action upside down should be scary.  But it also should be a rallying call.  The time is now – we simply cannot wait even a minute longer.

The world is moving forward on climate change with or without the United States.  Global companies will have to deal with international and foreign policy efforts aimed at curbing emissions and preparing impacted and vulnerable communities.  Local and provincial governments are acting already given the localized impacts and implications.

To be clear, giving up is NOT an option.  So, let’s take a deep breath and reorganize our thoughts.

  1. Let’s think of our democracy like a pendulum.  We saw in 2008 and subsequently since 2010 what happens when we go too extreme in a political direction.  Take comfort in expecting that what goes around comes around and that this is a significant opportunity for the greatest climate smart advocacy effort the country has seen to date.
  2. Success on climate change does not need to be hinged to Congress or the White House.  There are numerous paths forward.
  3. Taking action is the most constructive solution to dealing with emotional duress.  Whether your outlook is pessimistic, pragmatic or optimistic, the best way to ensure that you thrive is to identify tangible next steps and boldly take action.

Next week, we’ll share with you some prescriptive thoughts on clear, simple and tangible actions that employees and leaders of local and state government agencies, private sector entities, higher education institutions and the Federal government should be considering going forward.