environmental communication

How patriotism just might change environmental behaviors

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This week on Triple Pundit, Suzanne Shelton (@sheltongrp), raises an interesting question, Could patriotism motivate Americans to use less energy? This resonated with me, because it’s related to an important discussion I had with my co-editor Lee Ahern when we were developing our book on environmental communication a few years ago. How do you convince a person to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviors? Tom Crompton of World Wildlife Fund and Common Cause Foundation wrote a white paper stating that a marketing approach (selling people on incremental changes over time) doesn’t work, because as soon as the behavior becomes difficult or requires a person to make significant sacrifices, he or she will likely abandon it. Instead, Crompton recommends tying environmental behavior to values that motivate, such as patriotism. Patriotism is used to sell all kinds of products (cars, guns, burgers), and it has been a strong motivator for many other behaviors (voting, military service, etc) as well. But, is it possible to convince the public that environmentally-friendly behaviors are patriotic? Shelton makes these three relevant points in her post.

  • First, climate change is becoming a security threat to our military. Her blog post shares a panel discussion by military leaders that explain why this is the case. The changing weather patterns are creating unrest in regions around the world and putting our military directly in harms way. Read the blog post for a full explanation.
  • Second, patriotism plays well with groups who are not typically receptive to climate change arguments, so this could be a path to persuasion for some of these groups.
  • And, third, people who feel the greatest threat or danger will be the most likely to take action. In this case, military families who can see the practical implications for making sustainable changes will be most likely to support the change, reduced energy use. And, they can be a voice to appeal to the broader population.

If you’re interested in the discussion about marketing vs. values appeals for environmental behavior change, check out our book. It’s a few years old, but the chapter authors make some compelling arguments for how to motivate audiences.

 

U.N. Climate Change Report Released: Corporations Should Take Notice

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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.

via U.N. climate change report points blame at humans – CNN.com.

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.

Energy Policy and the Corporation

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, globally, the energy supply contributes 26% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in the environment. This does not include transportation (13%), industry (19%) or residential and commercial buildings (8%), among other industrial outputs. The emissions come primarily from coal, natural gas and oil use for heating (most often in the form of electricity). As reflected in transportation, this does not include fossil fuels used for air, road, and rail travel. Although coal and oil may be plentiful, the cost to the environment is significant.

In industry, it appears that some companies are not taking energy use and emissions seriously, or at least the disclosure of emissions (see: Amazon, Apple Among Companies Ignoring SEC Climate Change Risk Disclosure Rules). This is a problem, particularly considering recent findings by the Carbon Disclosure Project that 10% of world’s largest companies (Global 500) produce 73% of greenhouse gases.

So, how do we create stable energy policy that encourages more clean energy use and moves us away from high impact emissions? We saw two steps in the right direction this week in the form of energy and environmental policy coming from the White House. First, Obama announced higher standard for carbon emissions from power plants for the first time in the US. This ground breaking legislation would require the coal industry to lower its emissions to meet that of other fossil fuels, such as gas. Critics point out that the technology to reduce emissions to this level does not exist.  And, that makes Obama’s second proposal that much more appealing to the coal industry. The President announced an extension of a Department of Energy program that will fund loans for technological developments that reduce carbon emissions of fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. The coal industry now has the resources to develop technology that will reach the standards set by the administration. This was a smart move that drives interest in both pieces of legislation. Access to loans will be more valuable with the looming standards for carbon emission. And, the higher standards are more readily accepted with access to loans to help develop technology that will clean up fossil fuel emissions.

However, cleaner fossil fuels only offer a short term answer. The greater question is how do we encourage transition to renewable energy? As Ann Carlson and Robert Fri suggest in their article Designing a Durable Energy Policy, goals of clean energy policy play outside of the marketplace – in other words, people don’t want to pay more (or be taxed) to have more secure energy or cleaner energy.  That makes the transition to a new energy source difficult to sustain.

There is no easy answer, but I believe businesses have a role to play in bring about the transition. As an important constituency of energy policy, their stance can influence legislators and the public. By adopting renewable sources of energy and demanding reasonably priced clean energy sources, they will affect the marketplace for these products. Sustainability has become a business strategy and part of the culture for many companies, and that can have a broad impact on energy use and emissions. Although some companies do not appear to have made the necessary commitment to move the business world forward, others have, and I think that is another step in the right direction.

Why aren’t companies talking about climate change strategies?

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I enjoyed reading this TriplePundit article earlier in the week, Levi’s Quietly  Announces Climate Change Strategy. It touches on a trend that I think a lot of us are observing: companies are actively addressing sustainability issues but they’re not really talking about it publicly. This is particularly true for climate change strategies. And as Mike Bellamente notes:

The unfortunate reality is that climate change remains such a high voltage issue for people that addressing it as a corporation can no longer be effectively marketed as a benefit to consumers….People don’t want to be saddled with the world’s problems when they are out buying jeans. In fact, consumer brands are more likely to risk alienating politically conservative consumers (53% of whom deny global warming) than they stand to gain in boosting sales for demonstrating leadership in corporate responsibility.

At the same time, companies are aware of the risks of climate change, and they are actively addressing them in their business strategies. As one sustainability communicator told me recently, until there is pressure from financial analysts to report on these issues, companies won’t take the risk.

This creates an interesting challenge for public relations departments that want to tell their companies’ stories, but part of the story brings too great a risk. Does the fact that companies are making a priority of sustainability and climate changes strategies obligate them to talk about it? One could argue that by not talking about it, companies are missing out on the opportunity to educate the public on the importance of these issues. And, that could explain, in part, why there is such a disconnect between business behavior and consumer behavior around global environmental issues.

The biggest challenge, of course, is the economics of sustainability. As long as green products cost more than other products, they will be considered a luxury. I appreciate a recent blog post by Robert Axelrod at Fleishman Hillard which suggests that green products be discounted. While this may raise questions among consumers about the quality of green products, it will certainly drive purchasing behavior.

Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications

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Big celebration today because my book with Lee Ahern just published – Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications.  Check it out. The book explores strategies for motivating environmental behaviors by offering a number of thought pieces and research studies reacting to Tom Crompton’s (World Wildlife Fund – UK) white paper, Weathercocks and Signposts.

In the white paper, Tom argues for a greater focus on what he calls a “values-based” approach to environmental communication rather than a “marketing” approach. In a nutshell, the values-based approach taps into identity and associates environmental action with values that people already hold; the marketing approach asks people to take small steps that lead to larger commitments toward the environment.

The chapters explore different aspects of his arguments and add new insights to our understanding of the value and impact of environmental communication. I’ve enjoyed working on the project, and I’m happy to be able to share it with others now.

Thanks to all the chapter contributors. I think the book came together nicely.
Talking Green: Exploring contemporary issues in environmental communications

Climate change communication strategies: Maybe I should take it back…

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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.

Top climate change nonprofits don’t talk about health…but they should

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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.

Melting ice caps or asthmatic children: The challenge of framing the consequences of global warming

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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.

Sustainability communication strategies: the good and the bad

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I’ve been reading through a series of articles on CR communication by AHA! found on the Triple Pundit website. Jen Boynton offers some interesting insights in her articles Why Communication Should be at the Heart of Any CSR Strategy, 5 Reasons Why You Need a CSR Communications Roadmap, and Top 10 Mistakes in CSR Communication on how CR communication can help an organization meet its sustainable business objectives.  A few points resonated with me and fall in line with research I’m conducting with sustainability communicators at large corporations in the US. This group of passionate communicators loves to talk about their companies’ sustainability efforts, but they’re also candid about the struggles of communicating complex issues to sometimes apathetic and sometimes hostile audiences.

So, here are a few thoughts that I would pass along from Boynton’s articles and from my own experiences. First, if you’ve done something, say it. I’m always surprised when sustainability reputation and reality don’t match. In fact, I’ve talked with a number of companies that the public ranks poorly in sustainability, but the real numbers tell another story. In this case, the companies need to be the ones telling the story. But, often these organizations are afraid of greenwashing, so they err on the side of working quietly behind the scenes. Though this is an honorable approach to sustainability activities, it isn’t helping the companies gain the reputation that they deserve. Transparency can help prevent greenwashing and still let companies tell their story.

However, let’s be honest; not everyone cares about your sustainability efforts as much as you do. Frankly, most people only pay attention when a company is causing harm to the environment. They really don’t care that the company reduced its carbon impact or uses less water in its production processes. They just expect that kind of activity from corporations. So, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to reach a broad audience with messages of sustainable business practices may not be the best use of resources. Rather, these audiences may want to know about your cause marketing efforts toward environmental issues.

But, some audiences do care. Advocacy groups, local government leaders, community members, and employees want to know about the efforts companies are making to minimize their impact on the environment, so take time to talk with these audiences and listen to what they have to say about your actions. This will build trust and openness in the relationship and lead to long-term gains in reputation.