Skoll ‘Discussion Piece’ Tackles Climate Engagement in U.S.

Easily accessible and readable report explores ins and outs of citizen engagement as ‘central to building the political will required for action.’

A report by the Skoll Global Threats Fund seeks to characterize a number of major organizations’ various ways of engaging the public on climate change issues.

“Today, most Americans believe climate change is real and at least partly human-caused,” the report says. “Yet few Americans are engaged around climate change — cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally, let alone politically.” The organization’s report — “Taking Stock: U.S. Climate Engagement — A Discussion Piece” — provides an easily accessible look at “what social scientists and outreach specialists understand about how we can more effectively engage the public.” Its research pointed to “many” nongovernmental organizations, funders, and analysts exploring and rethinking their priorities on how best to “mobilize the masses, activate the elite, and motivate decisionmakers.”

The report looked at the practices of 40 organizations active in climate change outreach. It found that “more resources and organizations focus on engaging the grasstops than the grassroots” and, except when addressing specific local or regional matters, more efforts are aimed at “influencing the climate narrative” in Washington, D.C.

The report points to “three broad categories of ‘motivators’ or communications frames generally used to entice public action on climate issues:

  • “Dirty energy is harmful;
  • Clean energy brings benefits;
  • Consequences of continued climate change are severe.”

The frames most often used fall primarily into two categories: “those that target the rational mind and those that target the heart.” The former points to costs of inaction exceeding costs of action, and the latter “to a basic sense of right and wrong.”

In addressing what it identified as “obstacles” to climate engagement, the Skoll report says a “dominant emphasis on short-term opportunities to reduce carbon emissions has discouraged” advocates from taking a longer-term “and more evidence-based” approach to building political will. It said political and institutional barriers “inhibit sharing and learning.”

Turning to the charitable community, the report says “the current funding ecosystem discourages organizations from adopting collaborative and evidence-based approaches,” requiring them to “offer unique theories of change and approaches in a zero sum funding environment. Experimenting and failing is not allowed.”

It says national polls and surveys “are of limited value to engagement programs” because they too often are “not segmented by target populations.” It says targeted surveys and research can be “too expensive to scale at a level commensurate with the needs of public engagement campaigns.”

“There is a disconnect between social scientists and the engagement community,” the Skoll report says. “Social scientists are concerned that advocates don’t know what is working. Meanwhile, advocates question if social science findings are applicable, potentially contradictory, or already ‘conventional wisdom.’”

It says social scientists “are not aligned with engagement priorities … are driven and rewarded to investigate questions that tend to be disconnected from the climate community’s priorities.” Private researchers are motivated primarily “contract to contract” and not motivated to better understand underlying drivers and broader trends.

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