Policy action on climate change remains politically gridlocked in the United States and throughout the world, while polls show that Americans remain divided about both the causes of climate change and the urgency of the problem. In March 2010, over 200 students at American University attended the American Forum panel on “The Climate Change Generation” to discuss the politics of climate change and the role of young people in working for social change. The program was also broadcast live on WAMU 88.5.
The panel featured Juliet Eilperin, environmental reporter, The Washington Post, moderator Jane Hall, Associate Professor of Journalism, American University School of Communication, Matthew C. Nisbet, Associate Professor and Director of the Climate Shift Project in the School of Communication at American University, and Kate Sheppard, energy and environmental politics reporter, Mother Jones.
- Watch Video Part 1
- Watch Video Part 2
- New York Times coverage
- Washington Post coverage
- USA Today coverage
- Survey Analysis of Views of American Adults Under the Age of 30- Executive Summary
- Survey Analysis- Full Summary
HALL: From the campus of American University, sponsored by the School of Communication and WAMU, 88.5. I’m Jane Hall and this is the American Forum. Our topic today is the climate change generation, youth media politics in an unsustainable world. We have about 200 students, conservatively here in the audience today. Before we begin I want to make several statements about climate change. If you agree with that statement applaud and let us know your agreement by your applause. We’re not applauding for climate change; we’re getting a sense for how you feel about aspects of this issue. So get ready.
Climate change is a serious problem. [Strong applause]
Climate change is a more serious problem then unemployment. [Weaker applause]
Okay, we’ve got some people looking at job prospects, unsure about that one.
Scientists and environmentalists are exaggerating the threat of global warming. [Weak applause]
A few lone voices here on that one, okay.
Long term changes in the earth’s climate relate to jobs and the economy, world politics and national security, yet policy action climate change remains gridlocked. Poles show that Americans today are divided about the causes of climate change and the urgency of the problem. The percentages of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dropped from 80% to 72% according to a Washington Post ABC News poll. Although a majority still support a cap on green house gas submissions and according to new research, we’ll be talking about today young people maybe no more engaged with this issue than the population as whole. I want to introduce our panelists and then get right to our discussion and then to questions from students.
Matt Nisbet is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American University and an expert on media coverage of slants the environment and public health in media and in politics. He writes a blog called Framing Science, he’s currently focusing on climate change communication in his research.
Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post. She has been covering environmental policy, science and politics for the Post since 2004. She’s covered the international meetings on climate change for the Post and she has recently had a number of front page stories on the direction of environmental policies in congress and under the Obama administration. She also writes for the Washington Post blog on climate called, Post Carbon.
Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics from Mother Jones and motherjones.com in Washington DC. She has broken a number of news stories in her blog which is called, Blue Marble on Mother Jones magazine and the dot com of that, about the prospects for climate change legislation and green jobs, lobbying by the oil and gas industries and she’s also been writing recently about new plans for nuclear power as an energy source in President Obama’s environmental proposals.
To join our conversation, go to twitter.com-American_forum or use the hash tag AM forum. I want to get right to questions. I’ll ask a few of the panelists, then we’ll have some questions that came in and then we’ll get to student questions in the audience.
Juliet Eilperin, you wrote the story about belief in climate change being down according to the Washington Post ABC News poll, yet it’s still 72% and if you look further into the numbers the decline is largely due to republicans expressing less belief and less urgency about the problem. Is climate change now a right, left issue and what does that mean for policy?
EILPERIN: To some extent it is, its become more politically polarized in recent years and there could be a number of factors having to do with this, including the fact that frankly you now have a president who’s more of a climate change activist then the previous republican president, President Bush. So, there’s no question that when we look at it there’s been a much greater fall off among republicans than independents and democrats. On the other hand, it will certainly take bi-partisan collaboration in order to put through any sort of meaningful climate change legislation and so that’s really the challenge, while certainly there’s some division within the democratic party, what to a large extent will determine rather we have a climate change bill enacted in 2010 will depend on how many republicans are willing to buck their party’s leadership and push for limits on green house gases nationwide.
HALL: Okay, Matt Nisbet, you and colleagues here at American University and Yale and George Mason University have a new report out about young people and climate change. Can you tell us very briefly, what were your findings?
NISBET: Sure, the Washington Post poll that Juliet explained is one of several polls that shows that public concern with climate change is down over the last two years. In our study what we wanted to look at, instead of comparing where public opinion might be from two years ago, we wanted to look at young people specifically people under the age of 35 and how their views today compare to older generations of Americans and conventional wisdom argues that young people are should be more engaged with the issue of climate change. They grew up in a world where the science of climate change became ever more certain and there’s a tremendous amount of news coverage and entertainment media portrayals of the problem of climate change. But somewhat contradictory to conventional wisdom what we find in our survey report is that though young people under the age of 35 are more excepting that human activities are contributing to climate change, they’re not that much different from older Americans in terms of their perception of the personal importance of the issue and their levels of concern. They still don’t see climate change as one of the leading policy priorities or an issue of deep personal importance and the implication is then that their attitudes about climate change end up being soft as we saw at the beginning of this program. Many of you clapped and applauded to thinking that climate change was a problem. But, when asked in comparison for example to unemployment or when asked in a survey question whether you would accept the cost of climate change action, you become more ambivalent about that issue, and that it important. So, there’s a lot of work to do in terms of communicating with young people and engaging them on this issue
HALL: Matt, just as a quick follow up, we’ll come back to it. Doesn’t it matter if you frame it as green jobs vs. climate change? I mean doesn’t, don’t people respond differently if they see that there might be some value to them in this, in terms of getting jobs?
NISBET: Right, the issue is that historically climate change has been narrowly defined as an environmental problem. And in fact actually there are many dimensions to this issue. And some of those dimensions, when communicated to the public make the issue more personally important. And certainly focusing or framing the issue around job creation and rebuilding the economy around clean energy technology is one example of a frame that might be more personally relevant and important to many segments of the public, including young people. Other dimensions include focusing on the issue as a public health problem or as a moral and religious issue
HALL: Ok, Kate Sheppard, you’ve been writing about the big plans, billion dollar plans, President Obama has introduced for nuclear power and his proposals. Why isn’t this getting more attention from the media and how are the lobbyists for the nuclear power industry and rolling gas industry getting their message across about, we’re good for you and no taxes on energy?
SHEPPARD: Thanks Jane, well this really gets to the heart of the issue that Julia Eilperin was speaking about, that is has to be by bi-partisan legislation. If we’re going to pass anything, anytime soon involving any kind of energy policy, its going to need Republican support and the Obama administration has made it clear that they want to include support for nuclear power, more support for off shore drilling, clean coal technology, all these things that are more conventional and reduce sources, but they see that including that in the climate bill is a good incentive for Republicans to support a bill. These are things that the Republican Party has long supported and the Obama administration thinks you know if we can give some of these things and energy they’ve been asking for, for all these years, maybe we can also convince them then to take a cap on carbon dioxide and other policies that would begin reducing emitions. So they’re really seeing this as being a grand bargain for getting a bill passed this year and the Obama administration has consistently listed getting comprehensive legislation as one of the top priorities. Obviously it’s fallen to second, third place after health care and financial reforms. But, it’s still among top issues and Obama talks about it regularly as not just an environmental issue but a jobs issue, the economy, its about competitiveness, its about making America a player in the international scene on energy again and also about national security and reducing alliance in other countries. So, there’s all these good reasons they’re listing to support legislation that are not just the environmental benefits. For the nuclear industry, they’ve been very clearly trying for a long time to revamp their efforts here in the US, we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in nearly three decades so, supporters of nuclear power have really been upping the efforts to get this included in the climate bill. It is low carbon technology so they really see this as an opportunity to reenter the energy portfolio in a meaningful way.
HALL: Okay, good, it is true that the commercials during the Olympics from the oil and gas industry sang no new taxes on energy, American people don’t want that, so we may see some lobbying going on publicly. I’d like to go to a question. Please come forward and tell us your name and what you’re studying here, I assume you are studying here and put your question, quickly to the panel.
DREW (no last name): Hi, my name is Drew and I am an environmental studies and political (chemical) science student. It’s pretty clear that the climate bill has an uncertain path in the senate. How much does the responsibility for its uncertainty lye with the environmental movement and how much does it lye with the failure of the media to portray the issue accurately?
HALL: Who wants to take that? Matt Nisbet?
NISBET: I think, one of the big issues is that wider public opinion are still not engaged with climate change and policy priority, you just don’t see climate change polling as a top of my concern for Americans. In absence, kind of wider public engagement on this issue, members of congress are going to be unwilling to take the political costs and risks of a climate bill. So in stow, until you’re able to build kind of that wider public engagement on issues members of congress are willing to hear from a greater diversity and a grater number of constituents on the issue, it just won’t be a priority in congress. Part of the problem is the climate change, historically, has been merely defined as an environmental problem with a lot of focus on the environmental impacts and the scientific basis of those environmental impacts. That’s interesting and that’s engaging to a certain segment of the public, but we really need to broaden the focus when we talk about this problem, we need to add new voices. Scientists and environmentalists need partners in communicating about this issue, includes business leaders, includes religious leaders, it includes other opinion leaders across sectors of society.
HALL: I want to ask our next questioner to step to the mic. But, I want to get to a related question that came in from Emma, a student here. She writes, “Do you think the media had been responsible in covering climate change, giving equal time to the two sides of the debate even after it was found that scientists are in agreement that climate change is occurring and is largely driven by human action? Juliet Opren, do you think it’s the responsibility of the media to educate the American people about global warming and what happens as a journalist if you present this as not on the one hand on the other hand but this is settle science.” What happens and what do you think is the responsibility of journalist?
EILPERIN: Well, to that second part what happens is I get a lot of hate email, which I do
HALL: Are you getting it from the right and the left?
EILPERIN: I, well you get it from both but primarily I get it from people who do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity and that is something that we articulate in our articles. We write the fact that the science is settled on that question. I think there’s also the question of the political debate, which is different it’s one thing to educate, well I wouldn’t use the term educate, but inform readers about the science concerning climate change and its another thing when you’re actually covering in real time what’s happening and how there is a divide and also just briefly to follow up on that first question, I would question both of your assumptions. When you talk about rather it’s the fault of the environmental movement, there actually haven’t been let’s say huge missteps on that front and to a large extent, but, I think that when you look at the Obama administration as Kate pointed out. They chose to put health care ahead of climate change and that was a fundamental calculation that to some extent explains why we are where we are today.
HALL: Okay, I want to get to our next question, but Kate Shepard, I just want to ask you a question, and also if someone disagrees with some of the assumptions that are being said here about whether the media are right or left, or whether this is a right or left issue. Please come forward and state your comment here. Kate Shepard you write for an opinion magazine, but you are a reporter, do you feel that the media have had the right with media talk show are out there saying the fact that we’ve had snow and these new issues means that there is no global warming? How much of this debate is confusing because there is not a point of view that is clearly articulated, would you say in the media?
SHEPARD: I think that is a challenge that the media still struggles with is presenting this as a, you know, objectively but also at the same time being realistic about what the science says and I think that’s always a challenge that you want to have some sort of critical voice, but it’s important to note that the critical voice is not that climate change isn’t happening or isn’t caused by human kind. There is various disagreements on how much is happening and how fast, what exactly that means. Those are the real issues that I think reporters should be covering more and really getting into those issues rather than dwelling on this, basically
HALL: But, some of the loudest voices in the media today are saying that climate change doesn’t exist, its not man made, it exist, but you know, its not our fault and you know its being exaggerated, I mean there are some very loud voices. I’m wondering if they are drowning out this sort of other sides of this
SHEPARD: I think they’re very loud, but the important thing is to note that those are the same people that have always said that, no one’s minds have changed, it’s a number of people who are either funded by dirty energy interest or just care not to actually follow the science on it and I think one of the major issues that people face is that whenever there is some ginned up controversy about it that gets a lot of attention, when as reporters we see new reports all the time just about the real consequences of climate change and how bad it could be and what are the specific impacts might look like. We should this all the time but you know we’ve all read, you know 80 different reports that are basically saying the same thing and there’s a certain amount of fatigue about how much you can write about these consequences and how can you write about these problems over and over and over again saying the same thing.
NISBET: Can I just jump in?
HALL: Sure, Matt Nisbet and please come to the mics if you disagree or agree or have questions, we really want to hear from you. You got to get up here for us to know who you are and ask a question. Thank you
NISBET: The effects of the conservative media who distort the science on climate change, those are really reinforcing the facts of the roughly 10-20% of the public who are already deeply dismissive or skeptical of the issue. That media coverage reinforces their opinion and it mobilizes them. It actually, actively gives them information, by which they can take action politically to contest legislation and congress. Now focusing on young people, one of the interesting things is a lot of the perceptions and engagement of young people will turn on trust and one of things that we find in our report is that young people under the age of 35 are deeply trusting of scientists. Their level of trust in climate scientists is 80%, higher than any other audience public segment and they have a deep level of trust in the Obama administration on the issue, over 60%. On the other hand, their levels of trust to the media are very low, only a little bit more than 30% of people under the age of 35 trust information from the media about climate change. That’s lower than any other segment of the public and that level of trust is only slightly higher than the level of trust in Sarah Palin as a source on the issue. So, those factors combined with the fact that young people are generally not as heavier consumers of news and information as older generations signals that there is an opportunity, in fact there’s a need for the Obama administration to take advantage of the poll pit and to reach out to young people and for scientists to partner with other opinion leaders in society and to look at direct engagement of young people on the issue.
HALL: Ok, why don’t we get you all engaged. I want you all to come forward and state your opinion and have a real discussion about this. Come on forward, I see one person coming forward, please come forward, go ahead. State your name and tell us what you think about what’s being said, do you agree, disagree and also what was your question about this
JOSH (no last name): I’m Josh, graduated last year from Matt’s program in public communication and I guess my question, I had a follow up to the trust issue. Unlike a lot of other hot run issues like gun control and abortion, which require very little understanding and information to form an opinion. This requires deferring to experts even if the science is concrete and in a society where people are not trusting experts or the trend is away from that, how do you deal with that even if the science is concrete? I also actually had another question about the need for bi-partisan support, is that because of the potential make up in congress in the future or is that for some sort of public relations need, that it not just be a democratic issue?
HALL: Juliet Eilperin, why don’t you take that?
EILPERIN: It’s actually a matter of votes, the fact that of the matter is there are certain number of democrats in the senate who simply won’t support this, given the level of opposition and essentially the rules are operating now where you need 60 votes in order to pass any major bill. The fact of the matter is the democrats aren’t going to be able to pass this on their own and will to enlist the support of republicans. So, that’s where we are now and in terms of your other question, its actually a very good point about the idea, you are dealing with technical issues and part of the job of the media is to translate some of this complicated science into our articles and our radio broadcast and our television programming, in order to give people a sense of what’s going on. At the same time, you know, given the web there’s incredible access to this information. When you look at the UN, intergovernmental panel on climate change for example, people can read those reports for themselves so certainly there is a level of direct access, but part of what the media does is convey that science in a way that the public can understand
HALL: Ok, that was Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post and you’re listening to an American forum on WAMU on 88.5. Our other guests are Kate Shepard from Mother Jones, Matt Nisbet, a professor here in the School of Communication at American University and I’m Jane Hall, professor also in the School of Communication. To continue the conversation, visit twitter.com/American_forum or use the hash tag AM forum. Okay, next questioner
LISMAN: Thank you Professor Hall, my name is John Lisman and I’m studying political science here at American, I was just wondering the thoughts of the panel on the climate gates scandal, which I thought was some pretty shocking news and shocking revelations about scientists and what they may or may not have been doing to the information which they provided to the public. One, do you think the media gave way to a lack of coverage of the climate gate scandal and two, do you think that if it does in the future receive anymore coverage if it will have an adverse effect on the climate change movement?
HALL: Kate Sheppard, do you, why don’t you take that?
SHEPARD: I think the important thing to note with the climate gate, it got a lot of attention in the media especially within the last few months, but the thing that was not covered really well was that when they’ve gone back now and looked at the underlying science and actually analyzed its emails and discussed the what those implications were, you know it showed scientists behaving badly and being catty and mean but it didn’t actually challenge the underlying major science that is behind this, there’s thousands of reports around the world, there is thousands of scientists that have been involved in the process of creating the intergovernmental panel and climate change reports, there is a lot of work that has gone into these reports and the basic underlying science was not challenged at all and this is something that has also come up and there has been some questions about some of the different studies that have been included in IPCC reports. But, there are a lot of them are about really specific effects of climate change, its about, you know when things are going to happen or how soon they’re going to be or what exactly they might look like and those are real questions and those things that yes those are some of the problems that have been highlighted but they haven’t changed this basic wide spread agreement in the climate science community that it’s a problem, its largely cause by human activity and its something that needs to be addressed.
HALL: You know, excuse me Matt, I just wanted to say that Al Gore had an op-ed recently in the New York Times where he said, “It would be nice, if a few emails in climate change” as he characterized climate gate meant that there wasn’t really a problem but he says in there, and I want you all/ someone to come forth and talk about this if you would. But, he thinks that if climate change isn’t addressed by my generation then your generation’s going to say what were they thinking when they could do something about it. I’d like for someone to come forward and talk about whether you do view this as a generational responsibility. I think Matt Nisbet you wanted to say something
NISBET: I just want to throw this pack at the audience real quick, now be honest, be honest, but clap now if you’ve heard a lot about so call climate gate. Be honest. [Mixed Applause]
Ok, so the question on climate gate which is a perfectly define catch phrase refers to stolen emails from scientists. That catch phrase, which immediately signals that there’s some type of political wrong doing on the part of scientists, similar to water gate some type of political corruption, that’s a perfectly framed device for people who oppose action on climate change. Now, the real question on its impact on the public, is exactly what number of Americans have actually heard a lot about so call climate gate and for the most part compared to other issues according to the polls, roughly only about 35% of Americans I believe have heard a lot about this so call climate gate event and that’s not a huge proportion compared to a lot of the other news stories that people follow and what we know from a public opinion research lead is that’s going to be a lot of slack to perception. People are already doubtful and skeptical about the issue are going to use that as another factor to grow even more doubtful about the issue. But, I think the issue of climate gate has been handled relatively poorly by major scientific organizations, there were very slow to respond and to get out a positive message and to handle, kind of, a classic case in crisis communication and there are a lot of issues in terms of perception of accountability and conflict of interests that they haven’t handled well, as well. Now on the other hand, many liberals have criticized the main stream media, the New York Times in particular, for their coverage of so called climate gate and I would argue on the other hand that if the New York Times weren’t covering this issue then in fact the main stream media would be seeding all of the coverage to the right way media and that would be even worse. Americans would have no source of independent information and balanced information on this topic.
HALL: You know, I think one of the things that’s interesting is we have bifurcation in the media, you have more republicans and more skeptics I would assume about climate change, listening to Fox news which is over and over saying “cap and tax, “cap and tax.” Climate gate I would wager gets a lot more coverage on Fox News channel then its getting in the New York Times as an opinion piece and I think that’s one things that our audience here, you know, when I ask my students don’t tend to listen to Fox News, they tend to read online. I don’t mean their liberal or conservative, but I think sometimes we don’t even know what’s out there among the opposition back and forth because everybody’s reading media, as you said that they already agree with which maybe not such a good thing. Yes, step forward please tell us your name and what you’re studying
JULIE (no last name): My name is Julie, I’m a senior in the environmental studies program here and I’ve come with a group of students from American University’s undergraduate environmental club, Ecosense, and I think we’re all kind of sitting here, pulling our hair saying like, what do you mean like, young people don’t like, aren’t engaged in this because I think we constantly find ourselves attending to engage the administration here and really push for clean energy and sustainable investment and all those kinds of things. So, I guess I’m wondering for a little clarification for the study that was done, what part of that, was that mostly on a national level, what youth are doing as oppose to like local level like university wise and I guess what can we do. I’m a senior so I’m thinking about the future, how can we transform ourselves from campus environmentalists into effective, you know, older youth adult
HALL: Grown ups and beyond environmentalists. Good question. I don’t think and I’ll let Matt answer this, I don’t think that he was saying that young people don’t engage, I think that we assume, I assumed before we started doing this panel and wanted to do this that you all were more engaged and I think that there are other results about young evangelicals and about willingness to change, there are a lot about other things that Matt can speak to you on that
NISBET: That’s an excellent question and of course with a national survey what you’re looking at is young people under the age of 35 as a group nationally, that includes people who are college educated and non college educated, it means people living across geographic areas of the country both people who are liberal and conservative and moderate, people who are religious and non religious and as a group on average people under the of 35 are not that much different from older generations and in fact, the research shows and you can read our report, which should be online March 2nd, that the research shows that young people actually view themselves as less active then oldergenerations, they view there friends as, they’re more likely, less likely to agree that their friends are active on this issue. We also looked at people who are college aged, people under the age of 23, now their perceptions of activity among their friends, people like them slightly higher than people between of the age of 23 and 35 but its still not that high. So, of course there are pockets and groups of high levels of activity concern among young people and I applaud your efforts and that’s certainly something that young people can certainly do, they can work at their local level and they can work within institutions like university’s, their workplace, within their communities and that’s probably where they can make the biggest difference right now, while also holding accountable people in elected office and also asking journalists and news organizations to cover this issue carefully and consistently
HALL: I want to follow up with a question that came in through facebook or comment which I think is relevant here. This is from Britney, our generation seems to engage primarily with environmental efforts that are set socially encouraged or trendy ie reusable water bottles or I’m not a plastic bag. How can the media leverage their power, again this implies the media should be prophesizing here which we have to talk about. How can the media leverage their power to get young people involved in more sustain efforts for climate change and how can they make sure that this sustained ability trend doesn’t just die out? Who wants to take that, Juliet?
EILPERIN: Yes, I’d step up again to say that, I don’t think it’s the media responsibility to get young people….
HALL: Ok, so how can environmentalists get them fired up?
EILPERIN: Well, you know there is for example, a group of youth activists particularly those that have worked on Obama’s campaign who are quite active right now and part of the message they actually managed to get senior Obama officials to meet with them for clean energy summit and their argument, which was an interesting argument was, you know we helped elect you and we’re not going to work hard both in the upcoming 2010 congressional election or in the 2012 presidential elections and it is true that public officials tend to be responsive to those kinds of demands. So, certainly that’s one way it could change and I just want to follow up, its interesting Matt’s new study has definitely some findings that were echoed in what the Washington Post and ABC News did in November, but there were some differences and one of things that I think is interesting in pointing out is that both for example, the belief in climate change has stayed much more steady in folks who were 30 or younger as opposed to older ones and also among republicans and republican leaning dependents under age 40, 57% said that they want republican to work with democrats on changes to energy policy compared to 46% among those aged 40-64 and further more 44% of younger republicans said the republican party put to little emphasis on the environment and that was something, a view that was shared by 37% of people between age 40-64 and 32% of seniors so, there is somewhat of a generational divide and I think it’s particularly interesting to look within the republican party and see are those republicans that aren’t focused on this issue now, will they face any sort of push back in the year to come?
HALL: I think that’s a very interesting point, you know I know in talking to republican strategists, that they care in rather they can , I mean if they lose another election 66 to 33, which is what they lost Obama/ McCain to, he was saying that they need to speak to young people. I mean do we see this as an issue that young people will vote around? It seems unclear to me. Kate Shepard, what do you think?
SHEPPARD: Well I think what’s really important, I don’t remember who said this first, but there’s a saying a couple years ago, changing you light bulbs is good but changing your legislators is better. But, I think that’s really important and I think this is, especially what Juliet said, whether the media has a role in this and I think the media’s role is we need to make it more clear exactly how policy happens in Washington and you know what influences are playing here and what kind of role their playing in the debate and I think a lot of times that’s not very clear and I think a lot of people in the US don’t necessarily see what role they have as an individual. It was great, you know, in 2008 to see so many young people go out and vote, people were energized about the campaign, I think republicans and democrats. It was a very, it was a strong year for voting and I think young people really showed up, but there is, there has been a gap in that enthusiasm for a particular candidate and their enthusiasm for political issues and then translating those policy issues to the next election and keeping those people really, you know, holding them accountable for those things they promised as candidates. So I think that’s the place where we should a better job in making it clear where you can play a role and why the public is important in this conversation, and it’s not just energy companies and its not just corporations and its not just people with lots of money. You’re the voters and you have a role as well and you have a place to play in that policy conversation, I think that’s one of the really important things that should be a message for young people, especially
HALL: Well you know this campus was where Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama and it’s a politically active campus. I don’t know if that has translated into environmental activism. I don’t know you all think to be in touch with your congress man or woman and tell them what you think about this issue. Do you or I believe you have a question or comment? I think you’re someone from Ecosense right?
JENNIFER (no last name); Yes, my name is Jennifer and I’m a sophomore here studying political science and environmental studies, I’m actually the president of Ecosense and we do a lot of political activism around the environment. We participated in Power Shift last year and we’re planning some lobbying days. I definitely voted for the environment so it’s a big issue…
HALL: How did you vote for the environment?
JENNIFER: With my vote, I voted for candidates that….
HALL: You voted for Obama because of his environmental policies?
HALL: Okay and are you telling legislators now how you feel and how your group feels about the legislation?
JENNIFER: My question is kind of related to the issue, I guess, what is the attractive, what issues are attractive that relate to the environment? What do you all think is the most under reported aspect or issue in environment, why is it or climate change, why is it the most under reported issue is it because there are other issues that are attractive and do you see that changing or is there anything that environmental organizations or student groups can do to make that issue more attractive to the media?
HALL: Matt Nisbet, would you take that?
NISBET: One of the analyses that we’re working on in research, we find that in the Washington Post and New York Times, historically, only about 5% of coverage of climate change has mentioned public health related impacts and there continues to be in a number of emerging studies, its in the last IPCC report, looking at the linkages between climate change and things like respiratory problems, asthma, allergies, vulnerability among elderly, susceptibility of young children to heat waves especially among lower income people in urban cities, infectious and vector born diseases and susceptibility and vulnerability to precipitation events and flooding. These are all connection points on the issue of climate change that in terms of adaptation at the local level, this is the type of information the type of coverage that people need to be able to make collective choices and it’s also a dimension of climate change which makes it real. It’s not focusing on remote regions such as polar regions or animal species which many people care about but not necessarily a great majority of Americans, but it’s connecting to issues that people are already concerned with and see a direct personal relevance and you’re moving the geographic focus to urban cities and you’re potentially expanding attention to coverage among populations such as minorities and lower income people, who if you ask, why do you care about climate change when faced with a lot of other problems, it may not really be a top of mind issue for them.
HALL: Yes, Kate Sheppard
SHEPPARD: I think the most important thing we’re not talking about is jobs. How many young people in here, clap if are worried about getting a job when you graduate? I, you know, I’m not that much older than you guys, I have friends, siblings, people who are looking for jobs. That is the biggest concern, I think for young people right now and it’s something we just don’t cover very well when we’re covering climate and energy, politics, we talk about green jobs as this vague, fanciful thing off distance in the future that we might get one day sort of like a fairy tale we hope will come about. But, there real, they’re real jobs that are happening. Last year, was the first year where there were more jobs in the wind industry then there were coal mining, its almost never talked about, the coal industry has a huge influence in Washington, you know, it’s not nearly as much as the wind industry, but people your age are much more likely to get a job in that then they are in coal anytime soon and I think we’re just doing a really poor job in covering the realities of the job situation when it comes to energy.
HALL: We just had a tweet, from someone saying, “How does this panel define pro climate change jobs?” I think you’ve spoken to that, does anybody else want to talk about it. I do want to speak a little bit about this question of language, you know the Obama administration said green jobs, green jobs, green jobs, I personally am not entirely clear what green jobs are just as I don’t know what clean coal is, you know. Does anybody out here know what clean coal is or what a green job is? Maybe the politicians need to do a better job in explaining this.
EILPERIN: Actually, here is a question for the audience, how many people believe that something exists that is clean coal? Clap, if you believe in the process of clean coal. [Mixed applause.]
HALL: Okay, do you know what it is? I’ve seen the guy with you know the commercial where he’s got the dirty coal on his nose but
EILPERIN: Clean coal is really, it’s a political term that was used frankly by President Obama as well as John McCain when they were campaigning for the presidency in 2008 and it refers to the idea that you can produce coal without producing significant green house gas emissions. This is technology that doesn’t exist today, there’s a huge amount of political lobbying on this issue because basically, as I think part of what Kate was referring to is you have question, what are the established industries that have a presence in Washington for a long time and what are the future industries. But, at the same time, I think, and this is part of what I think is the role of the media, and we’ve done a lot about this. Truce squatting, how much do you need in order to create wind power, solar power? What are the conflicts that come into play when you’re talking about building a solar enterprise in a place where there are endangered species? I think there are a lot of trade offs in all of these questions and one of the jobs of the media is to really look at this and see what are the potentials, what does is it going to end up costing tax payers and these are some of the questions that really determine how viable any of these projects will be in the years to come.
NISBET: And this is one of the tradeoffs with
HALL: Matt Nisbet
NISBET: Some of the messaging out of the White House and democratic leaders. If you only go with the term, green jobs and you maybe go beyond the realistic timeline for when these investments might actually have significant results in terms of job creation in the economy. You invite a lot of coverage from journalist’s fact checking your claims and the implication of the result is then that you might end up loosing credibility on the part of the public, in terms of your claims about the significance in terms of the growth of the economy. So, I think it’s a real balancing act that the White House and other political leaders have to do when they start to redefine climate change in terms of the economy, specifically when they don’t go beyond catch phrase such as green jobs
HALL: You know the republican poster, Kate wrote a story about this, Frank said once basically that he was the guy that helped republicans portray the health care bill on the democratic side was a government giveaway and he said, basically, if you want to get people energized climate change, don’t talk about it as climate change, basically. Right, Kate?
SHEPPARD: Well I think the point was that people are already concerned about climate change, but you know their dealing with a lot of other issues, they’re worried about jobs, they’re worried about the economy, they’re worried about you know, gasoline prices, There is always other concerns and if you really want to tap into peoples, you know, getting people more energized and really getting them in on something that is a political issue, talk about those things more than the basically the science end of it because those are things that people are really worried about and understandably right now
NISBET: Really quick, one of the key findings the report is that you need to communicate about climate change, not as a problem but in terms of solutions and the benefits related to those solutions and that’s exactly consistent with some of the research that we’re working on. When you communicate about climate change as a public health problem and then you suggest policies to correct climate change with the public health benefits of those policies, broad sections of the public react favorably to those suggestions so I think that we need to move now from communicating less about climate change as a problem and more in terms of concrete solutions and the benefits the economy, it benefits the public health that might occur because of those actions
HALL: That was Matt Nisbet from the School of Communication. You’re listening to an American forum on WAMU 88.5, our other guests are Kate Sheppard and she’s is an environmental and health reporter from Mother Jones, Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post, environmental reporter. I’m Jane Hall, professor here in the School of Communication. To continue the conversation, go to twitter.com/American_forum or use the hash tag AM forum. Okay, I want to get to our next questioner, go ahead
CUME: Hello, I’m Mataline Cume and I’m a poli sci student and I’m going on the whole jobs issues that you were going off of. Companies have been doing a lot of green line products and there are a lot of advertisements about their green line products that has been very fashionable, but you think that these big companies are doing enough or are they just trying to make their face look green?
HALL: Who wants to take that?
SHEPPARD: There’s a great study that came out
HALL: Kate Sheppard
SHEPPARD: There’s a great study that came out a few weeks ago in the New Scientists Magazine and they work with a few different public opinion groups and also some groups who analyze the environmental impact of corporations. They found that the people who are actually doing things for the environment aren’t often the people who talk about them all the time, and there aren’t people who have great green lines out there. I think one great example, Best Buy which is a big bucks store that doesn’t necessarily have a very green impression but they actually have been a lot of good things with their supply chain and packaging. So there a number of corporations that are getting more involved and they are stepping up efforts, Walmart is another using better supply chain management and doing things more sustainably all the way back down their supply chain. So there are a good number of corporations that are doing the right things, I think a lot of them can probably do more and a lot of it, you just have to sort through which is, what is the real action and what is just the talk?
HALL: I want to follow up, Juliet Eilperin. Is this something that the Washington Post covers this Association Corporations are making, we were talking before the program, Walmart has rebranded themselves as being environmentally friendly, British petroleum, a lot companies, a lot of oil companies, a lot of car companies, the new American doll I happened to notice for those of you who have small children at home, is an environmentalist. So, do you all consider that a legitimate area of coverage and how do you go about covering something like that, like association rather its accurate or not?
EILPERIN: We’ve read about it in some context, we often try to away from doing a specific, company specific piece so its not to elevate one company from another but we do look at those issues and for example my colleague Steve Mussin just had a story on this where he looked at what’s happening with Walmart in China and how the fact is they’re actually often enforcing stricter environmental standards then the Chinese government itself because again they’re worried about American consumers and the perception that American consumers have of their environmental practices. So, I think that we do try to delve into it, again, it sometimes is a very daunting task you look at something like Coca Cola and they again have been working a lot with the World Wildlife Fund and have been working on water issues, they also use a tremendous amount of resources and you have to always point out, what is their broad impact and one thing that is very interesting is that there’s one issue which is in terms of efficiency, all major corporations sometimes are frankly, I wrote a front page story several years ago about how universities love to talk about how they’re green, but in fact in many cases corporate America has much more forward looking environmental policies in part because they care more about their bottom line. So there’s always trade off in that
HALL: Okay, would you all buy something based on rather it was green or not green? Would you say you would? You can’t nod your heads cause its radio but we’ve asked you to applaud for a lot of things. You would, you would, okay. Yes, next question
STEVEN (no last name): Thank you so much Professor Hall, my name is Steven, I’m a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, I just want to thank you so much for being here tonight and talking about this important issue. You talked about green jobs, I actually interned for an organization that creates green jobs here in Washington D.C., it’s called Weatherized D.C, we work to reach out to home owners to weatherize their homes, make them more energy efficient, it’s really a win/win, it saves people money, it creates good green jobs here in the city that needs them and it helps fight climate change and here at the beginning of the forum you asked, which is more important, fighting climate change or helping unemployment? And I really think both are important issues and I think we can solve both of them at once and I’m wondering if you think the media’s created a false choice in helping the environment and helping our economy and I’m wondering if you think cap and trade might be better sold to the American public if was made more simply with the green jobs message and the cap and dividend proposals over recently been in the senate? Thank you so much
HALL: Okay, great thank you. Who wants to take that, there are several good questions there. Is it a false choice that’s being portrayed, jobs or green jobs or the economy? Okay, Sheppard
SHEPPARD: Okay, I’ll jump in. First of all I think Weatherized D.C. is doing some really good work. You guys are thinking really smartly here in Washington about how to make this work, its not just about creating the jobs, it’s also about creating a service for people hear in Washington to weatherize their own homes and save money on their electricity bills, so it’s about help consumers and also giving people who are unemployed, jobs, so I think it’s a really fascinating work that their doing here in Washington. I don’t really think that the media has created a false choice I think that it’s a result of a lot of years of political antagonism between business interests and environmental interests and this desire to create them as always being adverse to one another. I think that that’s changing and I think that the conversation around that is changed significantly in the last few years and think there is more serious conversation happening about the job potential. I think it could be better, but I think that it has improved and I don’t think that we’re stuck on the old environment versus business track as it need to be, and I think that’s in large part driven by more and more businesses are getting involved in the conversation on climate as well.
HALL: I want to follow up on that with a question from Billy who’s also a student here at the university. He writes, should our government be more focused on the economy or climate change? Again, perhaps a falsed economy, listen what he says here. Climate is a bigger threat then the economy first and foremost this is because the economy exists is troughs and peaks which means the economy will bounce back on its own while climate change is slowly worsening. If we lose too much of our natural world it may never recover. How typical of young people is that question and is part of the problem that pondering and ponderable catastrophe which is slowly worsening versus something more immediate? How big a factor is worrying about something that you’re not sure may happen? I’m not sure if I phrased that right but you know what I’m asking
NISBET: Well the catastrophe frame has been a dominate message by environmentalists, it was actually the dominate message of Al Gore’s, Inconvenient Truth, it was a film that was actually marketed in a movie trailer, advertising it as the scariest movie that you’ll ever watch and the dominant theme was to focus on dramatic impacts such as Hurricane Katrina as a way to engage audiences. It made a lot of money that mobilized a base of already concerned about climate change, but what we know from a lot of research and how people respond to a fear appeal, which in this case Inconvenient Truth had a lot of fear behind it, people either dismiss a fear appeal or they turn it into a sense of fatalism. When they don’t know what to do about it and they kind of resign themselves to action. And to go back to the economy, I think the media had a lot of attention to the idea that climate action could lead to green jobs and economic improvements, but where the next step in the communication has to happen is to regionalize the benefits to the economy. A lot more coverage in terms of job creation or technology creation or company or industry creation on the regional or local level, that’s going to make climate action tangible and significant to Americans, rather than talking about it in national terms.
HALL: Okay, yes, Juliet
EILPERIN: Just to follow up on that, I think that one of the issues is you have to look at what time frame you’re looking at these questions and that sort of is significant. If your house member you reelected every two years, if you’re a senator you’re reelected every six years, if you’re the president you’re reelected every four years. What we’re talking about is something on a much broader time scale and where you’re looking at decisions that are being made today having implications far into the future. One of the interesting things, I was having a conversation recently with Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who is one of the people who is working the hardest to get some sort of climate bill through the senate. Basically he described how he is begging his colleagues to in his woods, just get started, he said look this is a 50 year project you can mend it, you can tweak it, can change it down the road but I’m asking you to get it started this year and I think that one thing that he’s running up against is that the politicians who are dealing with this are dealing in a much shorter time horizon then the true transition that we’re talking about, if you really are talking about a transition into a low carbon economy.
HALL: Do you think, what are we doing to the world our children are really inherent is a message that politicians will listen to? Juliet?
EILPERIN: I, it’s interesting, the only one who I’ve heard that really addresses that is Bob Engles, a republican from South Carolina, who’s daughter is in her 20s said that she wouldn’t vote for him in an election if he didn’t start dealing with this issue. So, that is one case of someone listening to the next generation. I think that there are obviously certain law makers who care it and it is something that they think about but in the most crass terms I think most politicians are focused on their next election and it’s hard to get them to think in longer terms.
HALL: Well if there not hearing, how much do you think Kate that they’re hearing from people who want cap and trade to pass, I mean they’re hearing from a lot of people about health care. Are politicians hearing from groups that represent public opinion that would in theory be for clean air that would in theory be for some basics in terms of climate change?
SHEPPARD: I don’t think that they are hearing it at least not the same volume that they’re hearing from the industry groups that would be damaged by a bill like this or a specific interest groups who oppose it. I think that they’re hearing those voices a lot louder. I think that the public support is just not as strong, they don’t see, they’re not seeing direct consequences electorally by not supporting this action. It’s just not happening, there needs to be a lot more pressure from the public to get to the point where people in congress actually feel like they will be negatively reinforced if they don’t support this bill
HALL: You mean turned out of office?
SHEPPARD: Yes as in sent home, sent packing. They don’t feel like that at this point in time. I think the large majority don’t. But there are some who do and I think one of the most interesting things in the house debate last year was less that it passed but it actually had seven republicans who voted for it and they were people who were in districts where they felt that they could not vote against it and it was very few, but there were republicans who supported it and then
HALL: And were they in districts with wind energy or were they districts, why did they feel that they couldn’t vote against it?
SHEPPARD: Well one of them, Mary Botan, she’s in California she’s in a very strong environmental district, my own legislator back home [not audible]?
HALL: Which is where?
SHEPPARD: New Jersey. New Jersey has a really strong solar program, its number two solar state in the country. You don’t think of New Jersey being very sunny, but these are legislators who had seen jobs impacts. I think that they realize that there are positive benefits to voting for and that voters both demand as much. But, that’s just not the majority of people in congress right now
HALL: Okay, sounds like there might be some work to do and maybe the republicans have an issue if they could figure out how to frame it to reach young people. Matt Nisbet
NISBET: Just quickly, some of the recent survey research finds that approximately about 90% of Americans say that they’ve never participated politically on the issue of climate change and if they have participated politically, the most likely way they participated is by rewarding or punishing companies. Among young people in fact, research generally shows that young people see that the best way to participate politically in terms of the biggest bang for their buck is not through traditional politics but rather through the market place, through their consumer choices. So, at issue here in terms of if younger Americans are going to be more engaged, more politically active on climate change, participating in collective decisions there has to be some type of translation in terms of personal significance and relevance and then there has to be some type of channel or path way for young Americans to participate politically. Not just in the market place but directly politically in terms of their voices being heard among elected members nationally and locally and in doing so you have to communicate that their voice will make a difference, they have to have a sense of efficacy, you need a sense of efficacy in that if you do participate it will make a difference and I think that one of things that’s happening is that there’s so much ideological crossfire and ranker politically in terms of the blogosphere from the left and the right and in the overall political debate, a lot of people tune that out, they have a sense of kind of political despair and hopelessness about rather anything will be done politically generally and especially on an issue like climate change and we need to get beyond that ideological crossfire both on the left and the right because its coming from both sources
HALL: You know I think that’s a very good point, I think that, you know I would submit as a media critic that part of the confusion is a lot of noise from each side and I think sometimes people just want to go hide in the corner, they don’t know what they think, they don’t know whom to believe and there are other interest that are perfectly happy, you know, to be protecting their business interests. I want to ask a question of the group here and maybe someone can come forward and respond to this. We talked a while ago about local efforts, the Ecosense group, the university activities here by students, I want to pose another question that came in here from Marcus, a journalism student here. Who basically said he thought I should ask you all what are you willing to sacrifice to help climate change and I’m wondering to help reduce climate change? I’m wondering, is that a factor? I know as a parent of a just teenager that she, you know, texted to Haiti, that she gives money to corporations, she is led to believe that, you know, watching American Idol she then does charitable work but it’s indirect and I wonder, what are you all willing to give up or what do you think would be a local thing that you might want to do? I’ll put that question to who ever wants to take it, if you’re willing to take it of if you want to ask your own question, come on forward and state your question. But, I want to get to that if somebody could take that
KADEN (no last name): Okay, I’d had another question. My name is Kaden, I’m a business student here. Matt earlier in the discussion as a whole was guided toward talking about how some of the media coverage or the online coverage or just the discussion about climate change is just polarizing public opinion, reinforcing preexistent beliefs, but just changing minds necessarily, it sounds like and I’m curious to know what the panel thinks is necessary to actually instigate change in public opinion and the mindset of people about the importance of this issue and its legitimacy
HALL: Okay, Matt Nisbet
NISBET: I think the start that the White House needs to make climate change a major communication priority, they haven’t yet, its been obviously other issues that have been on the table with the economy and health insurance that’s distracted from really Obama using his communication capital and focusing in a long term fashion in national engagement on the issue of climate change. Maybe down the road that will happen but that has yet to happen and the second part of that is that you need to add new voices to the mix, you need to add new voices and new meanings. If I were the White House one of the first things I would do in terms of rolling out an engagement campaign is to have a summit of religious leaders at the White House, evangelicals and other religious groups across the spectrum to talk about, the lend a sense of moral authority and to use their grass roots communication capability and the media capability to reach out to non traditional publics on the issue. And then to hold a summit with business leaders and then to hold a summit of national security experts and four star generals. Those are the types of new meetings, the new context and new voices, the new opinion leaders that the White House can really help bring together, but they have to make the issue a leading communication priority and they have yet to do that.
HALL: Why do you think that is Matt, are they more focused on health care is the thing they had to get done?
NISBET: Well, Juliet can probably add more insight on this, but I see it as a way of just there’s a lot of issues that are in competition with climate change as a political priority and a communication priority
EILPERIN: And I would say, you know, following up on that, as a matter of fact they have had all those meetings it’s just often President Obama isn’t here and as of a result they don’t have the same impact. They’ve had national security experts to meet with people like Carol Browner, the top climate adviser the president and they’ve had religious leaders to the White House, they’ve had business groups. They’ve done all those meetings but it certainly is a different dynamic when you have the president in and in fact one of the most interesting things to observe at Copenhagen and the most recent round of international climate talks is that fact that the president thought it was important enough to come and did make statements there and was really engaged, but that was for a very brief period of time and as soon as he went home he was back dealing with health care. So, I think really the true test of this issue will come once you have some type of resolution from health care and you see how much political capital the president himself is willing to invest in this issue and rather the polarization that we’ve seen on health care is going to spill over to climate change and will it change again how everyday Americans perceive what the president is saying.
HALL: Well let’s skip to that just for a minute, can you be anti the environment, I mean it seems to me he’s on much friendlier ground, calling together people to talk about how we can get to, before you get to taxing the oil and gas industry, which will be a problem I think in getting to congress.
EILPERIN: Well the fact of the matter is, is sure everyone wants to say they care about the environment, but by definition and actually Obama has been fairly forthright about this, he certainly was a candidate that he admitted that you’re talking about higher energy prices and that’s something that really does have an impact on peoples lives and so its not a slam dunk issue for the president and I think what you’ve seen, you’ve had a very strong push by the republicans who are putting front and center the idea that this is going to raise peoples energy prices, that people are going to have to give up things including food and medicine and that’s a politically powerful argument, its not non existent
HALL: Okay, I’m afraid that’s going to have to be our last word although we have someone still standing at the mic. I still, come up to me afterwards and telling me what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you think we might do in terms of the university and local efforts here. I want to thank our audience, you’ve been wonderful, you can continue the conversation through the American forum group on facebook and visit twitter.com/American_forum or use the hash tag AM forum. American forum is a co-production between the American University School of Communication and WAMU 88.5. American forum is sponsored by Laird B. Anderson and Florence H. Ashby. The Kennedy Political Union also has provided support for this season at the American forum, our producers are Karen Munson and Sarah Cumbee, the engineers are Jonathan Cherry and Andy Gine, I want to thank our guests Kate Sheppard, Juliet Eilperin, and Matt Nisbet, I’m Jane Hall from American University. Thank you for listening.