Before October 29 in the US, climate change was most noted for being the topic that not one but all three presidential debates ignored.
On October 23, PBS' Frontline aired “A Climate of Doubt,” interviewing the voices who “shifted the direction of the climate change debate.” The New York Times, in its review of the program, noted, “The focus is…on the ideology and political heft of the skeptics' movement, and the way it found new life as the economy fell to pieces and the Tea Party arose from the wreckage.” It is also a case study in the power of communications to shape societal opinions on key issues.
Fast forward a few days and the landscape, literally and figuratively, changed dramatically. As the East Coast boarded up, sandbagged, and evacuated in anticipation of “Superstorm” Hurricane Sandy, climate change resurfaced in social media feeds and made its way to mainstream media. Was Sandy caused or made worse by climate change?
“Hurricane Sandy has had a huge impact. The awareness it has stirred up is enormous; it is more than we've seen in recent years by a long shot,” said Dan Shepard with the UN's Department of Public Information. “People are living with the results of extreme weather, and they see these things are real, not just in movies. People are realizing we are going to have to deal with this one way or another.”
After seeing the devastation first-hand, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for reelection, citing the before-unmentioned climate change as the primary factor in his decision.
“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be -- given this week's devastation -- should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
The two parties' nominees for president offer different visions of where they want to lead America…One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”
The announcement was a pivotal moment in US politics. Never before had such a significant presidential endorsement been made on the basis of climate change. And, on November 6, voters again chose Obama to lead their country. The economy loomed large during the campaign and continued to be critical with a narrowly averted “fiscal cliff” and unemployment just under 8%. Given that backdrop and the complexity of the issue, the question remains whether climate change will be an issue that citizens care about enough to drive the administration to address it in a meaningful way.
Shepherd said: “I think Hurricane Sandy will have some impact on policy because the cost of disaster is enormous. It represents a tax in one way or another. We're paying for the cost of recovery, we have to make decisions about how to rebuild.” The cost of Hurricane Sandy, including rebuilding and lost business, has been estimated between $30 and $60 billion.
It would seem Americans are perhaps more receptive than ever to the need for action. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication's fourth annual study, released on November 13:
- A growing majority of Americans say the president and Congress should make global warming a priority and that corporations, industry, and citizens themselves should do more to address the issue.
- More than nine out of 10 Americans also say developing clean energy should be a national priority.
- The survey also finds surprising public support for a revenue neutral carbon tax.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “The idea of a carbon tax is simple: Put a price tag on the harmful emissions from fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and use the revenues to fund clean-energy development, pay down the deficit, or slash taxes. Proponents often describe it as a win-win-win policy, because carbon taxes would penalize things that are bad (pollution) and lower taxes on things that are good (labor and capital).”
The same article indicates a carbon tax has support across the ideological spectrum, “bringing together deficit hawks, growth mavens, and climate worriers.” Unfortunately, as yet there is little support for the idea from Congress or the president.
Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, says the president should “demonstrate that climate change is not a partisan issue. He should convene committed leaders from both parties and seek their advice on building a trans-partisan coalition to address climate and energy security aggressively over the next four years.”
In communications, we know that a picture is worth a thousand words and that showing, rather than telling, appeals to the emotional way in which humans make decisions. It may well be that Mother Nature provided the best communications case study of the year with a storm of such tragic consequence that our national conversation has moved across the spectrum from ignoring climate change to accepting it and looking for solutions.