Matt Nisbet's Post-Partisan 'BigThink' Idea

New Communication ‘Infrastructure,’ Civic Participation Backed to Help Avoid Years of ‘Hyper-Partisan Debate’

It may come across as being a bit pompous, the name “bigthink.”

But there’s no question that some of the climate communications notions spelled out by a respected American University communications expert fall smack into the category of big, and ambitious, thinking.

The ideas for a “post-partisan plan” for engaging the public on climate change flow from Matthew C. Nisbet, who spends much of his waking hours thinking about, and blogging on, climate communications issues. In a recent posting to the bigthink.com site, he speculates on the prospects — high, he fears — for an “even stronger, hyper-partisan debate” on climate change over the next two years. He points to the usual banter and name calling, amplified by cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere generally, as likely to lead to “further disengagement and inattention” by the majority of Americans who are neither “climate alarmists” nor “climate dismissives.”

Nisbet’s prescription for remedying this situation is anything but small-think. He outlines an approach he hopes can “gain substantive media and policy attention amidst the pending hyper-partisan noise.”

Promoting Knowledge ‘Beyond Technical Understanding’

Enlisting a wide range of institutions and professional interests, Nisbet, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., says the goal “should not be to defend the science of climate change or to boost climate literacy” … and not to support a particular set of policies or align with partisans on the climate issue.”

Instead, Nisbet champions an approach that could “promote relevant areas of knowledge beyond just technical understanding of climate science” … including improving understanding of social, institutional, ethical, and economic aspects of the climate debate, along with increased familiarity with costs and benefits of various policy approaches.

It all adds up to what Nisbet calls “a new communication infrastructure and participatory culture,” with local citizens enlisted to help in learning, connecting, and planning.

Among key points in the “new infrastructure” Nisbet envisions:

  • The civic education and communications efforts need to be locally based, and not nationally based, with initiatives “timed and focused in the states and regions where there is the greatest need and demand.” Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, he said the areas likely to face the “heaviest” campaigning “are also the states where many Republican and Democratic members of Congress remain undecided about climate change.”
  • He sees expert groups such as science societies and universities as critical in the effort to “discuss, learn, connect, and voice their opinions about climate change and energy.”
  • Such an effort would involve “many different partner organizations and institutions,” including public media organizations, regional universities, museums and zoos, religious institutions, public libraries, and other civic groups.
  • Funding –- which his back-of-envelope estimates at between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per state — would come from U.S. government funding agencies (NSF, NOAA, Energy) and from scientific societies, foundations, and corporate sponsors.
  • “Carefully planned, intensely promoted” monthly deliberative forums in major population centers and at schools, labor unions, churches, and malls would recruit roughly 100 participants from the area for each forum, and they would be provided background materials in advance of the sessions.
  • Monthly state-specific polling and focus groups on climate change and energy would be conducted by local faculty experts from regional universities and highlighting the preferences expressed during the deliberative forums.
  • “Regional digital news communities” would address climate, energy and policy issues applicable to needs and events of each individual state, including “original reporting and professionally edited news content.”
  • Opinion leaders drawn from all socio-economic groups and chosen on the basis of their issue expertise, rather than their position, would be recruited and trained as “peer-educators,” sharing information and news, encouraging participation, and helping others “participate, learn, and connect” on the climate issue.

“The likelihood of a new era of hyper-partisanship on climate change also affords the opportunity for leadership and progress,” Nisbet concludes. His antidote: a plan “informed by research and best-practices in communication.” In his mind, such an approach is “achievable and fundable, and perhaps the best investment in resources leading up to the 2012 election.”

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