HII representative attended Cooling on Climate Change: Designing the Message, a half day conference at Bloomberg examining public perception about climate change and role of the green building industry. This event is held by Urban Green Council, which is, in fact, the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). This is a part of Climate Week NYC, an annual summit bringing together world leading businesses and governments and a massive array of private and public events, all focused on driving a clean revolution and tackling climate change.
The goal of this conference is to “gather critical thinkers for a candid discussion about climate change messaging and action”. Dr. James Hansen, the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, who is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, provided the keynote address. There were also two panels that consisted of other leaders in communicating climate change. The panelists from environmental organizations, academic research institutions, architects working on green building and engineering consulting firms addressed how to communicate scientific topics as well as the role that green building industry plays. Panel 1 focused on “Shifts in Public Perception of Climate Change”, which consisted of Vice President of Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) Elliot Diringer, Assistant Director of Yale Project on Climate Change Communication Lisa Fernandez, Author and Consultant of David Ropeik and Associates and instructor of Harvard University David Ropeik. Panel 1 was moderated by Senior Editor, TIME International Bryan Walsh. On the other hand, Panel 2 focused on “The Role of the Green Building Industry”. It consisted of Principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates Douglas Wyatt Hocking, Director of Climate and Clean Air Program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Daniel A. Lashof, Chairman of Energy and Sustainability Services at Jones Lang LaSalle Daniel Probst, and was moderated by Senior Program Director of Overbrook Foundation Daniel R. Katz.
Dr. Hansen is a very outspoken scientist. His latest research, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is now able to provide enough evidence to link global warming to extreme weather events of the recent past. His research demonstrated that global temperature has been steadily increasing, about 1.5 degree Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius) during the past century. CO2 levels and sea levels have never been higher during the last 800,000 years. The earth’s energy imbalance results in global warming that causes worldwide fires and other disasters. He also pointed out that the current market is the most efficient way to convince politicians to take actions.
Now peer-reviewed research proved that climate change will result in variability of local weather. But how can someone with limited climate science knowledge discern long-term climate change?
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has been making efforts to advance commonsense solutions. Climate change is a very complex issue: it is global – which requires collective actions; it requires immediate actions, though the benefits will not be immediate; because the impacts are difficult to anticipate, there is some degree of uncertainty; and there could also be tough equity issues. As a result, public opinion varies. Those favoring climate actions believe climate change is “here and now”. A greener economy can create more jobs for Americans, and solving these problems will promote public health and energy efficiency, thus benefiting our future generations. Individuals against these actions believe that climate science is “politicized”, that taking actions will result in exaggerated cost and generate additional uncertainties. It is also ‘unfair’ for the U.S. unless other countries, such as China, take actions as well. So the means in which scientists and media communicate climate issues, especially to the “middle people”, other than a few specialized groups, is extremely important.
Survey work is conducted at Yale University to address the public understanding of the causes, consequences and solutions to climate change, the support for climate policies, and the current barriers against actions on climate change. It turns out that public opinions have changed a great deal during the last years. Their research shows that the number of people who believe global warming has been declining throughout the years. The opinions among the people who believe global warming also varies – more and more people now feel it is caused by natural events and not human activities. There are less people worried about climate change personally. The reasons behind these declines in beliefs lies in the economy and weak job market. However, the survey also shows that more than half of all registered voters are still concerned about global warming, despite whether they are democrats, independents, or republicans. The researchers also categorize people as “Six Americas“, depending on the degree of belief about climate change: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. It is interesting to notice that just like the Alarmed people, the Dismissive group are also well-educated and both of them know much more about climate change than the other four groups, although they have opposite views. Most people, including the Dismissive group, shows strong support for adopting some climate and energy policies, and they also show some support for renewable energy research.
So, what are the risks in communicating climate change? The science is clear, but why do some individuals not care that much about climate change and taking actions? Yes, political and economical barriers do exist, but researchers in the burgeoning field of psychology found this disbelief deeply rooted in the ways our brain work. “Can it happen to ME?” “It’s now or LATER?” “Is there any personification?” “Is it CATASTROPHIC or CHRONIC?”. The perception is beyond our free will and will lead us to ask how risky is it, REALLY? These remind communicators that, when they are “designing the message”, they should keep in mind to not only consider what their message is, but also who the message is being relayed to.
What are the solutions to climate change? Solar panels? Green jobs? How about healthy communities? The Obama administration just launched their third major executive action to reduce carbon pollution. Notice, he is addressing “carbon pollution“, instead of “climate change”, “greenhouse gas emissions” or other terms used in academia. In his speech, he uses terms such as “droughts”, “floods”, and “wildfires” to make the issue hit closer to home for some individuals. Climate change is certainly a health problem and it threatens everyone’s lives: it can cause smog resulting in asthma; lead to extreme, dangerious weather; and it is expected that more than 150,000 Americans will die from climate related causes by the end of this century.
Many steps must be taken to alleviate the impacts. For instance, green buildings are a large part of the solutions, since buildings are a primary user of energy. Retrofitting existing buildings is the way to go. In New York City,Empire State Building is doing a great job with retrofitting. According to Jones Lang LaSalle, 43% of the energy usage and CO2 level in this building is reduced through 8 cost-efficient projects.
Climate science, alone, is not likely to change the situation. Better communication among individuals, businesses, communities, states, nations can make a difference. As an non-profit organization, whose mission is to foster creativity in sustainability through innovative resource exchanges, leadership training, and participatory decision-making, HII is proud to be part of the cause to engage the public in climate actions and solutions, and finally save ourselves by the actions we take.
By Celia Cui, Environmental Service Intern