The UN released a report on climate change today, and it points to human behaviors as a primary driver of global warming. Here is a quote from the article:
Even if we end carbon dioxide emissions today, effects could linger for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And certain changes may already be irreversible.
Scary words. If I worked in a corporate communications or sustainability department today, I would be planning ways to promote my responsible environmental behaviors in the coming weeks and months. This kind of news has a way to coming back around to those who hold the most responsibility. People want someone to blame, and research shows that the greatest amount of emissions come from energy and industry, as I mentioned in my earlier post.
Many large corporations take environmental sustainability seriously, and they work to keep their emissions low. However, 50 companies are responsible for 73% of greenhouse gases, according to the CDP. They need to take notice and step up their efforts to minimize environmental impacts. Otherwise, the fear that this news creates will be redirected as anger toward the companies that have had the largest role in the problem.
And what about policy? This is just the kind of news that creates more public will for energy and environmental policy. It comes on the heels of recent proposals by the EPA and the Whitehouse that will limit emissions from power plants and fund research into new clean technologies. Now would be a good time to propose more policies that move us toward renewable resources.
You can read the report at climatechange2013.org.
I just started reading the book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future by Michael Levi. From what I gather so far, he recommends that the US not focus on the “next” energy source with an eye toward transitioning from oil and gas to wind and solar energy. Rather, from his perspective an “all in” strategy is the best way forward, meaning that both new energy sources and fossil fuels be pursued simultaneously and leveraged in a way that helps the country move toward energy independence. This means developing new energy sources while seeking ways to make fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient. I’m not sure I agree with everything in the book so far, but it has me thinking about what his recommendations might mean for US energy policy.
Historically, energy policy has presented a challenge due to the artificial fluctuations in energy prices, often tied to unrest in the Middle East or the manipulation of pricing by OPEC. We have seen this play out again in recent weeks. A report published in early September found that the “primary drivers of higher crude oil prices over the past five weeks included an uptick in unplanned crude oil production outages and increased tensions in the Middle East.” As the US weighs a military intervention in Syria, energy prices appear, once again, to be in jeopardy. Most US citizens agree that moving away from dependence on oil from the Middle East is in our best interest.
As the Congressional Research Service notes, the debate around energy policy hinges on long-term vs. short-term focus and a drive to increase supply vs. encourage conservation. Sometimes the best choices in this area are the least popular. As the report says:
An energy policy that would most effectively shield the nation and the economy from the worst effects of supply shortages would be a policy that might well deny the nation the full benefits of cheap and plentiful energy when markets are stable.
Although the book by Levi recommends developing new energy sources and pushing for cleaner fossil fuel standards, others believe that the only way forward it through transitioning to new sources. Historically, we have seen transitions in energy and technology – including the coal-powered steam engine, electricity, and petroleum use; however, projections suggests that a significant transition to new clean energy sources, such as wind or solar, would take decades in the current environment. That may be too late to prevent long term impact of global warming. As a recent article in the New York Times explains, “we have a lot of mainstream science that says if human society keeps burning fossil fuels with abandon, considerable land ice could melt and the ocean could rise as much as three feet by the year 2100.”
Considering that little has changed since the Congressional Research Service reported to Congress on Energy Policy: Historical Overview, Conceptual Framework, and Continuing Issues in 2004, the chances of a complete transition to a new form of energy seem unlikely at best. Rather, the policy of the current administration seems to parallel Levi’s, pursuing many energy sources at once.
Finding ways to balance the pursuit of multiple energy sources while encouraging meaningful change in current policies certainly raises challenges. However, some states appear to be pushing for alternative management processes. For example, California Public Utilities Commission has been encouraging power companies to increase energy storage to more efficiently manage the greater demand for energy in peak times. According to a recent TriplePundit story, California Moves Forward on Energy Storage, management of energy in this way “makes for better utilization of clean, renewable power, and, by extension, less pollution and carbon emissions.”
An important dilemma in the use of electricity as an energy source is the seasonal peaks of usage and the inefficiencies that it brings. Policies that encourage energy storage as well as clean sources for electricity generation will help work toward that balance.
I look forward to reading more of the book. I’ll share any good insights that I find.
Earlier this week I pointed out that the top climate change nonprofits are not actively using health frames when talking about environmental issues. But, just a few days ago, when Congress passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act” the nonprofits came out in force, pointing out how lowering the bar for polluters raises the risk for public health. Sierra Club, in a news release on its website, pointed out that by passing the bill, republicans in the House “are seeking to lay waste to numerous public health protections critical to ensuring that American families have safe air and clean water.”
Sierra Club offers a nice summary of impacts from the potential legislation. Below is a list pulled from its website:
- “Gut the Clean Air Act by repealing life-saving clean air safeguards against deadly soot and smog pollution and eliminate any national protections for toxic mercury;Bar the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing safeguards for carbon pollution by redefining the term “air pollutant” to exclude greenhouse gases;
- Handcuff the Department of Interior from issuing safeguards to prevent streams from destruction if doing so would prevent the mining of a single lump of coal;
- Allow for the uninhibited dumping of toxic, carcinogenic coal ash while allowing coal companies to avoid fixing unsafe coal ash dumps, cleaning up the sites they have contaminated, or preventing another catastrophic disaster like the Tennessee TVA spill in 2008;
- Kill key pieces of the Clean Water Act that allow the EPA to enforce water quality standards and protect waterways from pollution;
- Roll back recently finalized vehicle fuel efficiency standards that will save drivers thousands at the pump, reduce our dependence on oil and create jobs in the auto industry.”
Why the sudden focus on health? It appears that nonprofits do see the link between pollution and health, and I think the science would support that link. The link between melting ice caps and health is a bit more difficult to pin down. I appreciate that nonprofits are pushing the health message around the Coal Act, because it does, in fact, have consequences for the health of many Americans.
Earlier this week I wrote about the challenge of framing global warming effectively and how linking health to environmental damage could be a profitable strategy (see related NPR story). Turns out, only a couple of the largest nonprofits addressing global warming promote a clear relationship between the issue and human health. Philanthropedia released a report titled National Climate Change 2012 Top Nonprofit Ranking, and a quick review of the landing pages for the nonprofits found that only two mentioned health issues or in any way linked the environment and health.
On one, the Union for Concerned Scientists is trying to Make Pfizer Feel the Heat by asking the public to express their disapproval for Pfizer’s funding of the Heartland Institute, a think tank that denies the link between health and global warming. The other, the Environmental Defense Fund website, prominently features Health as one of its main sections.
I’m certainly not suggesting that public health be the most prominent message from environmental groups and nonprofits, but I do think they should talk about the impact of environmental changes on human health. If we can show the public how decisions toward the environment affect their health and the health of their children, I suspect they will be more sensitive to making the right choices.
NPR ran a great story this week on communicating about global warming. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public doesn’t react as strongly to messages about melting ice caps and endangered polar bears as they do to threats to their own health and the health of their children. So, what does this mean for sustainability communicators? It means that we might be using the wrong frames to motivate environmentally responsible behaviors.
Do the symbols that we use for global warming miss the mark?
We know that those who already care about an issue like global warming are more likely to pay attention and act on relevant messages, but that doesn’t help us motivate those who don’t care. The NPR article raises the possibility of tapping into the emotions of those who are apathetic about climate change, by connecting the issue with the reality of public health.
Another interesting issue that the article raised was the credibility of those who typically promote environmental messages (politicians, environmental activists, journalists, etc.) vs. healthcare workers. Health officials, as the article says, are trusted more than other sources, and as a result their messages are more readily accepted. Considering this, environmental groups might find partnerships with health officials to be more effective than celebrity endorsements (not to diminish the effectiveness of this strategy with youth) to raise awareness of the consequences of environmental damage.
As the article suggests, not everyone agrees that health and environment can be linked in this way, but one of the main proponents for this new strategy, Matt Nisbet, is quoted in the article. You can read more about his thoughts on communicating about climate change in an upcoming book that I edited with Lee Ahern titled Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. The scheduled publication date is mid-October. More to come.
As a side note: Research that I conducted with Lee Ahern through the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University looked at 30 years of environmental communication and found that ads tended to position environmental actions as good for the earth (rather than warning that lack of actions would lead to harm to the earth). And, the ads advocated for taking action (recycling, signing a petition, etc.) rather than conserving (using less water or electricity). See more articles about findings from this project here and here.